This is the age of large undertakings and fractional profits. Strange and paradoxical as it may appear, one of the commonest applications of capital in the present day is that in which tells of thousands are sunk, and tens of thousands more are set afloat, with the prospect of being recovered in farthings and fractions of farthings. Never was there a greater faith existing in the force of numbers and the accumulative results of "small profits and quick returns." This phase of the times is discernible in nearly all those departments of commerce which have to do with the necessaries and requisites of every-day life; but in none of then is it more patent and prominent than in the department of newspaper literature, which in our day is accounted as indispensable almost as food and raiment.
Turn we to some of the illustrations of the principle above adverted to, which meet us in the highways and thoroughfares of the metropolis.
"'Standard!' gentlemen, here you are! forty-eight columns for one penny—all the news of the day—arrival of the Bombay mail, storming of Lucknow, slaughter and flight of the bloody-minded Sepoys — hextrornary trial—horrid murder at Portsmouth! Coroner's inquest and verdict — Debates in Parliament, gentlemen, and all the foreign news—Only a penny—forty-eight columns for a penny!" Such is the cry which cascades in at the omnibus window as you stop at one of the intermediate stations. It is hardly at an end when a voice in a different key bursts in with—
"'Telegraph!' Daily Telegraph, gentlemen! big as the 'Times' — all the news of the whole world for a penny! Four leaders, gentlemen, and city article — acquittal of Signor Bernhard — 'strornary scene in the court — all for a penny, gentleMEN!"
"'Hevening Star,' 'Hevening Star!' ge-entlemen," sings another shrill pipe. "Lord John's speech last night in the House—telegraphic despatches from Paris ! Arrival of the American mail at one o'clock to-day, and the last news from Jonathan and the loco-focos! One penny, gentlemen—only a penny!"
In the midst of this rival clamour your omnibus drives off, bearing, perhaps, half a dozen of the penny papers along with it ; but it does not drive off till another, or it may be several others, have driven up, all of which are besieged in their turn by a heavy battering train of penny artillery — not without a breach made in the citadel of the pocket.
The same thing takes place elsewhere. Wherever the current of population pours in full volume, there the cheap news-mongers mingle with the flow, and lift up their voices in praise of their wares, and they do all this the more actively that their profit is but a farthing, or the fraction of a farthing on the completion of each of their transactions. You would imagine that such a trade could never remunerate the vender that it would be impossible for him to earn even a crust; and so it would, were he to stand dumb-mouthed, and merely exhibit his broad sheets silently for sale. He knows better than that he knows that there are thousands who will buy a thing that is pushed into their hands, and puffed under their very noses, who, from one end of the year to the other, would never step out of their way to get it. Therefore, he pushes and puffs, and bawls and declaims incessantly, and brings that conviction home to them which they would never entertain if left to themselves. In the exercise of their difficult and sonorous function these cheap news-mongers manifest a remarkable variety of talent. We may regard them as a comparatively new race of industrials, seeing that their appearance in London streets was not even so early as that of the penny daily papers themselves, of no long standing, but is a phenomenon which has grown out of the exigencies of the cheap newspaper-press, which, it is presumable, owes much of its standing and prospects of permanency to the exertions of this class of advocates. A vast number of' them are boys of tender age ; some are mere infants ; but the most energetic and successful are lads in the predicaments of hobbledehoyhood, who have themselves to maintain, and perhaps others as well. Besides these, there are old men past work, cripples and maimed warriors, and craftsmen out of employ, anxious to turn a penny by any means in their power, Not very long ago, anything in the shape of a penny newspaper would have been regarded as trash — trash was, in fact, the mane for everything, published at a penny or twopence, and hence the origin of the term " trash-shops," which the small emporiums of cheap literature, and especially of cheap newspapers, still retain. But what is the character of the penny newspaper of to-day? Read it, examine it, and then decide. If you describe it candidly and fairly, you will have to use terms very different from the term "trash." The newspaper which is now hawked about for a penny, though as to material it be flimsy and shabby enough, is such a document as our fathers had no conception of possessing at any price. It is the result of labours so manifold, of investigation so extended, of communication so rapid, of intelligences so cultivated — all concentred to one purpose — as would have seemed to them a consummation to be dreamed of, perhaps, but never accomplished. How, then, does the penny newspaper pay, seeing that the expense of its production must necessarily be so great? The answer lies in the magical word "numbers." It circulates and sells by tens of thousands; its great circulation justifies the proprietors in demanding and receiving a liberal price for advertisements, the receipts of which go a long way towards defraying the entire expenditure. What is wanting is made up by the sale; for though but all infinitesimal profit, hardly expressible by figures, is realized on each copy, there is yet a remunerating profit in the sum total. The manufacture of newspapers may be looked on as a species of paper-staining by machinery : all the difference being that, in the publisher's process, the paper is stained with news and political essays and the current opinions of the hour.
