The Future of Journalism
W. T. Stead (The Contemporary Review, vol. 50, November, 1886, pp. 663-679)
The future of journalism is a large subject. It is but a thing of yesterday, but already it overshadows the world. The rustle of its myriad sheets, unfolded afresh every morning and folded for ever at night, supplies a realistic fulfilment of one part of the old Norse saga of the Ash-tree Ygdrasil, whose roots were watered by the Norns, and on whose leaves were written the scenes of the life of man.
It has part of the necessary garniture of the civilized man. The North-country pitman said “He felt quite naked-like without his dog.” A man without a newspaper is half-clad, and imperfectly furnished for the battle of life. From being persecuted and then contemptuously tolerated, it has become the rival of organized governments. Will it become their superior? The future of journalism depends entirely upon the journalist. All that can be said is, that it offers opportunities and possibilities, of which a capable man can take advantage, superior to that of any other institution or profession known among men.
But everything depends upon the individual -the person. Impersonal journalism is effete. To influence men you must be a man, not a mock-uttering oracle. The democracy is under no awe of the mystic “We.” Who is “We”? they ask; and they are right. For all power should be associated with responsibility, and a leader of the people, if a journalist, needs a neck capable of being stretched quite as much as if he is a Prime Minister. For the proper development of a newspaper the personal element is indispensable. There must be loyalty to the chief far beyond the precincts of the editorial sanctum. Besides, as I shall presently explain, the personality of the editor is the essential centre-point of my whole idea of the true journalism of the governing and guiding order, as distinguished from journalism of the mere critical or paragraph-quilting species. Where there is the combination of the two elements, the distinct personality of a competent editor and the varied interests and influences of an ably conducted paper, it is not difficult to see that such an editor might, if he wished it, become far the most permanently influential Englishman in the Empire.
He would not govern the Empire, but his voice would be the most potent among all those whose counsels guide the holders of our Imperial sceptre; he might not “wield at will the fierce democratie,” but he would be the most authoritative interpreter of its wishes, and his influence, both upon the governed and the governors, would be incomparably greater than that of any other living man.
And how would he attain this dizzy pre-eminence? He would be more powerful than any, simply because, better than any other, he would know his facts. Even now, with his imperfect knowledge of facts, the journalist wields enormous influence. What would he be if he had so perfected the mechanism of his craft as to be master of the facts – especially of the dominant fact of all, the state of public opinion?
At present the journalistic assumption of uttering the opinion of the public is in most cases a hollow fraud. In the case of most London editors, absolutely no attempt is made to ascertain what Demos really thinks. Opinions are exchanged in the office, in the club, or in the drawing-room; but any systematic attempt to gauge the opinion even of those whom he meets there is none. As for the opinion of Londoners, outside the limited range of their personal acquaintance, that remains to them, as to every one else, an inscrutable mystery. Outside London, everything of course is shrouded in even denser darkness. How many London editors, I wonder, ever look half-a-dozen times in the year into the sheets of their provincial contemporaries? Yet not one of them will not undertake to pronounce off-hand that public opinion will not tolerate this, or that public opinion insists on that. And all the while they know as much about public opinion as of the private opinion of the Grand Lama. It is about time that imposture should cease.
I am not for a moment advocating the more accurate and scientific gauging of public opinion in order that blind obedience should be paid to its decision, when ascertained. Far from it. The first duty of every true man, if he believes that public opinion is mistaken, is to set himself to change it. But whether we regard public opinion as the supreme authority in faith, morals and politics, or whether we merely regard it as so much force to be directed or absolutely checked, it is obviously of the first importance to know what it is that we have either to obey or to transform.
