Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 1 - Newspaper People

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WHAT would the Englishman do without his newspaper I cannot imagine. The sun might just as well refuse to shine, as the press refuse to turn out its myriads of newspapers. Conversation would cease at once. Brown, with his morning paper in his hand, has very decided opinions indeed, - can tell you what the French Emperor is about, - what the Pope will be compelled to do,- what is the aim of Sardinia, - and what is Austria's little game. I dined at Jenkins's yesterday, and for three hours over the wine I was compelled to listen to what I had read in that morning's Times. The worst of it was, that when I joined the ladies I was no better oft; as the dear creatures were full of the particulars of the grand Rifle Ball When I travel by the rail, I am gratified with details of divorce cases - of terrible accidents - of dreadful shipwrecks - of atrocious murders [-2-] of ingenious swindling, all brought to light by means of the press. What people could have found to talk about before the invention of newspapers, is beyond my limited comprehension. They must have been a dull set in those dark days; I suppose the farmers and country gentlemen talked of bullocks, and tradespeople about trade; the ladies about fashions, and cookery, and the plague of had servants. We are wonderfully smarter now, and shine, though it be with a borrowed light.
    A daily newspaper is, to a man of my way of thinking, one of the most wonderful phenomena of these latter days. It is a crown of glory to our land. It is true, in some quarters, a contrary opinion is held. "The press," Mr. David Urquhart very seriously tells us, "is an invention for the development of original sin." In the opinion of that amiable cynic, the late Mr. Henry Drummond, a newspaper is but a medium for the circulation of gossip; but, in spite of individuals, the general fact remains that the press is not merely a wonderful organization, but an enormous power in any land - in ours most of all, where public opinion rules more or less directly. Our army in the Crimea was saved by the Times. When the Times turned, free-trade was carried. The Times not long since made a panic, and securities became in some cases utterly unsaleable, and some seventy stockbrokers were ruined. The Times says we don't want a Reform Bill, and Lord John can scarce drag his measure through the Commons. But it is not of the power, but of the organization of the press I would speak. Accord-[-3-]ing to geologists, ages passed away before this earth of ours became fit for human habitation; volcanic agencies were previously to be in action - plants and animals, that exist not now, were to be born, and live, and die - tropical climates were to become temperate, and oceans, solid land. In a similar way, the newspaper is the result of agencies and antecedents almost equally wondrous and remote. For ages have science, and nature, and man been preparing its way. Society had to become intellectual - letters had to be invented - types had to be formed - paper had to be substituted for papyrus - the printing-press had to become wedded to steam - the electric-telegraph had to be discovered, and the problem of liberty had to be solved, in a manner more or less satisfactory, before a newspaper, as we understand the word, could be; and that we have the fruit of all this laid on our breakfast-table every morning, for at the most five-pence, and at the least one-penny, is wonderful indeed. But, instead of dwelling on manifest truisms, let us think awhile of a newspaper-office, and those who do business there. Externally, there is nothing remarkable in a newspaper-office. You pass by at night, and see many windows lighted with gas, that is all. By daylight there is nothing to attract curiosity, indeed, in the early part of the day, there is little going on at a newspaper-office. When you and I are hard at work, newspaper people are enjoying their night; when you and I are asleep, they are hard at work for us. They have a hot-house appearance, and are rarely octogenarians. [-4-] The conscientious editor of a daily newspaper can never be free from anxiety. He has enough to do to keep all to their post; he must see that the leader-writers are all up to the mark-that the reporters do their duty - that the literary critic, and the theatrical critic, and the musical critic, and the city correspondent, and the special reporter, and the host of nameless contributors, do not disappoint or deceive the public, and that every day the daily sheet shall have something in it to excite, or inform, or improve. But while you and I are standing outside, the editor, in some remote suburb, is, it may be, dreaming of pleasanter things than politics and papers. One man, however, is on the premises, and that is the manager. He represents the proprietors, and is, in his sphere, as great a man as the editor. It is well to be deferential to the manager. He is a wonder in his way, - literary man, yet man of business. He must know everybody, be able at a moment's notice to pick the right man out, and send him, it may be, to the Antipodes. Of all events that are to come off in the course of the year, unexpected or the reverse, he must have a clear and distinct perception, that he may have eye-witnesses there for the benefit of the British public. He, too, must contrive, so that out-goings shall not exceed receipts, and that the paper pays. He must be active, wide-awake, possessed of considerable tact, and if, when an Irish gentleman, with a big stick, calls and asks to see the editor or manager, he knows how to knock a man down, so much the better. Of course, managers are not required for the smaller [-5-] weeklies. In some of the offices there is very little subdivision of labour. The editor writes the leaders and reviews, and the sub-editor does the paste-and-scissors work. But let us return to the daily paper ;- outside of the office of which we have been so rude as to leave the reader standing all this while. 
