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Debates, concepts, theories

Origins, denitions and debates: talking about the tabloids

Dening tabloid media is a difcult task as the term tabloid refers not only to changing formats in shifting historical and industrial contexts but also to the attitudes and values that are commonly attached to these formats. The term tabloid is quite often used in a pejorative sense and there are many examples of academic debates that address a perceived crisis, threat or even panic in response to the tabloidization of contemporary media culture. Colin Sparks (2000) provides a helpful model for unpacking the various ways in which the term tabloid is used and the values attached to them. Firstly, and originally, the term refers to newspaper and then broadcast journalistic output that prioritizes entertainment, human interest and commercial protability and which is usually presented as oppositional to serious and socially responsible journalism. Secondly, the term can refer to changing priorities within a given medium such as television leading, for example, to a diminution of serious programming or its marginalization in the schedules and the adoption across the board of entertainment-led values. Finally, it can refer to tabloid content itself. Sparks gives the well-known examples of the Jerry Springer Show and the work of American shockjock radio presenter Rush Limbaugh whose shows are open to criticism for their voyeuristic and shameless exploitation of ordinary people in the case of Springer and for controversial populist, highly conservative rhetoric in the case of Limbaugh (Sparks, 2000: 1011). There has been longstanding academic interest in the development of the popular and later the tabloid press. From its inception, cultural studies has demonstrated an abiding interest in journalism both for its capacity to articulate common concerns and interests and as a resource when trying to analyse the structure of feeling or the culture of a particular historical period (Williams, 1961: 41). In Barbie Zelizers words, cultural studies had a default regard for journalism as a key strain of resonance for thinking about how culture worked (Zelizer, 2004: 1805). For example, Raymond Williams (1961: 171), a founder of what became known as British cultural studies, suggested that the development of the popular press in particular was of major importance in understanding the general expansion of mass culture from the late seventeenth century until the present day. The newspaper was, after all, the most widely distributed of single-issue printed products, it was increasingly affordable, relatively easy to read


and set the agenda for public debate on a daily basis. It became, in effect, part and parcel of the common culture of everyday life. One of the key concerns of scholarship has been the origins of the popular press, the rise of radical politics via popular journalism and then the subsequent transformation of the popular press into distinctively tabloid formats in terms of style and content. Williams observed that although newspapers were originally the creation of the middle class (whose sound commercial footing gave them the resilience to become somewhat independent of government and subsequently to help form public opinion on the events of the day) other kinds of press reecting the different social bases of the working classes also emerged. Notably, during the late 1770s1830s these initiatives included attempts (under severe repression) to launch politically radical newspapers and also the establishment of the Sunday newspaper. In the early nineteenth century the former constituted a political voice that was independent of trade advertising and of ofcial political groupings (Curran and Seaton, 2003: 7). The latter was also somewhat radical in tone but its main appeal was its inclusion of stories of fraud, thievery, seduction, murder and executions, sports, human oddities and other diverting content previously found in popular print culture such as ballad sheets, chapbooks and almanacs (Williams, 1961: 1756, 189; see also Biressi, 2001). The popular Sunday paper became an established British institution, a scandal sheet seemingly enjoyed (but perhaps for differing reasons) across the social classes (see Orwell, 1946) and a pioneer of tabloid journalistic style. Competition between papers addressing a working-class readership, such as the commercial battles that took place in the 1930s, led to further developments in accessible style and content (Conboy, 2006: 7). The tabloid tone of the Sundays inuenced their weekday competitors with the Daily Mail perhaps becoming best known of the middle market papers for its adoption of popular address and content. Of the more downmarket papers, the Daily Mirror, which was relaunched in the 1930s, was arguably emblematic of the British style of tabloid journalism of the period (Conboy, 2006). The distinguishing features of the tabloid newspaper included not only its content and tone (e.g. sensation, human interest, sentimentality, prurience) but also a growing alliance with the entertainment industries, which, in the United States for example, began as early as the 1890s and was fully realized with the advent of movies and the establishment of Hollywood star system into the 1940s (Ponce de Leon, 2002). The British press, along with many other areas of cultural life, was increasingly marked by the inuence of American popular culture such as picture magazines, movies, comics and pulp ction (see Hoggart, 1957; Nuttall and Carmichael, 1977; Street, 1998). Indeed, since at least the nineteenth century, British journalism had taken on board US tabloid initiatives such as populist campaigning journalism and exposs and the growing coverage of celebrity issues, human interest and scandal (see Ponce de Leon, 2002). In the early part of the twentieth century American journalists also pioneered moves into photojournalism and the heavy deployment of illustration in news reporting (Conboy, 2006: 6) and it could be argued that this emphasis on the visual over the written word in reportage has become symptomatic of the tabloidization of news media in general. Indeed, one of the ways in which the growing tabloidization of the press can be quantied is by tracking whether there are more visuals and less text over a given period of time (McLachlan and Golding, 2000: 7590).