But at present who is there who studies public opinion – I do not say scientifically, but even intelligently? Here and there a statesman, a few newspaper men and wire-pullers; but that is all. Nothing was more startling in 1880, and again in 1885, than the utter miscalculations of the cognoscenti as to the way in which popular feeling was going. In 1880 nearly all the Tories, whether members or editors, and more than one-half of the Liberals, were quite sure that the General Election would result in a Tory majority. In 1885 every Liberal, and very nearly every Tory, was certain that the country would return an overwhelming Liberal majority over the coalition of Tories and Parnellites. In 1880 Lord Beaconsfield calculated confidently on a majority of thirty-seven. Just before the polls opened in 1885 I received a private expostulation from a well-known Liberal, intimate with the leaders of the party, and one who had proved himself in 1880 a correct and careful reader of the signs of the times. “I cannot understand,” he wrote, “how you can think that there is any doubt about our obtaining a majority. I am quite sure of a minimum of fifty over Tories and Parnellites combined, it may be seventy, but would probably have been a hundred if Mr Chamberlain had taken a sea voyage instead of taking to the stump Even the ablest provincial editors were utterly at fault; so were Liberal candidates down to the very close of the poll. This would not signify much where the constituency was so evenly divided that the transfer of a hundred votes would turn the scale. But when editors and candidates and wire-pullers were all alike unconscious that their ground had shifted under the feet to the extent of the transfer of several thousand votes to the Tory camp, there is reason indeed to say that other people besides the Peers can be “up in a balloon,” when it is most important they should have their feet firmly planted on solid earth.
The first step, therefore, that must be taken is to require touch with the public, and this, fortunately, is by no means difficult, although it requires some painstaking, and the institution of a very simple but effective organization. But surely, when there is hardly a creek or inlet all over the world where soundings are not taken with the utmost care, and the results accurately set down in Admiralty charts, it ought not to be impossible to take the political soundings from time to time in every part of the United Kingdom, in order that the Administration may know when it is floating on a full tide of popularity, or when there is barely sufficient water under the keel to keep her from stranding.
What, then, should be the organization of a newspaper office from this point of view?
In trying to answer this question, I am neither so presumptuous as to attempt to describe the ultimate ideal, nor am I so mendacious as to pretend that anything approaching to such a system of inquiry exists either on my own paper or on that of any one else. I offer the outline merely as the sketch of the aim which any journalist with a sense of the responsibilities of his position might have in view, and which in time, with patience, he might attain.
First, then, the editor of a newspaper should either be personally acquainted with, or should be surrounded by trustworthy assistants who are personally acquainted with every one whose opinion has any weight on any subject with which he has to deal. Nor should it be mere acquaintance. There should exist such relations of confidence as to render it possible for the editor to be put in possession the views of any personage whose opinion he desires to know. This of course is a work of time, and even after many years the most successful editor must be content to know many of the most personages at second-hand. But it is better to be intimate with the confidant of a Minister than to be merely on friendly terms the Minister himself. There are some Ministers who never tell a thing when their journalistic acquaintances seek for information. Others profess to tell everything, and mislead the inquirer in every direction. Those Ministers are very rare who make a confidant of an editor, and still rarer are those who do not make a thorough-going support the condition of such confidences.
These terms are of course absolutely impossible. No consideration whatever, in the shape of exclusive and official information, can compensate for the loss of the right of individuality, of independence, and of criticism. One Minister who will tell you all he knows is worth a dozen Ministers who dole out information as if it were diamonds, and even then leave out some vital item. All that I contend for is, for instance, that on any given occasion it ought to be possible for an editor to ascertain authentically in twenty-four hours the views of all the Cabinet Ministers and ex-Cabinet Ministers in town-not of course for publication, but for his own guidance and the avoidance of mistakes.
At present that is impossible: first, because Ministers trained in the old school have not yet learned the necessities of the new system; and secondly, because journalists do not as a rule take the trouble to cultivate the acquaintance with Ministers necessary to keep themselves informed. And what is true of Ministers is true to a greater or less degree of ambassadors, judges, generals, and great financiers. Nevertheless, the duty of an editor is absolute. He ought to be able to get at, or know some one who can get at, every one, from the Queen downwards, in order to be able to ascertain what they are thinking about the topic of the day. This is not interviewing. Interviewing is the public, this is the private phase of what, after all, must always be the primary department of journalism – that of interrogation. The least confusing of the two, the case of matter spoken in private as if it were material for an interview, would be fatal. If the editor cannot be trusted to keep a secret, if he betrays confidence, the whole edifice collapses. Personal confidence is the foundation of the system.
