Readers’ Letters to Victorian Local Newspapers as Journalistic Genre
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Letters to the editor in English local newspapers in the second half of the nineteenth century were a journalistic genre, although presented as if written by non-journalists. They were journalistic in that they were selected, edited and occasionally written by journalists. This high degree of mediation limits their use in assessing public opinion, although quantitative analysis reveals suggestive patterns, and analysing them in aggregate offers more reliable conclusions than placing too much weight on any individual letter. These letters were mainly on local matters, overwhelmingly negative, and usually ‘talked past each other’ (Wahl-Jorgensen, K., Journalists and the Public: Newsroom Culture, Letters to the Editor, and Democracy. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2007, 198), although there was some genuine debate. Pseudonyms, which became less popular, were used rhetorically, and gave anonymity, especially for women and working-class letter-writers. The public sphere probably became more bourgeois, despite growing working-class readership, and more splintered, but did not decline. This is the first systematic study of readers’ letters in the mainstream Victorian press (i.e. newspapers produced outside London). Local weekly newspapers have been chosen because they were the most popular mass media product of the second half of the nineteenth century, their letters were probably less mediated, and in aggregate, they give a national picture. This study uses content analysis and close reading of letters in newspapers in Preston, Lancashire, combined with evidence from the trade press, memoirs, company histories of newspapers and private correspondence.
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