O R I G I N S , D E F I N I T I O N S A N D D E B AT E S : TA L K I N G A B O U T T H E TA B L O I D S

In the United Kingdom the tightening bond between the entertainment industries, consumerism and the tabloid press became increasingly apparent during the 1970s with the rise to prominence of the Sun newspaper, to take one clear example. The Sun, acquired in 1969 by a market-wise media conglomerate headed by Rupert Murdoch, made its mark in terms of its reciprocal relationship with the commercial television industry, which is maintained to this day. It also devoted substantial amounts of space to advertising, competitions, TV promotions and tie-ins, sports and lifestyle copy (see Rooney, 1998 and 2000). From the Suns successful harnessing in the 1970s and 1980s of permissive populism (Hunt, 1998) and political authoritarian populism (Hall and Jacques, 1983: 22) emerged three key components of the tabloid prole sexual vulgarity, the use of popular vernacular and a radical iconoclastic conservatism that captured the attention of its non-elite audience. In terms of its address to readers it employed a chirpy vernacular and knowing smuttiness and sexualization of content that rendered it a highly distinctive brand in a competitive market. It was also vulnerable to accusations of brandishing overtly jingoistic, xenophobic and sometimes even racist attitudes (see Harris, 1983; Searle, 1989; Campbell, 1995; Law, 2002; Curran, Gaber and Petley, 2005). As such the paper (along with similar competitor titles) has been regarded as a scandalous object (McGuigan, 1992: 175) inviting criticism with regard to questions of representation and cultural politics. As Curran and Seaton (2003: 90) argue, although the paper could all too easily be dismissed as simple minded, it in fact evolved a complex editorial formula . . . which was both hedonistic and moralistic, iconoclastic and authoritarian, generally Conservative in its opinions and radical in its rhetoric and for many the Sun remains emblematic of the popular, often politically inuential, British mass market tabloid daily. The Sun, which had started life as a trades union supported paper called the Daily Herald, also offers a good case study of the ways in which formerly politically radical papers can become transformed into vehicles of conservative values in tandem with tabloid style and content. Many media scholars since Raymond Williams have been concerned with identifying the point at which it could be said that the popular press became the tabloid press or, to frame it another way, the stage at which the popular press became depoliticized and relinquished its commitment to collective workingclass politics and leftist values (see Curran and Seaton, 2003: 913). Media and communication studies has addressed these questions in the context of broader research into the political economy of the press, taking into account factors such as newspaper ownership, regulation and control, political inuence and the public sphere, ideology and agenda setting and the changing commercial landscape of the newspaper market place (see for example Curran and Gurevitch, 1991; Blumler and Gurevitch, 1995; Philo, 1995; Boyd-Barrett and Rantanen, 1998; McChesney, 1999). The phrase public sphere was rst used by Jrgen Habermas (1989) to describe the arena of debate in which public opinion was formed; an arena provided by the rise of the newspaper and its development as a vehicle for public political dialogue. Habermas suggested that the particular circumstances of the emergence of the press together with the circulation of political debate amongst literate society created the conditions for a more democratic and distinctively modern social realm. Many media critics, and indeed journalists themselves, have noted the increasing tabloidization of the news media with dismay, pointing out what has been lost in terms of the medias



ability to operate effectively as a public sphere in which rational and informed reection about the political, economic and social issues of the day might take place. The argument has been made that an increasingly commercialized media, allied with consumerism as noted above, has transformed the public sphere of open citizenship into a privatized sphere in which citizens are primarily dened as consumers (see Garnham, 1986; Rooney, 2000; Street, 2001: 412; Campbell, 2004: 558; Lewis et al., 2005). The trajectory of these press analyses has generally been one in which the popular press has been deemed to break away from its radical democratic roots towards a more overt commercialism, which panders to the lowest common denominator in order to sell copy and support a free-market ethos. As such it may be regarded as a process that inexorably erodes serious journalism across all spheres, genres and platforms such as radio and TV broadcast news, documentary, political reportage and online journalism. Debate about tabloidization therefore necessarily addresses the tensions between entertainment and information within an increasingly multimedia and globalized consumerist environment (e.g. Franklin, 1997; Bromley, 1998; Stephenson, 1998; Campbell, 2004). Whether one takes a critical or more positive position in relation to tabloidization one clear concern emerges: that the consumerization of news content and competitive pressures of the media industries allow less time and space for the conduct of serious political reportage and investigative journalism (Barnett and Gaber, 2001: 7). From a different perspective the colonization of the public sphere and mainstream media by tabloid values and aesthetics has arguably led to the democratization of media by virtue of its frequent inclusion of non elite people, issues and values. It could be said that the relationship between the popular and the public sphere has taken a new turn with the advent of rst-person media and reality television leading critics to test and sometimes explicitly challenge outright condemnations of tabloid culture (e.g. Gamson, 1998; Dovey, 2000; Holmes and Jermyn, 2004; Biressi and Nunn, 2005); sometimes proposing new ways of conceptualizing the public within the postmodern public sphere (Hartley, 1992; Couldry, 2000; Moores, 2005). Many of these arguments emerge from the conviction that even the most denigrated forms of popular culture needed to be engaged with at a serious academic level; not merely as vehicles of commercialism and ideological persuasion but also as potential sites of cultural struggle, transgressive pleasures and media visibility for ordinary people and common culture. Whatever ones view of current media culture it is widely acknowledged that tabloid values (e.g. production values, professional values and especially news values) and tabloid content (sensation, the use of vernacular, sexualization, human interest, celebrity culture and so on) have permeated and/or transformed media culture more broadly producing what we refer to here in shorthand as tabloid culture. Media theory and academic research have expanded to address the political, economic and social implications of the transformations that constitute tabloid culture. While tabloid culture owes its nomenclature and its cultural roots to tabloid journalism it also draws on and intersects with a range of other popular media including TV talkshows, popular factual programming and the aforementioned reality television. Since the 1990s it has been possible to nd studies of journalism, therefore, that have chosen to situate their research either in the context of tabloid culture or in relation