As with the Cabinet, so with every other department of the Government in Church and State. It ought to be known in every newspaper office exactly who ought to be seen upon every subject that crops up, and who is the best man to see him. In that respect the American newspapers are ahead of those in Europe; although, in justice to the Old World, it ought to be added that American editorials are often as conspicuously weak as their sub-editing is conspicuously strong. In this respect the opportunities of London journalism are unequalled. As you can buy anything in London, so you can find some one who can tell you the best and latest news about anything that happens anywhere, if you only knew where to look for him. But they are not sought for, nor are they picked up even when they pass you in the street. Hungry would-be pressmen come to every newspaper office vending unsaleable wares, asking for work, and all London teeming with subjects for good merchantable copy, if they would but get up live facts from first-hand sources, and give up the opinions of men who know all about the topic of the hour, instead of the musty platitudinizing of third-rate essayists.
Every newspaper ought to have its own whip for parliamentary purposes, and he also must of necessity be in the House of Commons. By whip I mean one who does what the party whips often but perfunctorily perform – ascertain the views and opinions of members on every topic before the public. Nor should he confine himself to either side. The odd idea which many people have of journalism was shown in the resentment occasioned in some quarters by a newspaper circular of inquiry which was issued lately to members on the subject of the late Reform Bill. Many high and mighty gentlemen seemed to regard it as an offence rather than as a compliment, when a newspaper editor asked his counsel as to the best course to be taken in dealing with Franchise and Redistribution. There is, it is true, one difficulty in the way of eliciting opinions from members as to the best course of future policy: so many have none to elicit. After their leader speaks, their opinion is simply ditto. Until he speaks they have none at all. There are, taking it roughly, probably not more than fifty members in the House who have independent opinions of any value; and although in selecting policies and deciding as to rival expediencies it is noses which are counted, a very little experience shows that the majority of the noses follow the lead of one or other of the fifty.
Of much more importance than the cultivation of the House of Commons – for, after all, the M.P is a loudly vocal creature, and there is not much difficulty in ascertaining his views – the editor should know personally, so as to be able to correspond confidentially, with every one, be he consul, ambassador, governor, resident, high commissioner, or viceroy, whose word stands for England’s before the world. Many and many a time such confidential relations, had they existed, might have saved the Empire from disaster, if only because our representative abroad, by such an arrangement, could have made sure that public opinion would be aroused to the importance of a subject which could not be neglected without danger, at the same time the Colonial Office was receiving is report. All too often public opinion is asleep, and the Colonial Secretary thinks it is no use, “in the present state of public opinion,” attempting to carry but a governor’s; or an ambassador’s recommendations; whereas public opinion would have been awake enough and eager, if only the public had had the warning which slumbered unheeded in the official pigeon holes.
And so it should go all down the official hierarchy. Naval officers are forbidden to write for the Press, and it is necessary to get their ideas. So about soldiers. The rules of the Metropolitan Police are absurdly strict in forbidding the imparting of information which in all provincial towns is freely tended to the Press. As a rule, all voluntary organizations are too glad to allow the Press to inspect everything they have to show. There is nothing in this demand that in any way the authority of the official hierarchy. It only gives the public an additional and independent security for the efficiency of the publicservices.
I need not refer to the development of this system abroad. There is only one Blowitz, and he is confined to one capital. If the Times had a soul, and an individual who carried that soul about within his own skin, he might be, and indeed ought to be, on more or less intimate terms with every statesman and sovereign in Europe, and once every year he should make the tour of the capitals to keep himself in touch with the men whose wills rule Europe. Unfortunately, the direction of the Times seems to be distributed among many bodies, and all of them together hardly seem to be able to muster a soul among them.
The ideal of the journalist should be to be universally accessible – to know every one and to hear everything. The old idea of a jealously shrouded impersonality has given way to its exact antithesis. Of course, if the personality of the editor is such as to detract from the usefulness of his writings, he had better stick to the old plan. But if the editor is a real man, who has convictions, and capacity to give them utterance in conversation as well as in print, the more people he sees at first hand the better-always provided that he leaves his mind room enough in the crowd to turn round on its own ground. All that I have said concerning the London editor applies mutatis mutandis to his provincial brother. The provincial editor has one enormous advantage over the Londoner – one among many. He can cover the whole of his field. He can make the personal acquaintance of every leading public man and of all the local leaders in every department of human activity. From the mayor to the bellman, they are all within his compass, and as a rule, if he makes it his business, they are approachable enough. It is difficult, of course, when there is keen sensitiveness on the part of a functionary whom it has been necessary to scourge in your paper, and also in places where the party line is broad and deep. I never found any difficulty, however, in being on excellent terms with my Tory contemporaries in the North, although neither side was accustomed to give or seek quarter in print.
