It is, in these persecuting Days, a sufficient crime to have printed a Newspaper which has so boldly dared to doubt the Infallibility of Ministers, and to investigate the Justice and Policy of their Measures.
Joseph Gales, ‘The Editor’s Address’,
Sheffield Register No 369, 27 June 1794.
When Joseph Gales was editing the Register his readers did not take newspapers for granted. Newspaper readers in the 1790s, and those who wrote for them, were still working out the boundaries of what a newspaper could or should do. By 1794 regional newspapers had only been around for a century or so: a blink of an eye for a form in literary history.
Printed news as we would recognise it only began to circulate in Britain around the middle of the 1600s, fuelled by a time of civil war. By the early 1700s there were local as well as national newspapers and they had begun to take a recognisable form. As the 1700s progressed, newspapers began to circulate across the country with greater ease, often moving from weekly to thrice-weekly and even (at first in London) a daily format. By 1794 your newspaper of choice had all of today’s features in place: it would have a masthead, it would announce its price, its place and date of publication, and it would have local, national and international news divided into recognisable columns containing advertisements, letters, illustrations and so-forth.
Newspapers were also hard work: each line of text was typeset in movable lead blocks, set back-to-front by skilled printers who then had to ink each frame full of type and use a hand-powered press to make the print. The skills, the ink, the (taxed) paper: none of it was cheap, yet then as now a newspaper was disposable, out of date the moment it hit the streets. At the end of the 18th century newspaper proprietors made real money not from the cover price but from advertisements. That meant they had to print papers that people would pay to read: otherwise the advertisements would dry up and the paper would fail. This means that whatever Gales printed in the Register he thought people would want to read. He was not a lone ideologue, he was a businessman who needed to keep his readers and his advertisers in harmony. That is one reason why these poems are so important: they represent not an abstract aesthetic ideal of what makes good poetry, or what might constitute a work of genius; this, rather, is the literature that real readers in Sheffield actually wanted to see in their weekly newspaper. If Gales got it wrong, he would go bust: a refreshing kind of literary criticism.
Newspapers appealed to and were bought by people who had the time and education to read them and the money to buy them. Such people cared about—or could imagine—a world beyond their own front door. Newspapers offered an exciting, sometimes challenging, window on a world beyond people’s everyday experiences and comfortable competencies, and played a key role in defining a new phenomenon: public opinion. Open a copy of the Register to find reports of violence in Europe, suspicion of foreigners, distrust of politicians, anxiety about the economy and tax, arguments about religion, opinions about the latest fashion. It is much the same material as today, although we have had 300 years to get used to the idea of ‘news’, even to take it for granted. Just as today, so in 1794 the government—and the everyday reader—had to decide when and where to take matters seriously; to decide who to trust and what to fear; to decide who to ignore and what information to act upon. To make these choices was to become a member of an emerging British public. To hold and to test opinions amongst the community represented by the readers of the Register was to engage in a new and powerful sense of public identity. The Register brought the people of Sheffield together and connected Sheffield to the outside world; it was a remarkably powerful institution that shaped and challenged the self-understanding of its readers and so was watched closely by the government.
Dr Hamish Mathison