Traditionally, historians have argued that British newspapers gradually won their freedom from government and party control as they shifted to a financial structure that relied upon advertising. In this view, newspapers achieved a kind of economic independence, permitting the press to take up its contemporary role as the “fourth estate”. Certainly, this shift had great significance for the British press. But we cannot understand the movement away form a state-supported press to an advertiser-supported press as linear movement from a ‘captive’ press to a ‘free’ press. Such an explanation ignores the ways in which advertising revenue relates to a larger set of relationships among capitalism, the state, and the press.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, a radical, working-class press thrived in England, breaking circulation records. Rather than being constrained by government action – through libel laws and press taxes – the British press was undermined by the changing economics of the newspaper business whereby the less politically inclined middle-class papers turned to advertisers, instead of readers, as a central source of revenue. The resulting impact suggests the significant power of advertising to shape the content of media systems.
The growth of advertising changed the playing field and led to the decline of the British radical press, making the circulation figure (the readers) less important than the patronage of advertisers. Advertisers’ political interests were dramatically different from the ideas espoused by the radical press. In essence, the working-class press presented a political critique of industrial capitalism, while potential advertisers were beneficiaries of the same system.
Advertising changed the meaning of economic viability within the newspaper industry. With new resources coming in, the advertiser-supported papers were able to produce papers with more pages. This pushed up the cost of producing a competitive newspaper. At the same time, with advertising revenue as a base, the cover price of papers dropped dramatically, making it difficult for papers without advertising to compete.
These were some of the consequences of the rise of advertising that proved grave for the radical press and tell us a good deal about the broader impact of advertising on the news.