It is a very simple thing, and may be pooh-poohed as truism, but how much all the papers would be improved, how much more influential they would be, if, before venturing to express the opinion of their respective Pedlingtons, little or big, their readers knew that the writers had at least taken the trouble to ascertain at first hand what any other Pedlingtonians really did think on the subject; and how much more powerful, because how much better informed, if in discussing the topics of the town, the editor was always behind the scenes, the natural confidant and ready helper of all those who are endeavouring to serve the community.
This, however, is the mere ABC of the subject: it is so obvious that whoever aspires to lead and guide must take counsel with those who have the daily drudgery of administration to do, that there is no need to labour the point. What is much less generally recognized is that the newspaper ought to be in close and direct touch with either extremity of the social system, and with all intermediate grades. There is something inexpressibly pathetic in the dumbness of the masses of the people. Touch but a hair on the head of the well-to-do, and forthwith you hear his indignant protest in the columns of the Times. But the million, who have to suffer the rudest buffets of ill-fortune, the victims of official insolence and the brutality of the better off, they are as dumb as the horse, which you may scourge to death without its uttering a sound. Newspapers will never really justify their claims to be the tribunes of the people until every victim of injustice – whether it be a harlot run in by a policeman greedy for blackmail, or a ticket-of-leave man hunted down by shadowy detectives, or paupers baulked of their legal allowance of skilly-sends in to the editorial sanctum their complaint of the injustice which they suffer. When men cease to complain of injustice, it is as if they sullenly confessed that God was dead.
When they neglect to lay their wrongs before their fellows, it is as if they had lost all faith in the reality of that collective conscience of society which Milton finely calls “God’s secretary.” For every appeal to the public is a practical confession of a faith that shuts out despair. When there is prayer there is hope. To give utterance to the inarticulate moan of the voiceless is to let light into a dark place; it is almost equivalent to the enfranchisement of a class. A newspaper in this sense is a daily apostle of fraternity, a messenger who bringeth glad tidings of joy, of a great light that has risen upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. I do not say that the editors of the Times and the Daily News should be on visiting terms with the thieves of the Seven Dials and the harlots of the New Cut, but they should know those who can tell them what the Dialonians feel and what the outcasts in New Cut suffer. The Jewish legend which Longfellow versified tells how Sandalphon the Angel of Glory, Sandalphon the Angel of Prayer, stands at the portals of heaven listening to all sounds ceaselessly from the crowded earth. All these petition he collects, and they turn into flowers in his hands as he presents them before the throne of Jehovah. The editor is the Sandalphon of humanity. Into his ear are poured the cries, the protests, the complaints of men who suffer wrong, and it is his mission to them daily before the conscience of mankind. But to do that, he, or those about him, must be
"A nerve o'er which do creep The else unfelt oppressions of mankind,"
and he or they must be familiar with the wants, the wrongs, the sorrows of the outcast residue of the human race.
All that, it will be said, is idealistic, visionary, utopian; but it is something to have an inspiring ideal, and it is well to be reminded of the responsibilities that attend upon the power which has come to the journalist as an unexpected heritage from the decay and disappearance of the elder authorities of the bishop and the noble. To be both eye and ear for the community is a great privilege, but power no less than noblesse oblige, and much may be done to realize it, if it recognized that the discharge of such responsibilities lie in the day’s work of the journalist. It is of course manifestly impossible for over-worked editors and hard-pressed reporters to undertake new duties without being relieved of some of their functions. But in the large papers much might be done by rearranging duties and the substitution of this kind of work for others of a less indispensable description. But I have not yet lost faith in the possibility of some of our great newspaper proprietors who will content himself with reasonable fortune, and devote the surplus of his gigantic profits to the development of his newspaper as an engine of social reform and as a means of government. And if it be impossible for those already in the purple to display such public spirit, then it may be that the same spirit which led pious founders in medieval times to build cathedrals and establish colleges, may lead some man or woman of fortune to devote half a million to found a newspaper for the service, for the education, and for the guidance of the people.
