Raymond Williams in The Long Revolution provides an illuminating discussion on the popular press from the eighteenth to nineteenth century and its contribution to the expanding reading public. The newspaper was a pervasive form of reading consumed by all members of society.Its accessibility and cheap price were a few features that made it appealing to readers, particularly middle-class readers. According to Williams, the newspaper was a product of a “commercial class,” and in the eighteenth century, suited for this class as it facilitated business and further established itself as an independent organization (197). In the eighteenth century newspaper, much of the content was commercial and when it could not satisfy middle-class readers on matters of taste and conduct, magazine and periodicals filled the remaining demand (197). Newspapers left the business of elaborating politics, conduct literature, and art to the periodical press, who were not conceived of as competitors since newspapers were always in demand. Advertisements, in particular, sustained the commercial success of the newspaper, further permitting its independence and expansion despite stamp taxes, which also taxed advertisements (204).
The beginnings of freedom of the press might be illustrated in an example Williams relates about the newspaper as an institution achieving political independence by reporting “parliamentary proceedings,” which the periodical press did not account for and which members of the parliament could not hush or suppress (206). It seems that newspapers were immune to the many taxes on print and regulation of “libel,” since as a business, it continued to thrive and expand. Even when the government attempts to buy them out, particularly during the French Revolution and an Anti-Jacobin parliament, the demand for them led to commercial success which further permitted political independence. Williams claims that a new spirit was emerging – that of the dissenting or radical press. Thus, parliament distinguished the “‘respectable press’” (210) from the “‘pauper press,’” or the dailies that worked outside the confines of stamp and anti-libel laws.
However, the newspaper could not compete with The Sunday Paper, which was particularly successful because it met the demand of a wider audience, not only the middle class but also poorer classes. It was the first to present a type of journalistic method of the news, a method influenced by older print works such as the chapbooks, ballads, and almanacs. The Sunday paper adopted the tradition of reporting elopements, murders, executions from these older works. Williams claims, “Just as the eighteenth-century newspaper had absorbed a proportion of ‘magazine interest’, so these nineteenth-century papers absorbed the chapbook, ballad, and almanac interest, and at a much cheaper price” (214). Not only were Sunday papers cheap but they were also available during a time of leisure – when the working class was free to read and visit coffee shops, libraries, and bookstalls.
As a form of reading, the printing and business of newspapers seemed to work outside the confines of publishing monopolies and government regulations. While many businesses seem to have failed by not seeking the protection of London publishers or by defying anti-libel laws, newspapers were immune to these factors controlling the market. This is primarily due to their financial success as demand for this type of material never waned; thus, they achieved not only financial independence but also political independence as an emerging free press.