I was recently thinking about how I scroll past so much stuff on Facebook, and don’t watch or read the news, and I got to thinking about newspapers.
There is a lot to consider about newspapers. Nowadays we can read them online, though not as many are free as there used to be. The size of the newspaper seems to be related to the size of the community it serves. For example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer is a whole lot fatter than the Ashtabula Star Beacon when you look at them on the rack at the store. Every county, and sometimes every town within a county, has a newspaper. Cost is also relative: last time I bought a Star Beacon, I paid a quarter, I think (25 cents). I looked it up online just now, and the daily paper is $1 (which is nuts in my opinion, given the lack of editing) and the Sunday paper is $1.75. The Cleveland Plain Dealer is $1.50 for the daily edition and $2.25 for Sunday. I can’t tell you if there is tax as part of the cost of a newspaper nowadays, or if it is taxed upon purchase.
In the Regency, there were, of course, newspapers. I undertook a brief bit of research into those papers, to see what they were like.
According to an article by author Cheryl Bolen at The Beau Monde website, there were 14 newspapers in London alone, and 31 nationally. Not all of these newspapers were published every day, and not all in the morning. Some newspapers supported one political party, and others supported the other major party. Some were published only on Mondays, and some only on Saturdays. There were about as many publishing schedule variations as there were newspapers.
The article states that a Regency newspaper cost seven pence, which seems to have been a rather high price. An article on Wattpad states that four of those seven pence were a tax. So, people would pass the newspaper on. According to the article, a newspaper would be passed on to nineteen people before it was done. When you count the original purchaser, that’s a total of twenty readers per copy.
Newspaper readers in the Regency could read them at circulating libraries and coffee shops, as well.
According to the Wattpad article, newspapers in the Regency were printed with very small characters in black ink, and were four pages long. There were no colored illustrations, only black and white engravings, and those were rare.
News, especially foreign news or news from far-flung parts of the kingdom, was usually at least a few days old by the time it hit the papers. It’s probably obvious, but in an age of letter-writing and no electronic communication of any sort, it could be weeks or months before the newspapers got wind of some stories.
A blog post by Maria Grace at the English Historical Fiction Authors site describes what was in the papers of the Regency. About half the paper was devoted to parliamentary proceedings. The rest of the newssheet was filled with other news, like gossip, society happenings, reports about theater and visual arts performances, and the like, including crimes, court news, and scandals.
Reporters back then often got their stories the way reporters do now … from sources near to the situation. They would pay servants and others to tell them what was happening with “celebrities” or in meetings between members of parliament or whatever. There were no ethics rules like there are now, though a paper could be sued for libel if it printed something someone didn’t like. I said earlier that certain papers took one side or the other in political arguments, but it appears that they were often paid to do so.
Really, I don’t see a whole lot of difference between newspapers that Jane Austen would have read and the ones available to me now, other than knowing the contents inside are relatively new.
Though we now have a concept of ethics in journalism, we still see clear biases in favor of one person or idea over another.
We still pay what I consider to be a high cost. In fact, I think, given the fact that newspapers around the country have cut out editors, readers in the Regency probably had better quality reading than what is available now.
I wonder how many people back in Jane’s day refused to read the news, like I do?