Book Review: Jean Chalaby’s The Invention of Journalism

Jean Chalaby’s The Invention of Journalism focuses on the emergence of the journalistic field during the second half of the nineteenth century, challenging the traditional view that journalism appeared with the first gazettes and handwritten newsletters.  Chalaby is holistic in his approach, stressing that discourse is not limited to linguistics and must also consider the social and economic influences of the time. The book’s structure is well considered, highlighting how the topics covered relate to each other. Chapter one, for example, focuses on the illegal unstampeds and the subsequent creation of working-class consciousness, concluding by detailing the repeal of stamp duty. This makes way for the second chapter to explain how this opened the scope for a competitive market of newspapers.

First, Chalaby criticises previous methods of analysing newspaper texts printed before the turn of the nineteenth century. He references historian Vivian Gruder, who wrongly assumed that the norm of objectivity existed prior to the creation of journalistic field; therefore, we cannot condemn pamphlets from the French Revolution in 1789 as being propagandist as this term did not exist. Chalaby explains the variety of duties newspapers were subject to, and how these led to the creation of an underground press. He argues that the unstampeds called for the repeal of newspaper duties, thus sparking the field of journalism we know today: in which a newspaper must compete to be either the cheapest or of the highest quality to beat its competitors. Chalaby argues that whilst journalists of the past felt a sense of duty to the public and wrote to change lifestyles (alluding to their function as the fourth estate through governing the people), journalists today don’t hope to influence today’s events and are forced to separate their political views from their professional activities. This conclusion is questionable as a journalist would presumably only write for papers with political views in line with their own or else feel uncomfortable.[1] Chalaby is right however, in stating that each newspaper serves a class of people – if not an explicit political agenda. The unstampeds created a working-class consciousness by raising social and economic issues that would be relevant to them, such as unemployment and mechanisation, opening these topics up for discussion, thus expanding the public sphere which had previously been reserved for the middle classes. He argues that without unstampeds, the working-class movement would never have developed on a national level as they functioned as a point of communication between previously isolated groups.

In chapter two, Chalaby states that the competitiveness of the journalistic field cannot be isolated to economic factors. Power, recognition, legitimacy and privilege (such as being given free entry to theatres for newspaper coverage of a show), and internal competition drove the field. He details the complexities of journalism as a business structure and highlights the difficulties of keeping up with technological advances, staffing, productivity and content which only the wealthy could sustain, thereby automatically reducing competition as prices can’t be set independently of rivals. Chalaby does not however suggest what implications the rich having control over newspaper production may have on the type of news being delivered.

 

 

Bibliography

Brown, Lucy. Victorian News and Newspapers (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985).

Chalaby, Jean. The Invention of Journalism, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), pp 1-54


[1] Lucy Brown, Victorian News and Newspapers (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), p.88.

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