in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, or, Around the World in Eighty Pages.”
Thomas J. Tobin
Abstract: 30 minutes
[SLIDE 1] The mid-nineteenth century was a period in British periodical literature of rapid growth, synthesis, and experimentation, nowhere perhaps more strikingly than in the press’s treatment of the notion of place. Before the widespread use of telegraphy to support news in periodical publications, British newspapers and journals had to conjure the geography of their empire and world at both a temporal and geographic distance.
This talk will focus on how the British empire was simultaneously “home” and “alien”--at once “here” and “other”--through an examination of the media cycle--the time between an event and media coverage of it--in several of the major British periodicals published during one week in October, 1852: the Athenaeum, the Illustrated London News, Punch, and the London Times. The ways in which each of these very different periodicals presents information related to place demonstrates the deep structures common to all representations of location as British and non-British during the mid-century. Further, the mid-century development of new reporting media began to “shrink the globe” through an increase in the speed of the “media cycle” between events to consumption of news about them. By calculating the Media Cycle Percentage (MCP) for the four different periodicals under consideration, we can quantify the relative extent of the localization of the British empire.
Introduction [SLIDE 2] W. Hepworth Dixon, the editor of the Athenaeum, proclaimed in 1865 that the concept of the world was becoming smaller very rapidly:
Two armies clash, a victory is gained, an empire rises, and a second empire falls. Events occur in a few hours which change the flow and custom of the world. A crash, an onset, and a rout. Napoleon a prisoner, Wilhelm is on his way to Versailles. The political and military center of Europe is transferred from Paris to Berlin. These things are done in a dozen hours, and in another dozen men are talking in their breathless haste and fever of these great events, not only in Paris and Berlin, but in the mosques of Cairo and in the streets of Arkangel, in the bazars of Calcutta and on the quays of Rio, by the falls at Ottawa, in the marketplace of San Francisco and in the shops at Sidney [sic], within a day the news is told, and at the same instant of time every human heart is quivering with the shock of these great events. (qtd in Marvin 198-199)
Readers of British newspapers in 1832 had a very different idea of the size, scope, and interconnectedness of the countries of the world than did readers in 1872. During the first forty years of Queen Victoria’s reign, not only did the empire itself expand into corners of the globe hitherto unclaimed by England, but the manner, speed, and amount of detail reported about the far-flung portions of the earth underwent a literal sea change, incorporating new technologies and new media to make an expanding empire seem smaller and smaller--so that by the middle of the century, Indian sepoys, Arab sheikhs, Canadian traders, and Australian diggers came into the parlors of the English reading classes as parts of an increasingly seamless idea of “England.”
Print began the century as the dominant medium for the reporting of news. One might expect that with the advent of the telegraph, the end of the nineteenth century would see print lose some of its importance or currency. To the contrary, printed periodicals in Victorian England took on the role of a “last mile” medium, designed to take advantage of new methods of reporting world events to the reading public. By doing so, Victorian periodicals serve as an excellent barometer of the pace and spread of communication technology during the century, and a close examination of the number, type, and age of reports in a sample set of periodicals gives us an excellent, measurable indicator of those changes.
A Paradigmatic Shift in the Media Cycle [SLIDE 3] The rise of the transoceanic shipping industry opened new markets to commerce in the Americas, Africa, and the Far East. Along with the establishment of regular shipping came regular mail delivery, and thus a news cycle was born in which correspondents reported back to central British periodicals on a regular basis. This news cycle, measured in weeks, began to be established in the late eighteenth century, and reached a stable level by about the 1820s. Periodicals relied on mail delivery from geographically distant places for their news reports. In 1852, when our sample was published, much of the world still reported news via the packet-steamer network. News from Cape Town took eight weeks, from New York four weeks, and from Berlin one week to reach London (Standage 147). This method of news delivery emphasized both temporal and geographic distance, and underscored the remoteness of the far-flung reaches of the empire.
A second source of news that prolonged the media cycle even further was the practice of reprinting or re-formatting news from other organs. The London Times used a vast network of employees and irregulars in order to get the news more quickly than almost any other periodical. Other media outlets took advantage of the Times’s extensive network by reprinting Times items of interest to their own readers, sometimes with and sometimes without acknowledging the source. One measure of the remoteness of a periodical from the mainstream is to follow the citation chain backward to the original source, beginning with a periodical such as the Hastings and St. Leonard’s News, which reports on an article culled from the Manchester Guardian, which took its information from the London Times. This method of gleaning the tidbits of the day’s news from other, faster-informed periodicals served further to emphasize the insularity of different locales, even within England, let alone globally.
