Lurid content lessons from 1886

My brother sent me this article published in 1886 in the Pall Mall Gazette (a broadsheet and forerunner of the Evening Standard) bemoaning the quality of the more popular, and lurid tabloid, Police News.

The root of the article was a reader’s poll in Pall Mall Gazette, voting Police News as “the worst newspaper in England”.

Now, you have to respect the view of the Pall Mall Gazette readers. According to Wikipedia, George Bernard Shaw gained his first job in journalism writing for the paper. Other contributors have included Anthony Trollope, Frederick Engels, Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson. The Pall Mall Gazette has also been referenced in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and HG Well’s Time Machine.

The Pall Mall Gazette was clearly an iconic highbrow newspaper on the top of its game which certainly understood the value of seeking out quality content for discerning punters who formed the crème of London Society.

So what was so bad about Police News that it would have cause to be attacked as the very worst organ in the country? After all, it had a peak circulation of 600,000 per week, making it one of the biggest papers around.

Well, for one, the well-healed punters of the Gazette would probably been a bit jealous of all the exciting real crime stories and lurid illustrations within the Police News, much like today when we knock the Daily Mail readership, and then spend an hour gawping at the horrible compendium of human misery that is the Showbiz section

Anyway, The Pall Mall Gazette journalist visits the proprietor of the Police News, and, after taking the piss out of his shabby office, and the tacky clown portrait on the wall (noted as a giveaway in the Police News Christmas special in 1884), turns to the proprietor and asks him what makes his paper so popular.

For the proprietor, it is simple. The massive circulation is simply down to being first to capture the drama of a news story…by art…

“If a tragedy were to occur in London to-day, we would send an artist straightway to the scene; should a terrible murder or extraordinary incident be reported from the country, we would at once dispatch a telegram to one of the artists whose names are in the book I have shown to you, or, if we are not acquainted with an artist in the locality, we would advise a newsagent to instruct one on our behalf. Often artists will send up sketches without previous communication of any kind; sometimes they will warn us by telegram to expect a sketch.”

“The blocks ordinarily take forty-eight hours, but often they are finished in twenty-four, and sometimes, they are done in twelve hours.”

And following the creation of the picture…

“We always have a large sale in the district of the tragedy, incident, or casualty which we illustrate, which is the best proof of the honesty of our drawings.”

This got me thinking.

Nothing has changed in the news business – online or in print. Pure speed, detail and volume of images is why the Daily Mail website is the biggest in the world.

But I think there is another lesson here. It’s about quality.

Audiences respond to thoughtful, crafted and relevant content.  Good photography, beautiful illustrations, informative, detailed graphics.

We need to fascinate – and charm our audiences.

After all, there are plenty of others doing pictures of twerking cats.

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