Newspaper wars

Although this blog focuses on the period between the First and Second World War, the interwar period was not without its conflicts. One of the social changes which took place in the first half of the 1930s has retrospectively been dubbed the ‘newspaper wars’ which was fought between popular newspaper titles.

A host of daily newspapers aimed at the lower-middle classes were launched in Britain at the turn of the twentieth century. The Daily Mail arrived in 1896, followed by the Daily Express in 1900, the Daily Mirror in 1903 and the Daily Herald in 1912. These newspapers represented a completely new type of written press. Existing papers such as The Times and the Daily Telegraph were aimed at upper class, male readers. They contained columns of densely printed text without illustrations. Advertising mostly consisted of personal adverts which took up the entire front page. There were no big headlines, and reporting included lengthy verbatim reports of parliamentary discussions.

The new popular papers founded at the start of the twentieth century disrupted this model. Partially due to educational reform, general literacy levels increased, and there was now room in the market for newspapers aimed at a wider readership. However, whereas broadsheet papers were aimed at men who could afford to spend hours reading a paper over breakfast or in their members club, the new newspapers recognised that their readership likely could only snatch a few minutes at a time to read their paper. Moreover, the newspaper bosses realised that their readership was more interested in snappy articles and the new invention of the ‘human interest’ story than in long and precise reports about complicated subjects.

From the beginning, popular papers therefore printed shorter articles, more images, and more headlines. The Express was the first to adopt an ‘American’ lay-out which meant that it printed news on the front page, as opposed to the ubiquitous personal adverts –  a practice eventually adopted by all national newspapers. These papers generally cost only one pence per issue, to keep them affordable to the working classes and lower-middle classes. This did mean that the papers’ main revenue source was advertising. In order to attract the most lucrative advertising deals, each paper had to ensure its circulation was constantly growing. It was particularly coveted to increase the number of subscribers as they provided a more stable source of income than those who bought a paper only occasionally.

Throughout the Edwardian period and the 1920s the popular papers were able to increase their circulation by targeting people who did not yet subscribe to any paper at all. By the early 1930s, however, market saturation had been reached, and newspapers had to change their tactics. The only way to continue growing their circulation was by actively persuading readers to switch papers. The fight for new subscribers became so heated that this period has later been dubbed the ‘newspaper wars’.

Newspapers used different tactics to persuade more readers to subscribe to them. One was to ensure that they offered a clear political identity. The Daily Herald had been, from its foundation, an outspoken left-wing newspaper, and from 1922 it was formally affiliated with the Trade Union Congress (TUC), the overarching body of trade unions. By 1933 the Herald’s circulation had grown larger than it had ever been, to two million copies a day, and it started to form a real threat to the other popular papers, which had mostly supported a conservative agenda.

The owners of the Daily Mirror, therefore, relaunched the Mirror in 1934 as a left-leaning paper, but without formal affiliation to the TUC. This enabled the Mirror to present itself as the paper of choice for the non-radical, non-unionised working classes. It also differentiated itself clearly from the Mail and Express who continued to support the Conservative party.

Whilst the Express did not differentiate itself through its political stance, it did radically change its layout in 1933, in a bid to attract more readers. A new editorial team introduced clearer headlines and wider spacing, which made the paper easier to read. Their biggest innovation was to no longer print articles strictly across one column, top to bottom. Instead they adopted the ‘jigsaw’ approach which is familiar to newspaper readers today: articles cut across multiple columns and readers read horizontally across rather than only vertically. Up until that point, every national newspaper in Britain had rigidly stuck to printing their articles vertically.

A third tactic employed by newspapers to gain more readers was the liberal use of stunts and insurance schemes. The latter allowed newspaper subscribers to buy insurance through their newspaper, which would then be paid out to their relatives in case of illness, accident or death. Newspapers in turn were able to print stories of how they had helped widows and children of deceased readers which made them seem magnanimous. Insurance schemes were available prior to the newspaper wars, but they did become a feature of the inter-paper competition. Newspaper insurance schemes are a central part of the plot of the 1932 comedy film Let Me Explain, Dear.

Arguably, the Express came out on top after the newspaper wars, as it was the best-selling newspaper in Britain from the mid-1930s until the late 1940s. This was not only due to their improved lay-out, but also due to their policy of adopting an optimistic editorial line, perhaps best summarised in their infamous August 1939 front page headline ‘No War This Year’.[1] This editorial policy set them apart from the Mail, which traditionally took a more alarmist approach. The (falsely) reassuring tone of the Express ultimately resonated more with a reading public that could still vividly remember the last War.

[1] Marianne Hicks, ‘No War This Year: Selkirk Panton and the editorial policy of the Daily Express, 1938–39’, Media History, 2008, 14:2, 167-183