Perhaps the most revolutionary new medium to influence the media cycle was the telegraph. In 1844, the birth of Queen Victoria’s second son Alfred Ernest at Windsor was telegraphed to the press, and “the London Times was on the streets of London with the news within forty minutes of the announcement” (Standage 49). By 1852, when our representative sampling occurs, telegraph traffic overtook the postal mail in terms of number of messages sent per day (Standage 59), and there were over 2,215 miles of telegraph wire in England alone (Standage 61). Also, the first London-to-Paris telegraph message was sent in 1852 (Standage 73). Because of the increasingly global nature of the reach of telegraphy, our sample demonstrates a historical moment in which those areas of the “wired” world communicated exponentially more rapidly with the center--that is, England--than could areas still relying on slower means of transmitting news. This had the then-novel effect of partially negating geographic distance, so that in 1852 news from Edinburgh takes longer to reach London than does news from Paris.
Thus, the percentage of international versus local news in most British periodicals increased over the course of the century as telegraphy brought the world into the parlors of the readership. Indeed, early nineteenth-century newspapers “tended to cover a small locality, and news traveled as the papers themselves were carried from one place to another” (Standage 146). Newspapers “traded on their local coverage, not the timeliness of their news” (Standage 146). Yunjae Cheong and John Leckenby argue that the period when print media adapt to emerging communications technologies helps to legitimate the new technologies (16). Let us look at some of the raw data that will help us to examine if this is so in 1852.
Statistical Data 1: the Athenaeum [SLIDE 4] The Athenaeum for 30 October 1852 contains 61 discrete non-advertising items, under the following headings. The Athenaeum is published every seven days. The age of each item between its occurrence and publication date is listed or represented by an “x” if not a news item.
Title No. of items Age in days
Total 61 items 39.12 days average age
Statistical Data 2: Punch [SLIDE 5]Punch for 30 October 1852 contains 35 discrete non-advertising items, under the following headings. Punch is published every 7 days. The age of each item between its occurrence and publication date is listed or represented by an “x” if not a news item.
Title No. of items Age in days
Lord John Blowing Up the Guys 1 item 7
Robbery of an Author 1 item 7
Philosophy of Dinners 1 item x
Genuine Title for Orders 1 item 21
Greek Against Greek 1 item 14
An Unenlightened Clergyman 1 item 12
Leading Men in the City 1 item 7
Tol(derolderol)eration! 1 item 14
Punctuality (not) Soul of Business 1 item x
Two Good Kisses of the Pope 1 item 7
Letting the Cat out of the Budget 1 item 7
A Bold Empiric 1 item 11
A Whale with the Tooth-ache 1 item x
Sympathetic Paper 1 item x
Autumn Fashions for Horses 1 item x
An Outfit for Ten Guineas 1 item x
The Conjuror Puzzled 1 item x
Interpretations for the Million 1 item 5
A Happy Expression 1 item x
Appropriate Present 1 item x
The People’s Sunday School 1 item 3
A Person of His Rank 1 item 4
Political On Dit 1 item 3
An Illiterate Monster 1 item x
Triumphal Entry of the Beadle... 1 item x
The Eve of St. Guy 1 item 3
A Cannonade 1 item x
The Bottle Trick 1 item 4
Bedlam 1 item x
Railway Motto 1 item x
Putting His Foot in It 1 item x
Cockersdale Chemistry 1 item 16
Cheap as Scotch Dirt 1 item x
End of Whitsonian Controversy 1 item x
Apropos de Bottes 1 item x
Total 35 items 8.53 days average age
Statistical Data 3: the Illustrated London News [SLIDE 6] The Illustrated London News for 30 October 1852 contains 241 discrete non-advertising items, under the following headings. The ILN is published every seven days. The age of each item between its occurrence and publication date is listed or represented by an “x” if not a news item.
