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The deleterious dominance of The Times in nineteenth-century scholarship

2014 February 25
by lucinda matthews-jones

By Andrew Hobbs (University of Central Lancashire)

This post accompanies Andrew Hobb’s Journal of Victorian Culture article published (2013). It can be read in full here

Circulation figures taken from ‘The Times, result of the issue at 1d,’ Times, 8 May 1914, p. 9.

 

There were more local newspapers than London papers throughout the nineteenth century (Fig. 1), and their total circulation overtook the total circulation of the London press from the early 1860s to the 1930s.

Numbers of English periodical titles by place and type of publication, 1800-1900.

I didn’t realise this when I started my PhD, which aimed to establish a link between the local press and readers’ sense of place. Surprise surprise, I failed to do what better scholars have failed to do, demonstrate that A ‑the local paper ‑ caused B ‑ a sense of place. So instead I wrote a history of reading the local paper.

There is some very good scholarship on Victorian newspapers (Aspinall, Lee, Brown, Jones), which points out that there was no national press as we understand it today, and that the provincial press outsold the metropolitan after the abolition of newspaper taxes at mid-century. So I was surprised and disappointed to find that so much other research continued to focus on a minority of the field, London papers, and to treat them anachronistically, as though they were ‘national’ papers, when in fact they were provincial papers, largely reporting the South-East of England.

Another surprise was that so much writing on Victorian print culture talked about newspapers as though they were full of politics, ignoring the vast range of magazine-style material I was reading in local papers — fiction, poetry, literary extracts and reviews, history, biography, memoir, geography, women’s columns, travel writing, satire and more.

By now I was developing a hunch (all that microfilm reading). These distorted generalisations only fitted one paper, The Times, and provincial imitators like the Manchester Guardian, Leeds Mercury and Liverpool Daily Post. I began to notice how often a quote from The Times popped up in the introductions to books on almost any aspect of Victorian culture (I started compiling a list of books that didn’t do this). These quotes were used in the same way that evangelical Christians use Bible texts, with little or no context or interpretation; in the belief that their provenance and meaning were self-evident.

I did some content analysis to confirm the distinctiveness of The Times, and found examples of research that had gone wrong because they relied too heavily on The Times. I gave a conference paper, and worked it up into a journal article. Journal reviewers liked the polemics and my plea to use other Victorian newspapers besides one famous one, but suggested that my analysis was out of date. Scholars used to make this mistake, they believed, but no longer. Quite rightly, they demanded that I provide recent evidence for my hunch of over-reliance on The Times.

So I searched nine peer-reviewed journals across 30 years, and found more articles citing The Times than articles citing all the tens of thousands of provincial newspapers put together. Phew. My hunch was confirmed, and my article was accepted. In fact, the relative use of The Times has increased in recent years, as seen in Fig. 2, which shows the number of journal articles (divided by the number of journals searched) citing either The Times, other metropolitan papers or provincial papers.

Average number of journal articles citing newspapers, by type of newspaper, comparison of 1980-89 and 2003-12.

My plea: If you’re interested in the majority of Victorian culture which was made outside the metropolis, read some local papers.

Dr Andrew Hobbs is a research associate in the School of Journalism & Digital Communication, University of Central Lancashire. He is an ex-journalist with an interest in provincial print culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Twitter: @hobbb

Tumblr: http://hobbb.tumblr.com/

Academia.edu: https://uclan.academia.edu/AndrewHobbs

 

References

Aspinall, Arthur. Politics and the Press, C.1780-1850. Brighton: Harvester Press, 1973. Print.

Brown, Lucy. Victorian News and Newspapers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. Print.

Jones, Aled Gruffydd. Powers of the Press: Newspapers, Power and the Public in Nineteenth-century England. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996. Print.

Lee, Alan J. The Origins of the Popular Press in England: 1855-1914. London: Croom Helm, 1976. Print.

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