Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe (July 15, 1865 – August 14, 1922) was a British newspaper and publishing magnate, who revolutionized newspaper and magazine publishing in Britain. He was famous for buying stolid, unprofitable newspapers and transforming them to be lively and entertaining for the mass market.
Life and work
Alfred Charles William Harmsworth was born on July 15, 1865 in Chapelizod, near Dublin, Ireland, and was educated at the Stamford School in Lincolnshire, England. He left school at the age of 16 to become a free-lance journalist. At first he worked for the boy’s magazine Youth, and in 1886 was hired by Edward Iliffe to edit his magazine, Bicycling News.
Alfred Harmsworth soon founded his first newspaper, Answers to Correspondents, and was joined by his brother Harold, who had a talent for business matters. The Harmsworths promised their readers that they would publish answers on every question of general interest sent in by readers. Answers to Correspondents became a great success and within just four years, they were selling over a million copies a week.
Harmsworth had an intuitive sense for what the reading public wanted to buy, and began a series of cheap but successful periodicals, such as Comic Cuts, which had the tagline "Amusing without being Vulgar," and the journal Forget-Me-Not for women. From these periodicals, they built what was then the largest periodical publishing empire in the world, Amalgamated Press.
Harmsworth was also an early pioneer of "tabloid" journalism. He bought several failing newspapers and made them into an enormously profitable chain, primarily by appealing to popular taste. He began with the London Evening News in 1894, and then merged two Edinburgh papers to form the Edinburgh Daily Record. The Evening News was nearly bankrupt when Harmsworth bought it for 25,000 pounds. He drastically changed the paper, introducing many novelties. The titles of the articles became eye-catching headlines and the advertisements were reduced to a single column. He also started to use illustrations within the text. By 1896, circulation of the newspaper approached 800,000, which was the world record for newspapers at the time.
The Daily Mail
On May 4, 1896, the Harmsworths began publishing the Daily Mail in London, which was based on the style of newspapers published in the USA. The paper immediately became a hit. Its taglines included "The busy man's daily journal" and "The penny newspaper for one halfpenny." Alfred Harmsworth also introduced several innovations. It was the first newspaper targeting a general public who needed something simple to read. The paper had a sports section and a women's section, covering fashion and cookery. Harmsworth also introduced banner headlines that went across the page, and the publication of serials—stories that continued throughout several issues. During the Boer War in 1899 Harmsworth encouraged people to buy his newspapers to support the British troops. The sales went to over a million copies a day. The Daily Mail held the world record for daily circulation until Harmsworth's death.
Through his newspapers, Harmsworth promoted ideas which he believed were important for the general public. He wrote about science and healthy lifestyles, and covered inventions like the telephone, electric light, the automobile, aircraft, and photography.
Harmsworth transformed a Sunday newspaper, the Weekly Dispatch, into the Sunday Dispatch, then the highest circulation Sunday newspaper in Britain. Harmsworth also founded the The Daily Mirror in 1903, a magazine for women. After an initial flop, the magazine found its central thematic—photography. On April 2, 1904, the Daily Mirror published a whole page of pictures of Edward VII of England and his children. The newspaper instantly attracted thousands of new buyers. Harmsworth realized that British people had a strong interest in photographs of the Royal Family.
He rescued the financially desperate The Observer and The Times in 1905 and 1908, respectively. In 1908, he also acquired The Sunday Times.
In 1904, Alfred Harmsworth was given the title of Baron Northcliffe of the Isle of Thanet, and in 1905, was named Lord Northcliffe, the youngest person to receive such an honor.
In his later career, Harmsworth became more involved in politics. Before World War I, he was accused of being a war-monger, because of the series of articles in his newspapers that prophesied the war. In those articles, Harmsworth described the German army and warned that Britain might lose the war if they decided to enter it. He also warned about British vulnerability if attacked from the air. After numerous years spent writing on the possibility of war, his prophecy seemed to have been fulfilled with the outbreak of the war.
During the war he covered most of the issues surrounding the war. For example, his newspapers, especially The Times, reported of the “Shell Crisis” of 1915, accusing the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, of supplying the British troops with the wrong kind of ammunition, thus causing thousands of useless deaths. The attack on the Minister was carried with such zeal that it brought down the whole wartime government of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, forcing him to form a coalition government.
Harmsworth's newspapers led the fight for creating the function of Minister of Munitions (first held by David Lloyd George) and helped to bring about George's appointment as Prime Minister in 1916. George offered Harmsworth a post in his cabinet, but Harmsworth declined. Instead, he was appointed as Britain's Minister of Information in 1918. He organized the distribution of four million leaflets behind enemy lines.
After the war, Alfred Harmsworth resigned from the government and continued to criticize Prime Minister George. He also advocated for harsh penalties for Germany for starting the war.
Harmsworth's health started to deteriorate rapidly in early 1920s. He suffered from streptococcus, an infection of the bloodstream, which caused problems with his heart and kidneys. He died in August, 1922 in London. In his final will he left three months' salary to each of his six thousand employees.
Alfred Harmsworth was one of the most outstanding figures of his generation. Together with his brother, Harold (Lord Rothermere), he created a strong newspaper empire, and at the time, the world's largest periodical publishing house. He transformed the Daily Mirror and The Times into modern newspapers, although his sensationalist style somewhat tarnished their serious reputation. His Daily Mail was one of the first British newspapers with popularized coverage, appealing to a mass readership. He changed the role of the press from traditional information provider to that of commercial exploiter and entertainer of mass publics. He introduced numerous innovations into the newspapers' editing which are still used in modern journalism.
- Harmsworth, Alfred. 1906. Motors & motor-driving. (4th edition). Longmans.
- Harmsworth, Alfred. 1910. Religion and philosophy. McKinlay, Stone & Mackenze.
- Harmsworth, Alfred. 1913. The world's greatest books. McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie.
- Harmsworth, Alfred. 1917. At the war. Hodder and Stoughton.
- Harmsworth, Alfred. 1922. Newspapers and their millionaires, with some further meditations about us. (15th edition) Associated Newspapers.
- Harmsworth, Alfred. 1924. My journey round the world: (July 16, 1921- Feb. 26, 1922). John Lane.
- Answers.com. Alfred Charles William Harmsworth Viscount Northcliffe of Saint Peter. Retrieved on March 12, 2007.
- Boyce, D. George. Harmsworth, Alfred Charles William, Viscount Northcliffe. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.
- Ferris, Paul. The House of Northcliffe: The Harmsworths of Fleet Street. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971. ISBN 0297993860
- Taylor, S. J. The Great Outsiders: Northcliffe, Rothermere and the Rise of the Daily Mail. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996. ISBN 0297816535
All links retrieved May 15, 2021.
- Who's Who: Lord Northcliffe – Harmsworth’s biography.
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