The Press and Its Readers

Jan Swafford
Date Published
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Mass Observation was founded by Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings in 1937. Its purpose was to create ‘an anthropology of ourselves’ in other words, to study the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. Discounting an initial pamphlet, this was the seventeenth book to be published. It appears in Faber Finds as a part of an extensive reissue programme of the original Mass Observation titles.

Within the initial Mass Observation titles there was a sub-series called ‘Change’ reports. This is the only one, so far, Faber Finds is reissuing and it was the seventh in that sub-series, first published in 1949.

In the introduction, it is made clear ‘there have been successive attempts to analyse circulation by age, social class and sex’ but ‘little attention has been given to the study of attitudes of readers to their newspapers.’ The Report, like so much else Mass Observation did then, was a pioneering study.

Extracts from two chapters give a flavour of the book.

In ‘Readers Observed’ we come across, for example:

A skilled working-man, aged 60. ‘Wering trilby hat, gloves, blue jacket, black striped trousers. Takes up News Chronicle. First spends 2 minutes skipping through whole contents of the frontpage, only reads thoroughly columns dealing with miners. Turns to second page and straight away reads readers’ letters which are headed ”Too Old at 47”. This takes half a minute. Spends the next half minute glancing through ‘Spotlight’ by A. J. Cummings – this article headed ”No Iron Dukes Now”. Reads no more. Does not even glance at pages 2 and3.

And in Readers Tested:

A 34-year-old Essex office-manager at the end of the day (Wednesday, July 16th, 1947) could recall, at the end of the day, reading the following:

‘I glanced at the front page of today’s Daily Mail when I came downstairs and saw it on the hall table. I read the News Chronicle at breakfast between 8.30 and 8.45, and again at lunch between 1.30 and 1.55. I can’t remember a word I read in the Daily Mail but in the chronicle there was: the libel action brought by E. Arnot Roberson. Arthur Deakin speaking on the direction of labour. The Queen had got something in her eye. A leader on newsprint. A leader on Strachey’s jam announcement. A small cartoon ”How did you know I’d been abroad?” Bevin saying the people of all nations wanted to agree. The ”American Ranger” salvage case. Meat ration announcement. The name of the cricketer who was to be substitute in the English team for the man who was ill.

Observation, analysis and commentary: the minutiae of everyday life recorded – this is vintage Mass Observation

Mass Observation was founded in 1937 by Tom Harrission, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings. Its purpose was to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’, in other words, to provide a study of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. In its first period, from 1937 to 1950, it published twenty-two books, many of which are being reissued in Faber Finds.…

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