Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Profession of Journalism

The volume of the Cambridge Essays which has just appeared contains an article on “Newspapers and their Writers," by Mr. Beresford Hope, full of matter that must necessarily interest newspaper writers, and may interest, many newspaper readers. Of the merits of the article we will leave others to judge, as it is with the subject rather than with its treatment that we are concerned; but we think no one can read it without being struck by the great freshness and kindliness of mind which it displays. The main aim of Mr. Hope's article is to explain to the public what a newspaper is, how it is managed, and what are the material relations of the different members of its staff; and then, when the public understands this, to ask whether it would not be just and wise that journalism should be recognised as a profession, honoured in society, and counted within the range of vocations into which young men of birth and education may be sent by their parents. Newspapers, Mr. Hope observes, are invested with a fabulous power, but newspaper-writers are thought very poorly of. In a spirit of good-natured enthusiasm, Mr. Hope desires that society should come exactly to the opposite conclusion, and, while perceiving that a newspaper is only a newspaper, should “regard a journalist as such by virtue of his profession in the light of a gentleman, one of that untitled noblesse which exists with more or less completeness in all civilized countries, upon a social footing of equality.”

Mr. Hope sees clearly that the claim which may be urged for journalism, may also be put forward on behalf of many other ways of earning an honest livelihood which are of great public use, and which require for success high intellectual qualities, but which are not within the list of professions which give the conventional standing of a gentleman to their members.  Mr. Hope sees, too, that if all professions are to be thought gentlemanly, it must also be thought that gentlemen can condescend to enter them. So he fairly takes the bull by the horns, and says that he is “anxious for the day when a Lord William can take his M.D. degree, a Lord George be admitted attorney-at-law and solicitor in the High Court of Chancery, a Lord Edward become a painter, and a Lord Thomas sign his articles to a civil engineer or an architect.” If Mr. Hope lives to see the day for which he is anxious, we are glad to think that he will attain a good old age. The sons of great families are not likely to join these outside professions while English society is constituted as it is. For a man cannot succeed in them without industry and ability; and if a nobleman has industry and ability, he is sure of advancement in the recognised professions. It is only when a young lord is stupid and idle that there is any difficulty in providing for him, and even then he had better go into a profession where his friends can give him a quiet turn, than into one where jobbing is impossible. The real truth is, that the outside professions—those into which a gentleman may enter if he pleases, and dares, but which do not stamp him as a gentleman—will always remain in their present position as long as the external homage of society in a recognised and constituted form is withheld from them. The church, the bar, the army, and navy, are in repute, not only for their intrinsic merits, but because they lead to the possession of external marks of honour which no one can gainsay. If there is to be a new value set on the lower professions, it can only be done by similar marks of honour being conceded to them also. The only practicable and satisfactory mark of honour is the elevation to the peerage, and unless the nation is to be burdened with endless pensions, or poverty is to be a barrier, the peerage must in most cases be granted for life only. We are not arguing now in favour of life-peerages. There is much to be said in favour of retaining the connexion between the House of Peers and the land which already exists. But the real question for those who wish to see new professions raised to a social level with the old ones, is whether they wish to see the system of life-peerages introduced.

But it is obvious that journalism is not even so far advanced as the professions standing outside the privileged professions, for it is not recognised as a profession at all; and it is not quite easy to see how a profession can be recognised until it exists in a definite shape. Now, journalism embraces such a wide variety of degrees with which time and ability are applied to newspaper writing, that any one term can scarcely comprehend all. It is one of the great attractions of newspaper writing that any one can begin at once. There is no favour to ask, no money to lay out. If a person can write, he may make himself a journalist in a few hours. If he ceases to write, he can at any moment cease to be a journalist. A character thus easily put on and off is too indefinite and fugitive to be recognised as a profession. And even of those who devote themselves seriously and constantly to newspaper writing, a very large number belong to some other profession. It is their great wish not to be recognised as journalists, and if society, insists on recognising them it will simply deter them from writing. It must be remembered that journalism is a vocation with very few prizes, and there is so great a difficulty in making beyond a certain small annual sum by newspaper writing, that it would be a very severe test of devotion to journalism to ask writers to put themselves out of the chance of rising in other ways. There is of course a class of professed journalists who make it their business to live by editing and writing for newspapers. But journals are of such different classes, and are so very easily commenced, altered, and discontinued, that one journalist has no more connexion or similarity of position with another than one journal has with another. A journalist must take standing by the standing of the journal with which he is connected, and society cannot be expected to smile on him unless his journal is of high character, of good repute, and perfectly independent. The men who make it their business to connect, themselves, as in a distinct profession, with such journals, are the men who have drawn the very few and very modest prizes of journalism. There are certainly not twenty men in London who are making even a thousand a year by the highest kind of journalism. Is it true that society is hard and contemptuous towards these few men, considering that in a country where money and station are so much thought of, their professional income is so comparatively small, and they are not in a recognised line towards advancement?

Undoubtedly there is a slight feeling against journalists, but this is greatly caused by their writings being anonymous. They take their standing, as we have said, by the standing of their journal, and every journal creates enemies. The journal gets a character apart from the writers; and then the writers, when they come forward as the authors of what is said, are stamped with the general character of the journal. The only way for journalists to avoid this would be for them to let all the world now exactly what they write. Mr. Hope says that reviewers have already won the position to which he wishes to see journalists arrive. So far as this is true, it is true because a review is always attributed to a particular writer, and connected with his name. The length of a review alone makes us ask who wrote it, if it is good, for we get a great deal of a man in fifty pages, and are thus aware that it is an individual and not a corporate body that is addressing us. But no one is exactly sure which article in a newspaper is written by which contributor, and this tends to make every contributor answerable for the mistakes, animosities, and misrepresentations that may appear in any part of the paper. We greatly prefer that newspaper writers should remain anonymous, as the public gain from the greater freedom, independence, and variety of anonymous journalism far outweighs the private advantage which some contributors might reap from its being known exactly which article was theirs. But so long as each contributor has to take his standing by the general character of the whole contributions, it is impossible but that he should have some social prejudices and hostilities to encounter. On the whole, we do not think journalists have much to complain of, nor does it appear to us that the true direction of their social rise is to be found in the artificial recognition of their occupation as a distinct profession, when the kinds of journalism are so different and so distinct. The right elevation of the journalist is to raise the journal with which he is connected, to make it continually more and more able, free, and honest. . If he does this, society will in the long run be sure to give him his due. We do not, therefore, entirely agree with Mr. Hope's main position, but still we can sincerely recommend his lively and instructive essay to the notice, not only of the general public, which is always on the look-out for the revelation of the mystery of newspapers, but of those whose personal experience enables them to criticise its contents.

Saturday Review, January 1, 1859.

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