Title No. of items Age in days
Literature and Art 14 items x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x, x
Algerian Antiques 1 item 7
Assumption of Magdalen 1 item 6
Mansion-House 1 item 7
Musical Review 1 item x
Drama 10 items 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3
Total 241 items 6.99 days average age
Statistical Data 4: London Times [SLIDE 7] The Times for 30 October 1852 contains 192 discrete non-advertising items, under the following headings. The Times is published daily. The age of each item between its occurrence and publication date is listed or represented by an “x” if not a news item.
Title No. of items Age in days
Of note in all of these sample issues is the sharp difference in the age of items reported by telegraph (usually under four days) and those reported via other means, such as reprinting items from other periodicals (most often more than 14 days) and ship-delivered reports from correspondents (anywhere from five days for France to up to six months for Australia). Another factor is that different types of news are transmitted via different means. The death of Henry Whitelock Torrens, of Her Majesty’s Bengal Service, occurred on 16 August 1852, and was published in the Illustrated London News on 30 October (351), a delay of 75 days between occurrence and publication.
Conversely, 18,280 pounds of wheat arrived at the Mark Lane Corn Exchange and were sold on Friday, 29 October 1852 for between £46 3s 5d and £50 2s 5d per 60-pound sack (Times 7); a delay of less than one day between occurrence and publication. By and large, matters of economic and commercial import receive the speediest transmission, while matters of more social import receive slower transmission, regardless of geographic location.
Measuring the Media Cycle [SLIDE 8] We can represent the timeliness of news coverage for any event in any periodical by calculating its Media Cycle Percentage (MCP). The MCP requires only two measurements: the time between an event’s actual occurrence and the publication of the report or commentary, and the time between publication and the last possible date of consumption before the publication of the next issue of the periodical.
Today, the closest we can come to an instantaneous media cycle is live television coverage, where the delay between an event and its coverage is measured in seconds. The Media Cycle Percentage is a decimal value greater than zero where the limit one expresses congruity between the occurrence of a news event and the coverage of it within a medium’s publication cycle. The formula for calculating the MCP is to determine the time between the occurrence of an event and its publication, as well as the time between the publication and the last possible consumption of the publication before the next issue appears to render it “old news.” By taking the publication-to-consumption value and dividing it by the average of the sum of itself and the occurrence-to-publication value, we obtain a percentage decimal which defines the Media Cycle Percentage. In its simplest form, the formula can be used to represent the timeliness of coverage of one event in one publication:
MCP = (p→c)t / ((p→c)t + (o→p)t / 2)
= dec.val > 0
The formula is also useful in determining the average timeliness of coverage of an issue or run of a single publication. The formula thus expands to read:
MCP = (p→c)t / ((p→c)t + ((o→p)t1 + (o→p)t2 + ... (o→p)tn / n) / 2)
= dec.val > 0
MCP = media-cycle percentage
p = publication date
c = date of last possible consumption before the next iteration
t = time unit
o = occurrence of event
n = number of events
Thus, a daily newspaper that publishes only news at or under 1 day old would achieve an MCP of one, and a weekly publication that publishes nothing older than 7 days would also achieve a “perfect” one MCP. A “perfect” weekly periodical would achieve an MCP of one thus:
MCP = (7 days p→c) / ((7 days p→c + 7 days avg o→p) / 2)
= 7 / (14 / 2)
= 7 / 7
Aggregation is possible using the MCP formula by building averages, starting with the most basic unit of calculation: one event and one media outlet. From there, one can obtain the average MCP for an issue, a week, a month, a year, or an entire run of any periodical. We can also calculate the average timeliness of coverage of a single event across several different publications, or ascertain the effects of transmission medium on the efficiency of the media cycle at any given date. In the interests of time, I will not demonstrate these latter two uses of the formula, but I have plenty of cocktail napkins ready for scintillating conversation later.
Application of the MCP Formula to the Sample [SLIDE 9] Two examples of the use of the MCP formula may be shown. First, the MCP of each periodical issue in our sample is calculated, allowing for a comparison of the timeliness of the coverage in each issue. Second, the “ideal publication schedule” may be ascertained, given the current rate of publication and the timeliness of coverage.