    At present there is no sign of life. It is true, already the postman has delivered innumerable letters from all quarters of the globe - that the electric telegraph has sent its messages - that the railways have brought their despatches-that the publishers have furnished books of all sorts and sizes for review-and that tickets from all the London exhibitions are soliciting a friendly notice. There let them lie unheeded, till the coming man appears. Even the publisher, who was here at five o'clock in the morning, has gone home: only a few clerks, connected with the financial department of the paper, or to receive advertisements, are on the spot. We may suppose that somewhere between one and two the first editorial visit will be paid, and that then this chaos is reduced to order; and that the ideas, which are to be represented in the paper of to-morrow, are discussed, and the daily organs received, and gossip of all sorts from the clubs-from the house-from the city-collected and condensed; a little later perhaps assistants arrive - one to cull all the sweets from the provincial journals - another to look over the files of foreign papers - another it may be to translate important documents. The great machine is now getting steadily at work. Up in the [-6-]  composing-room are printers already fingering their types.
    In the law-courts, a briefless barrister is taking notes - in the, police-courts, reporters are at work, and far away in the city, "our city correspondent" is collecting the commercial news of the hour - and in all parts of London penny-a-liners, like eagles scenting carrion, are ferreting out for the particulars of the last "extraordinary elopement," or "romantic suicide." The later it grows the more gigantic becomes the pressure. The parliamentary reporters are now furnishing their quota; gentlemen who' have been assisting at public-dinners come redolent of post-prandial eloquence, which has to be reduced to sense and grammar. It is now midnight,. and yet ire have to wait the arrival of the close of the parliamentary debate, on which the editor must write a leader before he leaves; and the theatrical Critic's verdict on the new play. In the meanwhile the foreman of the printers takes stock, being perfectly aware that he cannot perform the wonderful feat of making a pint bottle hold a quart. Woe is me! he has already half a dozen columns in excess. What is to be done? Well, the literature must stand over, that's very clear, then those translations from the French will do tomorrow, and this report will also not hurt by delay- as to the rest, that must be cut down mid still further condensed; but quickly, for time is passing, and we must be on the machine at three. Quickly fly the minutes - hotter becomes the gas-lit room - wearier the edito-[-7-]rial staff. But the hours bring relief. The principal editor has done his leader and departed - the assistants have done the same - so have the reporters, only the sub-editor remains, and as daylight is glimmering in the east, and even fast London is asleep, he quietly lights a cigar, and likewise departs; the printers will follow as soon as the forms have gone down, and the movements below indicate that the machine, by the aid of steam, is printing.
