Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, was a British newspaper and publishing magnate. Owner of the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror, he was an early developer of popular journalism.
Born in Ireland in 1865, raised in an impoverished childhood, he received a present at Rose Cottage in Hampstead (where he spent some of his childhood) from George Samuel Jealous, the editor of the Ham & High, that would change the course of his life. It was a toy printing press!
His career began as a contributor to various popular papers, but he rapidly rose to editorial positions. Inspired by the success of a popular weekly of informative scraps, he started a similar paper of his own – eventually called Answers. He was joined by his brother Harold, whose financial acumen and marketing skills, combined with Alfred’s ability for sensing the public mood, made it a success.
Answers was followed by other cheap periodicals: Comic Cuts and Forget-Me-Not, geared to the new women’s market. These formed the basis for what was to become the Amalgamated Press (in 1959) the largest periodical-publishing empire in the world.
In 1894 he entered the newspaper field, purchasing the nearly bankrupt London Evening News and transforming it into a popular newspaper with short news reports. He then acquired and merged two papers in Scotland creating the Glasgow Daily Record. The Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror followed soon after. Harmsworth saved The Observer from extinction in 1905. In 1908 he secured control of The Times, which he transformed from a 19th-century relic into a modern newspaper.
Northcliffe contributed to the British effort in World War I with his early exposure in the Daily Mail of the army’s shell shortage. He pressed for the creation of a separate Ministry of Munitions and for the formation in 1915 of a wartime coalition government. He acted as the British government’s director of propaganda aimed at Germany and other enemy countries in 1918. By this time Northcliffe’s press empire appeared to hold such power over public opinion that he tried unsuccessfully to influence the composition of Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s cabinet.
Northcliffe’s success as a publisher rested on his instinctive understanding of the new reading public created by compulsory education. His influence lay in changing the direction of the press away from its traditional information and interpretation to that of the commercial exploiter and entertainer, blurring the difference between news and views of the mass public.
A breakdown preceded his death in 1922. He is buried in the East Finchley Cemetery. The original plaque was unveiled in January 1981 in front of a gathering of the Harmsworth family. The plaque mysteriously disappeared and was replaced with the current plaque in 2014.