Late Nineteenth-Century Readers, Interactive and Sideways Print Consumption, and Alfred Harmsworth’s Answers

Paul Rooney
Trinity College Dublin

Launched by Alfred Harmsworth in 1888 under the title, Answers to Correspondents, in a bid to rival George Newnes’s Tit Bits and then subsequently rebranded as Answers: A Weekly Journal of Instruction and Amusement for Home and Train, this penny weekly newspaper achieved a comparable degree of success as its Newnes precursor. Contemporary accounts suggest that reported weekly sales had reached in excess of one million copies by the early 1890s. Tit Bits has elicited a certain level of critical engagement from scholars of Victorian periodicals, principally in the form of Kate Jackson’s study, George Newnes and the New Journalism in Britain, 1880-1910: Culture and Profit (2001). However, Answers remains surprisingly under-researched, despite the likelihood that it represented habitual reading matter for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of nineteenth-century readers.

As a title from the Newnes-Harmsworth-Pearson school of late-Victorian journalism, Answers would have owed a considerable proportion of its success to the compositional and material components of its periodical coding. These qualities positioned the newspaper within a print culture niche that instilled the publication with particular appeal for its core target audience amongst the reader demographics that emerged in the post-1870 period as a result of enhanced state elementary educational provisions. My paper will begin by endeavouring to construct a profile of the title’s historical readership, through an examination of both the advertising that dominated the paper’s distinctive orange covers and the reader correspondence and submissions reprinted in the body of the newspaper.

My paper will then interrogate the architecture of content constructed in the pages of Answers during the 1890s. I contend that the interweaving of ‘thumbnail’ items of journalism on unusual and/or edifying topics elicited a specific mode of consumption, predicated on the need for a limited degree of mental engagement, but (theoretically) fostering a ‘sideways’ style of reading and promoting a distinctive class of signification. I then conclude by speculating on what regular readers of Answers derived from their consumption of this kind of publication, which was customarily classed as disposable, unprofitable reading matter.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900