We can arrive at the MCP for each of our four sample periodical issues by using the formula
MCP = (p→c)t / ((p→c)t + ((o→p)t1 + (o→p)t2 + ... (o→p)tn / n) / 2)
= dec.val > 0
\ MCP (Athenaeum) = 7 days / (7 days + (1898.32 days / 61 items = 31.12 avg days) / 2)
= 7 / (38.12 / 2)
= 7/ 19.06
MCP (Punch) = 7 days / (7 days + (298.55 days / 35 items = 8.53 avg days) / 2)
= 7 / (15.53 / 2)
= 7 / 7.765
MCP (ILN) = 7 days / (7 days + (1684.59 days / 241 items = 6.99 avg days) / 2)
= 7 / (13.99 / 2)
= 7 / 6.995
MCP (Times) = 1 day / (1 day + (1474.56 days / 192 items = 7.68 avg days) / 2)
= 1 / (8.68 / 2)
= 1 / 4.34
What this tells us is that the Times, by relying equally on local news, ship-based foreign news, and telegraphed news from all geographic areas, has the least efficient Media Cycle of the four titles. The Times, then, may be said to be less far along in 1852 on the continuum of the change in focus from locality of coverage to timeliness of coverage. Contrarily, the Illustrated London News, with its seven-day news cycle, has the comparative luxury of choosing its reporting from among sources that are as timely (or timelier than) its publication cycle. Indeed, for the 30 October 1852 issue, the Illustrated London News is .07% ahead of its publication media cycle--any periodical that publishes news that is less old than the time it takes to publish another issue would acquire an MPC higher than one, indicating the extent to which we may say that it is “beating its cycle.”
A surprise in the data comes by comparing the Illustrated London News to Punch, which are both nearly 100% timely in their coverage. The same kind of careful choosing of, on average, only the freshest news that occurs at the Illustrated London New is also seen in Punch. Punch was one of the first periodicals to change its primary criterion of value from locality of coverage to timeliness of coverage. Indeed, the jokes in Punch rely heavily on being about the current situation in politics, sport, social life, science, and finance. Seen in this light, the satiric focus of Punch almost requires that it be as topical and timely as possible.
The Athenaeum, published weekly, is slightly more timely, given its publication cycle, than the coverage of the daily Times: what seems, on its face, to be a contradiction. However, in terms of the subjects covered in the Athenaeum, several, such as book reviews, are not able to be counted as “news” items, and the news cycles associated with the artistic, musical, and dramatic worlds that are the main subject of Athenaeum coverage seem to indicate that the weekly format of the Athenaeum suits it better than the daily format of the Times suits it.
Another interesting use of the MCP, then, is to determine the “ideal” publication schedule of a given periodical; by dividing 1 by the MCP and multiplying the result by the number of days in the current publication cycle, we can see how much slower or faster the periodical would need to publish in order to match its own publication cycle to the news cycle it reports-- in other words to achieve an MCP of one. For example, if the Times kept its current level of daily information gathering, based on the MCP determined by the 30 October 1852 issue--(1 / 0.2304) x 1 day--it would need to publish only every 4 days or so, not daily. The Athenauem could get by reporting on its content (again, if the MCP for 30 October 1852 is a representative value) every 19 days: the calculation is (1 / 0.3673) x 7 days.
Of course, this last calculation brings me to some of the limits of this small pilot study, and to posit some potential solutions, and ways to use the formula in the classroom and in research to help answer questions about the development of different media over the course of the Victorian era.
Limits of the Study The chief limitations of this pilot study are its small sample size and variety of types of periodicals. By focusing on only a “snapshot” in the midpoint of the process of the “telegraph revolution,” it is possible that I have happened on an anomalous week in which the media cycle was atypically faster or slower than for other points in time, or that I have chosen four periodicals with exceptionally fast or slow media cycles. An ideal study would incorporate at last a month’s worth of MCP data for each periodical, and would expand the comparisons between periodicals by choosing titles from similar categories--comparing, say, the London Times and the Manchester Guardian over the course of 1865.
The MCP is not as precise a calculation as it might be, given that it does not factor in the delays between the actual setting and publication, the delivery of the periodical to the point of sale and the as-yet-unknowable average time between sale and consumption. Also, the calculation could be made more precise by determining the actual date of publication or sale-date, as opposed to the reported date of publication, which can differ significantly from the date printed on the periodical.
Two other factors, if known or standardized, could increase the accuracy of the calculation. First, the decision about what to count as a news item is at present rather an educated guess. Letters to the editor, book reviews, and other “interest” items are not currently counted, owing to the difficulty of establishing a precise time between event and publication. Further, some news items are reported without reference to the date of occurrence, or are reported as continuations of ongoing events; the estimation of the lapse between event and publication in such cases is also speculative at present, and for this study was based on averages reported in the professional literature.