Supposing such a newspaper to be founded, what would be the first step necessary to enable its conductor to gauge and at the same time to influence the opinion of the nation? The necessity for establishing personal relations between the chief of the political, social, and religious leaders of the people in the immediate vicinity of the newspaper office, has already been referred to. But that helps but little towards placing the newspaper in confidential relations with the whole people. What, then, is the best and most effective means of enabling the editor at the centre to keep touch with the people at the circumference? Mere circulation will not avail. There is no London newspaper more circulated among North -country Radicals than the Daily News, but the only expression of opinion ever heard up North about the Daily News is a groan over its feebleness and lack of grit. Circulation is all very well, and the larger circulation any newspaper has the better for its proprietor; but influence depends not half so much upon quantity as upon the quality of its subscribers. Newspapers with only ten or fifteen thousand circulation have often ten times as much influence as papers with 200,000, the difference being in the character of the readers of the paper. Hence, if the object is to influence the politics of a town, it is better to be read regularly by ten men of the right sort than to circulate a thousand a day among the ordinary news-paper buyers. Democracy has not diminished in the least the power of individuals. It has, indeed, increased their influence by giving them a freer field for the exercise of their power. The secret of influence is to get at the right individuals in every town and village, and to attach them as closely as possible to the newspaper by establishing personal relations between them and the directing staff.
How to attain this end is the great problem. It is an end that cannot be reached at a bound, but by steady, patient, constant growth. There are, however, two methods by which a newspaper can work towards that end: the first is by a system of major-generals, and the second by a system of journalistic travellers.
First, the system of major-generals. When Cromwell was driven to undertake the governing of England he mapped out the towns into districts, and over each district he placed a man after his own heart, responsible to him for the peace and good government of the district under his care. That system mutatis mutandis might be adopted with advantage by a newspaper that wished to keep in hand the affairs of the whole country. A competent, intelligent, sympathetic man or woman, as nearly as possible the alter ego of the editor, should be planted in each district, and held responsible for keeping the editor informed of all that is going on within that area that needs attending to, either for encouragement, or for repression, or merely for observation and report.
That, it will be said, is but a development under a new name of the existing system of resident reporters and local correspondents. That is a great recommendation. But the development is immense~ so immense, in fact, that there would be the greatest difficulty in securing persons competent for the discharge of’ the duties of the post. But by themselves they would be helpless. They need supplemented by two agencies- one local, the other central.
There is probably in every constituency in the land some one man or woman keenly in sympathy with the governing ideas of the news-paper in question. That may be said concerning any news-paper which has a soul and a creed, and a man at the head of it who is not afraid to say, in clear accents of unmistakable sincerity, “This the way; walk ye in it.” In the newspaper whose organization I sketching there would be so many points of contact with the average Briton that there would be no doubt at all that there would be many persons sufficiently in sympathy with the direction to feel honoured by being asked to co-operate as voluntary unpaid associates with the editor. It would be the duty of the major-general to select with the utmost care, in each important centre in his district, one such associate, who would undertake to co-operate with the central office in ascertaining facts, in focussing opinion, and generally in assisting the editor to ascertain the direct views of his countrymen. There would be endless varieties among those who would act as associates. It might be a squire, or it might be a cobbler; it might be the clergyman’s daughter, or a secularist newsagent, or a Methodist reporter. The one thing indispensable is that they are intelligent, keenly interested in the general policy of the paper, and willing to take some trouble to contribute to its efficiency and to extend its power. To each of these associates there will be posted copies of the paper, in recognition of their position and services, and in order to keep them in touch with the editorial mind. That is to say, from 600 to 1,000 persons scattered all over the United Kingdom would be placed on the free list, on condition they were willing to perform certain simple but very important duties.
The first of these is to reply at once, when inquiry is made from the head office, first as to their own opinion upon any disputed point, and secondly, what they believed to be the general opinion of their neighbours. For instance: suppose that this system was in full working order in every newspaper office during the general election before last, and Mr. Chamberlain, after the Liberal reverses in the boroughs, made a speech at Leicester, in which he said in effect that it was all Mr. Gladstone’s fault, and that if the battle had been fought on his (Mr. Chamberlain’s) programme, there would have been a very different result, next day a brief but conspicuously printed note would have appeared in a prominent position in the newspaper, calling attention to this extraordinary expression of opinion, and inquiring what well-informed persons throughout the country had to say as to the accuracy or otherwise of Mr. Chamberlain’s observation. That day copies of that newspaper, with the passage marked with a blue pencil, would be posted in coloured wrapper to every associate resident in a parliamentary borough. Within two days the editor would have on his desk replies from capable and intelligent observers in all parts of the kingdom, verifying or correcting the statement of Mr. Chamberlain. Each of these replies, filled in, for convenience of reference upon a printed form, would state briefly somewhat as follows.
