Monday, June 1, 2015


I happened to be watching Rachel Maddow on the FIFA scandal a few days ago. It developed that one of the tabloids  had scooped the more, what, staid?, traditional?, thorough? newspapers with a report some time ago on Chuck Blazer, "ex-U.S. Soccer Executive and FIFA bigwig"--and confidential informant,  according to the Daily Mail. In the process of telling the story, Rachel took some obvious glee in reading aloud some of the somewhat over the top descriptions of the man and his lavish lifestyle.

It got me wondering, what exactly is a tabloid? I mean, I know what tabloids are in general, but how does a newspaper set itself on the road to becoming one? Do its editors decide that they want to go the sensationalist route or does it just happen? I decided to dig deeper into the tabloid and its many, possibly lurid, mysteries.

I had thought that tabloid might somehow be related to table, as in printer's table or some other old-fashioned tool. It turned out I was far afield. "Tabloid" derives from tablet, and it has an interesting past. The tablet in question was the kind we take as medicine. It was originally trademarked by a company called Burroughs, Wellcome and Co., which was actually a couple of young American pharmacists who were innovators of their day. (I thought this was rather a quaint old name, but was surprised to learn that their legacy survives to this day in the form of such entities as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund ) The word was used to describe a small tablet which contained a compressed version of its chemicals or drugs couple of trusts funds, This was in 1884, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, but apparently, the word Tabloid was so well received (and you thought they didn't have market research in the 1880s) that they added the name to a lot of other things, like Tabloid tea, photography kits and first aid kits, or so we are told by the Science Museum of London. By 1898 tabloid had already gone through that cool expansion of meaning that words so frequently do, so that tabloid began to be understood as meaning the condensed form of anything. Burroughs, Wellcome and Co. went to court to try and stop the widespread adoption of the word, but in 1903 a judge ruled against them, saying that the word had passed into common usage. That bridge safely passed, tabloid journalism could not be far behind.

In 1901, the term was first used in print by a man with another resonant and hopefully not too accurate name, Alfred C. Harmsworth. He was the proprietor and editor of the London Daily Mail at the time. He issued a periodical called The World, apparently because of a challenge by one Mr. Pulitzer and he was thinking of a new form of media for a new century. Harmsworth's words:

"The world enters today upon the twentieth or time-saving century. I claim that by my system of condensed or tabloid journalism hundreds of working hours can be saved each year."

That is what I learned from the Online Etymology Dictionary, but it's actually a bit more interesting than that. I happened to find a fuller account online from an ebook called Tabloid Tales: Global Debates Over Media Standards edited by Colin Sparks and John Tulloch. Tulloch writes a chapter called "The Eternal Recurrence of New Journalism" in which he tells the story of this first tabloid. The World was actually only a single issue phenomenon, and it was launched on January 1st, 1901. Joseph Pulitizer had challenged his friend the English Harmsworth to come edit his paper the New York based Daily World for one day, and Harmsworth took up the challenge by throwing a New Year's Party and having the staff dress up in evening wear while they put the paper together. According to the quote at the top, Harmsworth moved constantly through the newsroom, enjoining the writers to "Keep it down, gentlemen! No story of more than two hundred and fifty words!"

According to Tulloch, this first tabloid was a publicity stunt. But it was also partaking of a prevailing spirit of the era which was a preoccupation with efficiency and saving time. "All the news in Sixty Seconds" was a subtitle of Harmsworth's editorial, and he wasn't kidding.

It's too bad he didn't live to see the age of Twitter. 

Portrait of Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe

I haven't really addressed my initial questions here, but again according to Tulloch, there were two models of journalism even so far back as the 1890s and, I assume, before. You can read the chapter, but the argument in it is that one model is about telling stories and entertaining, and the other is about decontextualized information. You can see how the tabloid format, with it's simpler format, pictures and short pieces might lend itself more to the former type of newspaper than the latter.


  1. Very good, and more pertinent today than ever, when American journalism consists of human-interest stories and information delivered in lists. I suspect that cool readers and information providers--say, the folks at Wired--think that what they do and talk about is new.

  2. Yes, and although Alfred Harmsworth was British, he had a very American view of advertising by a series of publicity stunts. He sounds like quite a character.

  3. Yes, he does seem ahead of his time--a herald of the age of post-literacy, one might say. I wonder if he would be aghast at how right he was, if he were to come back to life today.

  4. Somehow I have a feeling he'd feel very much at home.

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  6. One would figure as much. But he could be one of those guys shocked by what he has wrought.