Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, Viscount Northcliffe, one of the most successful newspaper publishers in the history of the British press and a founder of popular modern journalism, is born on July 15, 1865 in Chapelizod, near Dublin.
After an impoverished childhood and a few attempts at making a quick fortune, young Harmsworth embarks on freelance journalism as a contributor to popular papers, rises to editorial positions, and starts a paper called Answers to Correspondents. After some difficulty in securing financial backing, he begins publication, soon shortening the name to Answers. As the paper gains public favour, he is joined by his brother Harold, whose financial ability and capacity for attracting advertising, combined with Alfred’s genius for sensing the public taste, make it a success. Answers is followed by many other inexpensive popular periodicals, chief among them Comic Cuts and Forget-Me-Not, for the new reading public of women. These form the basis for what becomes Amalgamated Press, the largest periodical-publishing empire in the world.
In 1894 Harmsworth enters the newspaper field, purchasing the nearly bankrupt London Evening News and transforming it into a popular newspaper with brief news reports, a daily story, and a column for women. Within a year circulation grows to 160,000 copies, and profits are substantial. Conceiving the idea of a chain of halfpenny morning papers in the provinces, he purchases two papers in Glasgow, Scotland, and merges them into the Glasgow Daily Record. He then decides to experiment with a popular national daily in London. The Daily Mail, first published on May 4, 1896, is a sensational success. Announced as “the penny newspaper for one halfpenny” and “the busy man’s daily journal,” it is exactly suited to the new reading public. All news stories and feature articles are kept short, and articles of interest to women, political and social gossip, and a serial story are made regular features. With its first issue, the Daily Mail establishes a world record in daily newspaper circulation, a lead it never loses during Harmsworth’s lifetime.
Next Harmsworth purchases the Weekly Dispatch when it is nearly bankrupt and transforms it into the Sunday Dispatch, the biggest-selling Sunday newspaper in the country. In 1903 he founds the Daily Mirror, which successfully exploits a new market as a picture paper, with a circulation rivaling that of the Daily Mail. He saves The Observer from extinction in 1905, the year in which he is made Baron Northcliffe. In 1908 he reaches the pinnacle of his career by securing control of The Times, which he transforms from a 19th-century relic into a modern newspaper.
Northcliffe’s contributions to the British effort in World War I begin with his early exposure in the Daily Mail of the British army’s shell shortage. His criticisms of Lord Kitchener arouse intense resentment in some quarters, but he also presses for the creation of a separate Ministry of Munitions and for the formation in 1915 of a wartime coalition government. For his service as head of the British war mission in the United States in 1917, he is created a viscount. He acts as the British government’s director of propaganda aimed at Germany and other enemy countries in 1918. By this time Northcliffe’s press empire appears to hold such power over public opinion that he tries unsuccessfully to influence the composition of Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s cabinet. Always unpredictable, he becomes the victim of a megalomania that damages his judgment and leads to the breakdown that precedes his death.
Harmsworth’s health declines during 1921 due mainly to a streptococcal infection. He goes on a world tour to revive himself, but it fails to do so. He dies of endocarditis in a hut on the roof of his London house on August 14, 1922, leaving three months’ pay to each of his six thousand employees. The viscountcy, barony, and baronetcy of Northcliffe become extinct upon his death. His body is buried at East Finchley Cemetery in North London.
Northcliffe’s success as a publisher rests on his instinctive understanding of the new reading public that had been created by compulsory education. Though he wants political power, the effect of his newspapers upon public affairs is generally considered to have been smaller than he believed. His influence lay rather in changing the direction of much of the press away from its traditional informative and interpretative role to that of the commercial exploiter and entertainer of mass publics.