(1) In the borough of R_____, if Liberals had fought on Radical programme, the Tory majority would have been at least 500 higher than it was. About 300 Liberal Churchmen would only vote for their candidate on condition he pledged himself not to vote for Disestablishment. The Radical programme, as it was, has cost hundreds of votes. Its official adoption would have been fatal. The Radicals voted all the same. (2) That is the opinion of the Liberal secretary, the Baptist ministers, and generally of all those to whom I have spoken. Or the reply might be not so clear and precise:-
(1) The Borough of L_______, if the Radical programme had been adopted, it would have put more fight into the Radical ranks.
(2) Have not had an opportunity of talking to many people on the subject. The local papers attribute the defeat to the Irish vote; and the clergy.
All these replies would have to be carefully collated, tabulated, and entered up at the head office, so that, in three days at most, the editor could lay his hand on trustworthy local information which would enable him to speak with authority and precision as to the facts in dealing with Mr. Chamberlain’s explanation of the Liberal defeat.
Or suppose that the famous three acres and a cow myth had to. be cleared up. A leaded notice, stating clearly the nature of the charge brought against Liberal candidates, would be inserted, and a request made to correspondents to state (I) whether in their locality they had heard any Liberal candidate or Liberal speaker make such a promise, or any semblance of such a promise, and if so when, where, and how? And (2) had they heard any one say that Liberals in their district had been making such promises, and if so, what was the accusation? This paragraph being marked, the paper of that day would be sent to all associates in rural divisions in coloured wrappers, and before the end of the week complete returns would be available by which the grain of truth might be sifted out from the mass of fiction with which it was overlaid.
These instances alone will suffice as an illustration of the usefulness of establishing such a network of corresponding associates. The expense would not be considerable. There would be the free list and postages – nothing more. This, however, is but the first tentative approach to an exhaustive interrogation of public opinion. In time, when the associates become more familiar with their work, and the competent and willing workers are ascertained, to these might be entrusted the further and more delicate duty of collecting the opinions of those who form the public opinion of their locality. Each of these select associates would be expected to communicate directly or indirectly with representatives of all classes in the locality, and to collect, their opinion as exhaustively as the editor collects the opinions of the leading politicians in London. In a provincial town, for instance, on a political question – say, whether or not a dissolution on the question of Home Rule would result for or against Mr. Gladstone – it would be necessary to ascertain the opinions of the local editors, of the presidents, secretaries, and moving spirits in all the political associations; of the leaders of trades unions, friendly societies, and working men’s clubs; of the sitting member, of the candidate on the other side, of the most active men in teetotal and other social propaganda, of the leading ministers of all denominations, and of the publicans whose taprooms are most frequented by local politicians. Besides these representatives of political forces, it would be well to ascertain the opinions of the mayor, the chairman of the board of guardians and of the school board, of a leading magistrate, of the largest employer of labour, as well as that of cabmen, policemen, and half-a-dozen persons selected at random in the lower social strata. Altogether, in a large town it would be necessary, on a large question like this, to communicate with fifty persons; in a smaller town about twenty.