Despite these possible ways to fine-tune the accuracy of the calculation, in formulating the MCP, I have erred on the side of simplicity of calculation over precision of result. The MCP in its current form is intended to be a quick and practical means for a) ascertaining the relative timeliness of coverage in different periodicals published around the same time, b) comparing the timeliness of coverage in the same organ at different historical moments, or c) tracking the extent of coverage and speed of spread of reporting on individual events, which can then be compared in terms of perceived news value.
Applications for Teaching and Study In terms of teaching and further study, teachers and researchers might profit from being able to compare the impact of four different “media revolutions” on the timeliness of print periodicals: telegraphy, radio, television, and the Internet. By locating samples from, say the London Times at representative moments during the establishment of each of these technologies and comparing the MCPs obtained to similar samples taken after each technology had become established, researchers can compare the rates at which new technologies were assimilated into the news-making process of the print culture.
Another possible avenue for study is to determine, by following an individual event through the media cycle from occurrence to publication in successively wider circles, the “newsworthiness” associated with that event by the contemporary culture. Which types of periodicals were first to include that event? Which types of periodicals waited to report it, and which never did?
A third means of further study would be to construct a timeline of events and their echoes in the press in order to examine the way in which the rapid processing of some information and the delay of other information helped to shape political, economic, or social decision-making in England at a given historical moment.
Finally, there is the temptation to see the telegraph as the Victorian equivalent of the Internet (indeed, see Tom Standage’s study of the development of telegraphy entitled The Victorian Internet). This is one area where the Media Cycle Percentage may reach its limit. Erwin Schrödinger’s “cat paradox,” which is usually applied in sub-atomic physics, can be applied to the Media Cycle Percentage. Schrödinger posited that a cat in a box that may or may not contain poison gas is either dead or alive, but we cannot ascertain whether the cat is alive without opening the box and observing. One limitation of the MCP is that it requires sufficient observational distance from the event-publication-consumption process. For processes that can be measured in days or hours, the MCP is a useful measurement. However, the possible applications of the MCP become severely limited when applied to super-rapid media like the Internet and cable television news, not because we cannot theoretically calculate the media cycle for individual events, but because of the physical limitation of not being able to observe more than one media outlet simultaneously.
Conclusion [SLIDE 11] To conclude, the Media Cycle Percentage demonstrates, through an examination of our 30 October 1852 snapshot of four periodical titles, that Hepworth Dixon was correct--the concept of the world was indeed shrinking rapidly, as new technologies like the telegraph helped periodicals to come closer and closer to being able to report on news as it was happening, in more and more corners of the Earth. Where earlier periodicals counted their quality in terms of the extent of their local coverage, the newer criterion was increasingly the speed and geographic extent of coverage. Periodicals that were slow to understand and use the new metric found themselves in situations similar to that of the Alpena Echo in 1891, which
cut off its daily telegraph service because it could not tell why the great head in the telegraph company caused it to be sent a full account of a flood in Shanghai, a massacre in Calcutta, a monkey dance in Singapore, a sailor fight in Bombay, hard frosts in Siberia, . . . the price of kangaroo leather in Borneo . . . and not a line about the [local] fire. (qtd. in Marvin 191)
Works Cited The Athenæum: Journal of English and Foreign Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts no. 1,305 (30 Oct. 1852): 1,161–1,192.
Cheong, Yunjae and John D. Leckenby. “The Media Type Interaction Cycle.” Unpublished working paper. Center for Interactive Advertising. Oct. 2003. http://www.ciadvertising.org.
The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review Oct. 1852: 329–441.
The Illustrated London News 21.587 (30 Oct. 1852): 345–368.
Marvin, Carolyn. When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Punch, or the London Charivari 30 Oct. 1852: 181–189.
Schrödinger, Erwin. “Die Gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik.” Naturwissenschaften 23 (1935): 807-812, 823-828, 844-849. Trans. John D. Trimmer. “The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics.” Quantum Theory and Measurement. Teaneck, NJ: Princeton UP, 1983. Rpt. http://www.tu-harburg.de/rzt/rzt/it/QM/cat.html.
Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. New York: Walker, 1998.
The Times[London] no. 21,260 (30 Oct. 1852): 1–12.