Modernization, democratization and politicization: mass media in 1920s Europe

Jochen HUNG, Mark Andrew HAMPTON, Joris VAN EIJNATTEN, Peppino ORTOLEVA, Lennart WEIBULL

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Post‐World War I Europe witnessed some fundamental changes in its media landscape, namely the development of radio as a mass medium and the introduction of sound film. But the predominant medium of mass communication was still the press which continued its pre‐war growth. The experience of a dramatic expansion in circulation numbers was something that united many countries – victors, vanquished, and neutrals – after the war: In Britain, only two newspapers had a circulation of 1 million or more at the beginning of the 1920s, while five did by 1930 (Cox and Mowatt 2014). In Germany, over 3,000 newspapers with a total daily circulation of over 20 million copies were published during the 1920s (Dussel 2004; Fulda 2009). In Sweden, 235 papers were published more than once a week in 1919, meaning 881 issues each week in total – in 1927, there already were 946. It has been calculated that the total circulation in the mid‐1920s was about 2 million copies, in a country with around 6 million inhabitants (Holmberg et al. 1983; Rydén 2001). However, outside of northwestern Europe the situation was quite different: in Italy, the cumulative circulation of the five main newspapers in the 1920s remained under 2 million copies with a population of 41 million (Murialdi 2006). This uneven growth was undergirded by a technological and structural modernization of the press and print journalism, namely a rationalization of production and an increasing visualization of design and layout. However, the growth in circulation often masked the ongoing concentration of media ownership in many European countries, a development that made the 1920s the “era of the press barons” (Gorman and McLean 2009) at least in places such as the United Kingdom and Germany. The medium that seemed to embody all of these changes was the tabloid newspaper: although already established before the war, this newspaper format thrived during the 1920s, making use of eyecatching design and photographs to entice its readers. National journalistic cultures had to grapple with these trends under often intense economic pressure during the various post‐war economic crises and the increasing competition by cinema and radio.

This included the party press, which was modernized in order to appeal to an expanded ­ electorate, after women had gained the right to vote in many European countries after 1918. The democratization and expansion of leisure time, through the introduction of the eight‐hour day and the gradual establishment of “the weekend,” also boosted media use in many European countries as people increasingly filled their free time with reading the newspaper, going to the cinema, or listening to the radio. These developments were often observed critically by political and cultural elites. The popularity of cinema in general and the increasing dominance of US film in particular led many contemporary observers to warn of the corrosive effects of “mass culture.” Throughout Europe, censorship measures were implemented to save the population from the supposedly corrosive influence of popular entertainment. While press and film could only be controlled more or less indirectly with such steps, the new medium of radio was held on a tighter leash from the start. In most European countries, the state played a central role in the establishment and operation of the national broadcasting service, in contrast – and often in response – to the commercial model practiced in the United States. However, despite the concerns of intellectuals and politicians about the pervasive influence of mass media, media consumption in 1920s Europe was still largely shaped by existing social structures. While media use generally increased and diversified, it did so within traditional social milieus particularly in countries that had not experienced a major social collapse during the war, such as the Netherlands and Sweden. Cultural traditions, such as Italy’s popular music culture, also played an important role in the development of the media landscape during the 1920s. Arguably the greatest divide regarding the patterns of media consumption existed between the countryside and metropolitan areas: even if their media consumption was structured by cultural and social traditions, European city dwellers at least had the opportunity to read tabloid newspapers, listen to the radio, and experience the introduction of sound film. With the exception of highly urbanized countries like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the rural population in Europe often did not even have access to these new forms of entertainment and communication.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Handbook of European Communication History
EditorsKlaua ARNOLD, Paschal PRESTON, Susanne KINNEBROCK
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781119161783
ISBN (Print)9781119161622
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2019

Publication series

NameHandbooks in Communication and Media


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