Suppose, then, that it was desired to forecast the possible consequences of such a dissolution, the news-paper would publish an article clearly setting forth the importance to both parties of gauging as closely as possible the state of public opinion on the question, and placing as fully as possible the pros and cons of the question before the reader. As many copies of these would be sent down by train to each of the select associates as he had names on his list, and by him the papers would be marked, addressed, and sent out, with a circular calling attention to the inquiry, and asking the recipient to fill in and return a brief form of reply to the questions asked, which would be enclosed, stamped, and addressed. Of course, at first, most of those appealed to would take no notice of the request. They would have to be approached personally through their friends, and even then the response would be very imperfect, but before long the practice would be recognized, and people would answer freely enough. In a fortnight the answers would be in – they would be collected, tabulated, and sent to the central office The enormous importance of a system which enabled the editor of a London paper – and of course, on a smaller scale, the editor of a provincial paper – to know at a glance the opinions, say, even of the presidents and secretaries of the political associations throughout the land, are too obvious to be dwelt upon. By degrees, as the returns became more complete, the journalist would speak with an authority far superior to that possessed by any other person; for he would have been the latest to interrogate the democracy – he would have the last word of the leaders of the electors upon the question of the hour; he would, in fact, for the first time be able to say with authority the opinion of the public on this subject is adverse or favourable to the proposed scheme. This is an extreme case, involving the maximum of trouble, and application to the greatest possible number of persons. In most cases the number of such inquiries would be much smaller. The select associate or deputy major-general would have to keep himself well informed as to who were the best authorities on all subjects, and apply to them accordingly. Sometimes there may be only two persons, or one, in a whole town whose opinion is wanted. It will be his duty to send that one a newspaper, marked, and call upon him in due course.
By this co-operation between a newspaper and selected readers, it will be possible to focus the information and experience latent among our people as it has never been done before, and to take an immense stride towards the realization of the conscious government of all by all, in the light of the wisdom of the best informed. The mere fact that in every town a score of persons, from the mayor to the bellman, were certain to be called upon, as a matter of course, to express a deliberate opinion upon social or political problems, before a leading journalist ventured to declare what was the public opinion of the nation, would have an incalculable influence in vivifying our democracy, in compelling thought, and in quickening popular interest and public questions.
That, however, is by no means the only duty that would be required from the hands of the volunteer deputy major-generals. Once or twice a year – sometimes oftener, sometimes not so often – a crisis may arise in which it is urgently necessary that the Cabinet and the House of Commons should be presented with an unmistakeable demonstration of what the opinion of the people really is. Such an occasion arose during the Bulgarian crisis in 1876, and when the’ Criminal Law Amendment Bill was in danger July before last. Whenever such a time arrived it would be the duty of a deputy major-general to take steps to secure public expression of the popular feeling. He, or it might be she, might not be able to attend a public meeting, much less speak at one. But they could nevertheless set one going by setting the right people in motion. A requisition to the mayor in all cases where opinion is tolerably unanimous – the best method of procedure – could secure a free and open expression of the general feeling. Information explaining the issues before the country could be obtained from the central office, and the question could be freely and fully put before the democracy, and an opportunity afforded it of expressing its convictions on the question of the hour. The weakness of government by public meetings is that there is so often no one to give the thing a start in the first place, and to keep up until the meeting is held in the second. There is also the difficulty about the expenses, which in all cases should be met by a public collection. The meetings of the democracy should surely be self-supporting. Under the proposed scheme the local deputy would be the live coal which sets the place ablaze, and he would be able to have at command exactly the kind of information needed for the locality.
Just imagine the consequences, under our present system of government, of an arrangement by which a leading newspaper, convinced that the Government was pursuing a policy contrary to the general wishes of the community, was able to issue a three-line whip to its representatives which would secure the holding of a public meeting in every town-hall in the country, in order to express the popular view. For be it noted that this is entirely different from the ordinary notion of getting up meetings by Birmingham wire-pullers or provincial caucuses. The local deputy would have neither funds nor machinery at his disposal with which to force a semblance of popular opinion. He would merely take the indispensable first step to enable local opinion to express itself, and see that those who wished for information had it supplied them freely. No more simple and effective method of educating the democracy in the functions of citizenship could be imagined, and yet how could it possibly be worked so cheaply and so efficiently as from the office of a great daily newspaper?
Each of the major-generals would have a general oversight of all the associates in his division, but the whole organization would be kept together, and the personal sense of a common interest kept up by the periodical visits of the journalistic traveller. What an irony there is in the care and expense which men go to when all that is involved is the accumulation of a little money, and the negligence and parsimony which they display when the matter at stake is the direction of the affairs of an empire! There is not a shabby little wholesale house that sells ribbons in the City which does not send out at least every year its traveller to all the retail houses in the land. These travellers are the indispensable nexus between the manufacturer and the seller. Goods are made or left unmade according to their reports; for they feel the pulse of the buyer. But there is not a newspaper in the land which takes as much trouble to ascertain the social and political fashion in vogue in great centres like Nottingham and Glasgow, that these poor bagmen take to ascertain the pattern and colours of ribbon favoured by the fishwives of Cullercoats or the factory lasses of Oldham. Not until we introduce something of commercial common sense, and the practical method of business into the profession of journalism will we ever have begun to fulfil our exponents of public opinion. The journal, then, which essays to enter into the dominion open to the first comer must engraft the traveller upon its system of organization. It must have at least two constantly on the road, each the perambulating alter ego, as far as is possible, of the editor at the centre, filled with his central fire, saturated with his ideas, and with a clear grasp of the system here sketched out.
