Citizens as journalists in the Victorian local press

Andrew Hobbs
University of Central Lancashire

The local newspaper was one of the most popular types of publication
in Victorian England. Most of the content was written by full-time
journalists, but between a quarter and a third of editorial texts were
produced by a hidden army of district correspondents, campaigners,
experts in regional history and topography, poets, inveterate
letter-writers and dialect aficionados, and officers of clubs,
societies and local institutions. The uniform columns of print
disguise the number and variety of amateur authors, comprising men,
women and children from all classes. Their writings and their lives
take us beyond the canonical fraction’ (Moretti 2000) of journalism
and literature, requiring us to rethink questions of professionalism,
authorship, place, the nature of the newspaper and of citizenship

A focus on amateur writers allows us to reassess post-Habermas debates
about the rise and fall, re-emergence and limitations of the public
sphere. It forces us, at least, to consider the uneven development of
a space in which private citizens could join public debate. ‘The
process of professionalisation … requires the “invention of
amateurism”’ (Taylor 1995). Journalists failed to establish
themselves as a profession (Hampton 1999), and therefore failed to
differentiate themselves from amateurs, dilettantes and dabblers. This
may explain the scholarly neglect of this penumbra of non-journalists
who produced journalism.

This paper begins to recover and interrogate the hidden world of the
amateur local newspaper contributor by examining these writers and
their writing. Who were these amateur contributors and what did they
write? Why did they write, and in what circumstances? Case studies of
three types of contributor are discussed: the district correspondent,
the social and political activist (a survival of Chalaby’s
‘publicist’) and the learned local expert. Some became
‘professional’ journalists and literary celebrities, most did not.
They shared a sense of place, but were differentiated by class,
gender, age, religion, politics and motivation. They were readers who
wrote, forming ‘interpretive communities’ (Fish 1976) around each

This paper aims to cast new light on debates about the
professionalization of journalism and the chronology of the public
sphere. It challenges conventional perceptions that the local
newspaper was a minor part of Victorian print culture; that few
non-professional writers were published; and that literary culture was
situated largely in London. It redefines the local newspaper as a
porous, culturally democratic and broadly inclusive publishing
platform, encouraging popular participation the local hub of a
geographically distributed, truly national print culture.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900