    We have thus seen most of the newspaper people off the premises. As we go out into the open air, we may yet find a few of them scorning an ignoble repose. For instance, there is a penny-a-liner - literally he is not a penny-a-liner, as he is generally paid three-farthings a line, and very good pay that is, as the same account, written on very thin paper, called flimsy, is left at all the newspaper-offices, which, if they all insert, they all pay for, and one short tale may put the penny-a-liner in funds for a week. The penny-a-liner has long been the butt of a heartless world. He ought to be a cynic, and I fear is but an indifferent Christian, and very so-so as head of a family. His appearance is somewhat against him, and his antecedents are eccentric; his face has a beery appearance; his clothes are worn in defiance of fashion; neither his hat nor his boots would be considered by a swell as the correct stilton; you would scarce like him as the representative of the potent fourth estate. Yet penny-a-liners s rise; one of them editor of a morning paper; another is the  [-8-] manager of a  commercial establishment, with a salary of almost a thousand a year; but chiefly, I imagine, they are jolly good fellows going down the hill. Charles Lamb said he never greatly cared for the society of what are called good people. The penny-a-liners have a similar weakness; they are true Bohemians, and are prone to hear the chimes at midnight. Literally, they take no thought for to-morrow, and occasionally are put to hard shifts. Hence it is sub-editors have to be on their guard with their dealings with them. Their powers of imagination and description are great. They are prone to harrow up your souls with horrors that never existed; and as they are paid by the line, a harsh prosaic brevity is by no means their fault. Occasionally they take in the papers. Not long since a most extraordinary breach of promise case went the round of the evening papers, which was entirely a fiction of the penny-a-liners. Yet let us not think disparagingly of them - of a daily newspaper no small part is the result of their diligent research. And if they do occasionally indulge in fiction, their fictions are generally founded on fact. The reader, if he be a wise man, will smile and pass on - a dull dog will take the matter seriously and make an ass of himself. For instance, only this very year, there was a serious controversy about Disraeli's literary piracies, as they were called in the Manchester Examiner. It appears a paragraph was inserted in an obscure London journal giving an account of an evening party at Mr. Gladstone's, at which? Mr. Disraeli had been [-9-] present-an event just as probable as that the Bishop of Oxford would take tea at Mr. Spurgeon's. Mr.. Disraeli's remarks were reported, and the paragraph - notwithstanding its glaring absurdity - was quoted in the Manchester Examiner. Some acute reader remembered to have read a similar conversation attributed to Coleridge, and immediately wrote to the Examiner to that effect. The letter was unhandsomely inserted with a bold heading, - several letters were inserted on the same subject, and hence, just because a poor penny-a-liner at his wits' end doctored up a little par, and attributed a very old conversation to Mr. Disraeli, the latter is believed in Cottonopolis guilty of a piracy, Cottonopolis being all the more ready to believe this of Mr. Disraeli, as the latter gentleman is at the head of a party not supposed to be particularly attached to the doctrines of what are termed the Manchester School. Really editors and correspondents should be up to these little dodges, and not believe all they see in print..
    I would also speak of another class of newspaper people - the newspaper boy, agile as a lamp-lighter, sharp in his glances as a cat. The newspaper boy is of all ages, from twelve to forty, but they are all alike, very disorderly, and very ardent politicians; and while they are waiting in the publishing-office for their papers they are prone to indulge in political gossip, after the manner of their betters at the west-end clubs. On the trial of Bernard, the excitement among the newspaper boys was [-10-] very great. I heard some of them, on the last day of the trial, confess to having been too excited all that day to do anything; their admiration of the speech of Edwin James was intense. A small enthusiast near me said to another, "That ere James is the fellow to work 'em; didn't he pitch hin to the hemperor?"
    "Yes," said a sadder and wiser boy; "yes, he's all werry well, but he'd a spoke on t'other side just as well if he'd been paid."
    "No; would he?"
    "Yes, to be sure."
    "Well, that's wot I call swindling."
    "No, it ain't. They does their best. Them as pays you, you works for."
    Whether the explanation was satisfactory I can't say, as the small boy's master's name was called, and he vanished with "two quire" on his youthful head. But generally these small boys prefer wit to politics; they are munch given to practical jokes at each other's expense, and have no mercy for individual peculiarities. Theirs is a hard life, from five in the morning, when the daily papers commence publishing, to seven in the evening, when the second edition of the Sun with the Gazette appears. What becomes of them when they cease to be newspaper boys, must be left to conjecture. Surely such riotous youths can never become tradesmen in a small way, retailers of greens, itinerant dealers in coal. Do not offend these gentry if you are a newspaper proprietor. Their power for mischief is great. At the Illustrated [-11-] News office I have seen a policeman required to reduce them to order.
    Finally, of all newspaper people, high or low, let me ask the public to speak charitably. They are hard-worked, they are not over-paid, and some of them die prematurely old. Ten years of night-work in the office of a daily newspaper is enough to kill any man, even if he has the constitution of a horse; one can't get on without them; and it is a sad day for his family when paterfamilias misses his paper. Whigs, tories, prelates, princes, valiant warriors, and great lawyers, are not so essential to the daily weal of the public, as newspaper people. In other ways they are useful - the great British naturalist, Mr. Yarell, was a newspaper vendor.