These peripatetic apostles of the new journalism would make it their duty to visit the associates, in every town, to infuse into each a sense of the importance of the common work, and to make every one feel that he or she is an important and indispensable part of the system.
By this means full and accurate knowledge would be secured of each associate: the indifferent could be dropped, suggestions could be interchanged and, in short, the whole organization made alive and instinct with a common interest and a common enthusiasm.
If this was done – and of course this is merely the crudest and most imperfect outline of what would be necessary – the newspaper that was so worked would be much the most powerful and one of the most useful institutions in the country.
“No doubt,” it will be replied; “but it is all utopian. Where are you going to get your associates and your deputy volunteer major-generals? Your major-generals you may get, and your glorified bagmen, for you will pay them; but the others? And without the others, where is your scheme?”
Now, I freely and fully admit that without the others my scheme is nowhere. But I do not for a moment admit that it is utopian or impracticable to expect the active intelligent voluntary co-operation of at least one capable man or woman in each town, who will do all that I have stated I should require from the associates and the deputy major-generals; and the reason for my confidence is that I believe it is quite possible to evoke on the part of Englishmen and Englishwomen at least one-tenth as much self-sacrificing zeal for the welfare of the commonwealth as is now called out as a matter of course in the service of a municipality or in the interest of a sect. I believe that, just as Cromwell found the secret of his new model in enlisting in the Parliamentary men who put a conscience to their work, so it is possible for the editor to enlist in the service of the State a picked body of volunteers, who will work as hard for England in the field of public and corrective action as others do in the service of their sects. It is a new field that is opened up – a new field, and a most tempting one, for it offers to the capable man or woman opportunities of public usefulness at present beyond his utmost dreams, and while apparently making them the humble interrogators of democracy, in reality enrols them as indispensable members of the greatest spiritual and educational and governing agency which England has yet seen. Such a newspaper would indeed be a great secular or civic church and democratic university, and if wisely directed and energetically worked, would come to be the very soul of our national unity; and its great central idea would be that of the self-sacrifice of the individual for the salvation of the community, the practical realization of the religious idea in national politics and social reform. That we see realized in a thousand ways by the noble and devoted men and women who spend every hour of their leisure in volunteering to save the souls of their fellow-men.
Is it a vain hope, now that democracy is fairly established amongst us, and we are beginning to realize how much can be done by collective associated national efforts to assist the individual in toiling up that “infinite ascending spiral traced by the finger of God between the universe and the ideal,” that willing and intelligent workers will be found in every town and every village in the land, who would be eager to devote themselves to the unpaid service, the first beginnings of which I have endeavoured imperfectly to outline? It may be that the time has not yet come, although to my eager eye the field is ripe unto the harvest. It may be that the editor is not yet born who is destined thus to organize the new journalism, and take this vast new stride in the direction of intelligent and conscious self-government. But unless our race is destined to decay, both the editor and the occasion are certain to arrive. Parliament has attained its utmost development. There is need of a new representative method, not to supersede but to supplement that which exists – a system which will be more elastic, more simple, more direct, and more closely in contact with the mind of the people. Other than that, the ground-work of which is already supplied by the Press, I see no system, not even a suggestion of a system. And when the time does arrive, and the man and the money are both forthcoming, government by journalism will no longer be a somewhat hyperbolical phrase, but a solid fact. It may not be the lot of the editor who establishes that system to fulfil Lowell’s remark about Cromwell –
"Who lived to make his simple oaken chair more grandly terrible than throne of England's king before or since"
but if he worthily fulfils the duty of his high office, then nowhere on this planet will there be such a seat of far-extended influence and world-shaping power as the chair from which that editor, in directing the policy of his paper, will influence the destinies of the English race.