Are you a 24-hour news junkie? Even if you’re not, you’ve likely been glued to CNN, NPR, Facebook, or TikTok this week, watching historic events at the US Capitol and their aftermath unfold. The passion for the latest updates on current events is one that stretches back to the earliest days of the 19th century. The Victorians had the very same hunger for news, and just like today, there was no shortage of sources to satisfy them.
“The newsagent’s was well stocked, and I spent a few moments fortifying myself for the next fourteen hours. I selected the Times, The Strand, and Illustrated London News…. Mindful of Miss Judson’s eyes on me, I dutifully added a copy of the Girl’s Own Paper, in which to conceal the others.” —How to Get Away with Myrtle
In the Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries, my heroine Myrtle is an enthusiastic consumer of the news. Like Myrtle, I grew up surrounded by journalism: my father was a journalism professor at Iowa State University, and weekly family TV viewing was bookended by “60 Minutes” on Sunday evenings, and “20/20” on Friday nights.
We often hear that the twenty-four/seven news cycle is a product of the cable news boom of the late 20th century, but in fact it’s always been with us. By the 1820s, there were more than 50 daily and weekly newspapers in London (compared to 13 in 2020), and circulation only increased during the century, as printing costs and taxes went down, incomes rose, and the British population became more urban. Some of our most familiar and respected modern newspapers had their origins in the Victorian era—or earlier—including the Times of London, which has been supplying Londoners with their daily news since the 1700s.
During particularly busy news days, readers did not have to wait until the morning edition for the latest updates. Newspapers put out “extras,” or special editions to keep their readers apprised of up-to-the-minute developments on things like sensational crimes and hotly-contested elections.
Newspapers took immediate advantage of advances in telegraphy and photography, sharing the latest scoops from news agencies overseas and supplementing their artists’ renderings with easily reproduced “halftone” photographs.
Then as now, celebrity news and sensational crimes featured high among the interests of readers. And the most popular celebrities of the day? The royal family, of course.
The prolific coverage of crime and scandal is nothing new, either. The Victorian era had its own version of “Vengeance: Killer Lovers” and “How it Really Happened:” the broadsheet. The most talked-about crimes of the day were written up, set to music, and sold on street corners from Sussex to Scotland.
The public’s morbid fascination with the most minute details of crime and scandal struck many social observers—especially among the middle class—to be far from a respectable interest. But these naysayers had no effect on the popularity of sensational news stories, which only grew during the century, culminating in the media explosion surrounding the gruesome 1888 murders of several women in London’s Whitechapel neighborhood. For weeks that autumn, British and international readers were glued to the coverage.
And while the free press has long been one of our most cherished institutions, that hasn’t always—or even usually—meant the impartial press. From their earliest days, newspapers (and their offspring, radio and TV news) have been established to represent the interests and publish the views of particular social and political groups. It’s important to recognize the viewpoint of a given news source, in order to judge potential bias in the reporting. The University of Michigan Library offers guidance for readers and researchers about how to determine ways in which a news outlet may be biased toward a particular interest group.
The next time you find yourself tuning in to see if there are new updates on the latest global crisis (even when you know there won’t be), remember that you’re taking part in a centuries-old human pastime: the ravenous consumption of news.