But we have not glanced at the cheapest news yet. The cheapest news of all appears in the form of our "Parish Weekly Gazette." By the Friday afternoon of every week this gazette makes its appearance, and is hawked about the suburban streets at the charge of one half-penny. The hawkers in tins case are a countless troop of small boys, who would probably be doing nothing except mischief, unless they were thus employed. They are as clamorous at the omnibus stations and along the highways as their elder brethren of the broader street; and, what is more, they penetrate the shops and private dwellings of the parishioners, and thus establish a private connection, a sort of "paper walk," which they can nurse up into something worth retaining by the exercise of a little care and diligence. What profit they can derive by the sale of half-penny papers is more than we can tell ; but candidates are not wanting for the office, and during the two last days of the week they swarm along the thoroughfares of the Parish at all points. Again, looking at the character of the half-penny weekly, where is the trash? There is nothing that deserves the name. There is, on the contrary, much that is useful — a summary of the week's news — of the Parliamentary debates of the doings in the parish vestry, and a mass of correspondence or notices on local matters of general or parochial interest. There is, is addition, a well-digested leader or two, on the political phases of the hour, and there are reports of the lectures, athenaeums, and mechanics' institutes, and other associations peculiar to the parish. And lastly, and by no means least, there are hundreds of advertisements from traders and shopkeepers in the neighbourhood, who find it to their advantage to publish their announcements in an organ of this kind, rather than in one whose larger circulation is scattered through different and distant localities. In point of moral tone, the parish halfpenny weeklies — and there are many of them in the metropolis — rank perhaps as high as any class of newspapers : there is, in fact, nothing in them to startle the sensibilities of the most fastidious ; they are intended, and they are adapted; to lie on every table.
Another form of cheap news is one which, originating in London, is never circulated in London. Some few years ago, an enterprising genius conceived the idea of printing a newspaper in London, leaving the first page of it blank, for the reception of local news, and which might thus answer the purposes of the whole kingdom, or any part of it. He executed this plan, and for a time reaped the profit of it ; but his invention was not patentable ; the ruse was soon discovered ; others took the business in hand, and he lost his monopoly. At the present moment, some hundred or so of country newspapers are thus got up, and the majority of them are sold in the country towns and surrounding districts at a penny. The country publisher receives his sheets wet from the London press on Friday morning by rail, by which time he has prepared the single front page, with its local news and advertisements, and is in a condition to go to press at once, and bring out his weekly on Friday night or Saturday morning. The consequence is, that the small country printer, whose whole establishment, perhaps, consists of himself and a boy, is thus enabled to supply his neighbourhood with a newspaper superior in all respects to anything of the same kind that could be produced out of London. The paper is got up in a capital style — contains all the important and interesting news of the week — has one or more political articles, well and ably written, together with reviews of books, literary sketches, and, in the absence of Parliamentary details, a continuous tale by some popular author. The small country printer can do all this at a minimum of cost, as be needs not to buy a single sheet beyond the number he can circulate or sell. By this ingenious plan numbers of small towns in out-of-the-way districts are supplied with an amusing local paper, and the means of local and district advertising.
Before the stamp-duty was taken off newspapers, and when Mr. Cobden, Mr. Milner Gibson, Mr. Charles Knight, and their co-operators in the cause of cheap knowledge, were advocating the interests of the pence-paying portion of the public, that which told with greatest force against them was the assertion that the cheapness of newspapers would lead to the demoralization of the press — that all sorts of scurrility, blasphemy, sedition, and abuses of every kind, would be current among the common people. Experience has shown a directly opposite result. The predictions of the prophets of evil were not verified ; and while we may congratulate the populace on their having' the "cheapest news" at command, we can do so without any misgivings on the score of declension in the morale of newspaper literature.