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Finding an Audience in Troubled Times

Martin Conboy of the University of Sheffield described the way one London newspaper reversed falling sales amidst world economic crisis by targeting a working-class audience and campaigning against privilege.

Emery Dalesio writes:

Martin Conboy has studied the Daily Mirror between its revamp in 1934 to the end of the Second World War. He spoke on May 21 in the Committee Room of Green College on "The Rhetoric of Popular Proletarianism: Commercial Populism and the Daily Mirror 1934-1945."

The story starts with a publication founded in 1904 as a daily newspaper for women, retooled the following year as an illustrated daily for the masses, which slumped in the 1920s into a product for England's stolid middle class. Its audience had become "retired colonels, dowagers, professional gentlemen and school mistresses," one critic wrote.

By 1934, daily circulation had fallen to 700,000. Daily Mirror editors knew something radical was needed. They travelled to New York to confer with advertising and marketing experts, and they collected ideas from that city's rowdy tabloid newspaper market. They returned to London determined to trumpet sex, celebrity, personalities. But that wasn't enough for a country increasingly radicalised by widespread unemployment and anger against ancient privileges. Socialist dailies were on the market. The Times expressed the conservative viewpoint. Daily Mirror executives decided somewhere in the middle – a titillating left-of-centre not too close to Bolshevism – was just right.

Two years after the Daily Mirror's reincarnation as a chronicle and political crusader for the working man, daily circulation had doubled to 1.5 million copies a day, Conboy said. The paper was "finding its voice as a people's champion against privilege and aggression," Conboy said. It had "truly found a niche in that market."

Then came a European tragedy.

The Daily Mirror initially covered the Spanish Civil War as a horror in which equal blame was heaped on both Fascism, where General Francisco Franco drew his support, and Communism, which backed the Republicans defending hard-won gains for the country's oppressed classes. Spain was "the tortured victim of rival fanatics," the paper editorialised in January 1937.

When one letter-writer asked the newspaper's editors whether this was time for the British working class to rise in revolt, the newspaper recoiled at the idea and pointed to the blood-letting in progress on Spain's plain.

These letters to the newspaper were a crucial tool the Daily Mirror used to synchronise its views with its readers – and to conjure debates that continued building its audience. At its peak in the 1950s, the paper was selling 5.5 million copies a day.

More than simply printing letters from readers, the newspaper would proffer responses, answers or just comments from its editorial stable on pages that became interactve, Conboy said. When paper was rationed during WWII, these reader contributions and the paper's responses made up as much as two-thirds of the available pages.

As the Spanish Civil War wore on, the Daily Mirror's staff leaned with its readers against Franco and the Fascists.

Early in the war, a typically sensational Daily Mirror headline on July 24, 1936, headline shouted the gore and sexual outrage of an anti-clerical, leftist atrocity: "Priests Beheaded and Nuns Stripped Naked By Mob."

Nearly two years later, Britons largely recognised that the decision by democratic governments not to intervene in the war had failed, leaving the field open for Fascists in Germany and Italy and from the Soviet Union. The Daily Mirror's readers shared a concern that Great Britain was unprepared to face the armies of the continental combatants. The Daily Mirror’s coverage focused on the average Briton's love of country. Also central to the paper’s coverage were the effects of the Spanish conflict on British citizens – the girl whose father was taken prisoner; the commercial ships attacked at sea.

An article from June 8, 1938 described an attack on a British merchant ship and ran a photo showing damage scattered on the ship's deck. The headline both personalised the affront and mocked London's inaction to the aggression:

"Franco Did This to a British Ship, We Sent Him a Note"

In later years, the Daily Mirror continued to offer its anti-establishment stand against Britain's upper classes. During WWII, the paper churned out articles articulating how women were forced to deal with irrational aspects of the government's rationing programme. In 1945, the paper campaigned for women to vote in favor of the sort of dramatic social reengineering promised but never delivered to the masses after the First World War.

As the tide turned in favour of the wartime Allies, the paper concerned itself with "the war to win the class war, to make Britain a more fair society," Conboy said.

His exploration of the Daily Mirror's "radical heritage" again reminded the audience of the interaction of politics and the media. The case of the Daily Mirror in the 1930s and 1940s, profits resulted from the right mix of media with politics demanding an upending of the established order.

Conboy is a journalism educator who earned his MA and PhD from the University of London's Institute of Education. He previously taught at Germany’s University of Potsdam and the Surrey Institute of Art and Design University College. His main research interests are the historical aspects of journalism, popular journalism, and the media's role in building national identity.