O R I G I N S , D E F I N I T I O N S A N D D E B AT E S : TA L K I N G A B O U T T H E TA B L O I D S


to notions and concepts of the popular. In 1992 Colin Sparks and Peter Dahlgrens collection Journalism and Popular Culture contended that popular culture had become one of the main sites of investigation not only for cultural studies but also for contemporary mass communication research (Dahlgren and Sparks, 1992: 1; see also Sparks and Tulloch, 2000). Sparks and Dahlgrens aim was to suspend the conventional academic and theoretical boundaries and established lines of inquiry that operated in journalism studies in order to look at journalism from a fresh perspective. This agenda enabled both television and print journalism to be scrutinized as a form of popular culture per se as well as considering its relation to issues as diverse as celebrity, melodrama, popular knowledge and folklore. Ten years later the title of Martin Conboys book The Press and Popular Culture (2002) is indicative of the enduring importance of this juxtaposition of journalism studies and popular culture. In this book Conboy begins by reecting on Sparks and Dahlgrens argument that journalism and popular culture are indissolubly linked. He suggests that the fact that mainstream journalism is a mass media product does not preclude it from being understood as a legitimate form of popular culture. Conboy (2002: 1) notes, Successful popular newspapers, like their popular print predecessors, have always managed to articulate a real relationship between the reader and the commercial enterprise and at their most effective involved the reader symbolically in that venture. The pieces we have selected for this section all address tabloid journalism and touch on many of the issues we have signalled here. We begin with Bob Franklins classic exposition of the pressures on news providers to entertain within the context of a highly competitive environment. This account of the emergence of newszak charts the media terrain in which the dening opposition is between news and entertainment and investigates why and how soft news, entertainment and human interest are making inroads across all news genres and formats and on every media platform. This is followed by Anna Maria Jnsson and Henrik rnebrings reassessment of tabloid journalism as necessarily bad journalism. By tracking the historical development of tabloid journalism and some of the roles it has played in undertaking a populist critique of authority the authors make the case for regarding the tabloid press as an alternative public sphere that may, on occasions, serve the public as well as, if not better than, its more respectable rivals. The piece by Jostein Gripsrud also scrutinizes the value judgements formed about tabloidization and popular journalism; adopting an open-minded but carefully critical evaluation of the functions of popular culture in the context of the ideal of a democratic media sphere. He does this by testing positive (John Fiske) and highly critical (Pierre Bourdieu) views of popular journalism and nding them both wanting in terms of their ability to help us arrive at a sophisticated and pragmatic understanding of what popular journalism can and cannot offer ordinary people. The section concludes with an extract from Martin Conboys book The Press and Popular Culture, which usefully presents an analysis of the current cultural scene by exploring the postmodern dynamics of late capitalism and the ways in which this has fostered the breakdown of established cultural hierarchies and oppositions such as those between elite and popular culture, politics and spectacle. By this route he is able to situate our understanding of the popular press in the context of complex processes of globalization, commercialization and a media sphere in which rhetorical are and visual images predominate.



Further reading
Calhoun, C. (ed.) (1992) Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge, MA: MIT. Conboy, M. (2006) Tabloid Britain: Constructing a Community Through Language, London: Routledge. Curran, J. and Seaton, J. (1991) Power Without Responsibility, London: Routledge, 4th edition. Engel, M. (1996) Tickle the Public: One Hundred Years of the Popular Press, London: Victor Gollancz. Habermas, J. (1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Cambridge: Polity. McGuigan, J. (1992) Cultural Populism, London: Routledge. McNair, B. (2000) Journalism and Democracy: An Evaluation of the Political Public Sphere, London: Routledge. Sparks, C. and Dahlgren, P (1991) Communication and Citizenship: Journalism and the Public Sphere, London: Routledge. Sparks, C. and Tulloch, J. (eds) (2000) Tabloid Tales: Global Debates Over Media Standards, New York: Rowman & Littleeld. Stephenson, H. (1998) Tickle the public: Consumerism rules, in H. Stephenson and M. Bromley (eds) Sex, Lies and Democracy: The Press and the Public, Harlow: Longman. Turner, G. (1999) Tabloidization, journalism and the possibility of critique, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 2(1): 5976.