George Orwell? Alfred Harmsworth? William Randolph Hearst? Brian R. Roberts? Malcolm Muggeridge? Katharine Graham? Lord Rothermere? Lord Northcliffe? Anonymous?
1) News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.
2) News is something which somebody wants suppressed: all the rest is advertising
3) News is anything anybody wants to suppress; everything else is public relations.
4) Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.
These remarks do differ, but I think it makes sense to group them all together. Press baron William Randolph Hearst, publishing magnate Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe), and renowned author George Orwell have each been credited with originating this saying. Could you explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this saying located by QI was published in 1937 in a British periodical about automobiles called “The Motor” in a section titled “You’ll Be Interested To Know”. The author used the pen name LACUNA. The saying was attributed to an unnamed editor of a major newspaper. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
I think that the most accurate definition of news was the one with which the editor of a big-circulation newspaper used to placate the anxious directors when, on the morning after a big “story,” the furious protests, threatening letters and writs for libel were pouring in. “News,” he used to say, trying to get them to look at the thing philosophically, “news is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”
The first cite found by QI that credited a specific person with the expression was printed many years later in 1953 when the words were attached to William Randolph Hearst.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1902 the humorist Finley Peter Dunne wrote about the nature of news. He employed the dialect-laden voice of “Mr. Dooley”, a popular Irish-American character he had created. QI presents this citation because the saying under investigation and Dunne’s catch-phrase are thematically related: one man’s news is another man’s troubles: 2
What’s wan man’s news is another man’s throubles. In thes hot days, I’d like to see a paper with nawthin’ in it but affectionate wives an’ loyal husbands an’ prosp’rous, smilin’ people an’ money in th’ bank an’ three a day.
In 1903 the book “Journalism as a Profession” was published, and it included a chapter written by Alfred C. Harmsworth who was the influential publisher of the Daily Mail of London. Later in life Harmsworth was granted a title and was referred to as Lord Northcliffe. Harmsworth noted that the goal of some individuals was preventing the publication of unfavorable news. This observation was an element of the statement being explored: 3
It is part of the business of a newspaper to get news and to print it; it is part of the business of a politician to prevent certain news being printed. For this reason the politician often takes a newspaper into his confidence for the mere purpose of preventing the publication of the news he deems objectionable to his interests.
In 1937 the adage was printed in “The Motor” as noted previously, but the speaker was only identified as “the editor of a big-circulation newspaper”:
“News,” he used to say, trying to get them to look at the thing philosophically, “news is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”
In 1939 a London periodical covering aeronautics printed one-half of the maxim about news and attributed the words to “a young reporter”. The remark about advertising was not included: 4
Daily papers furnish a comprehensive supply of news. They are supplemented by weekly papers. But news, which was defined by a young reporter as: “something someone does not want you to print,” is not the whole story. There are also those two: record and interpretation.
In 1953 Brian R. Roberts wrote a letter to “The Journal”, a periodical published by the Institute of Journalists in Great Britain. Roberts was the night editor of the “Daily Telegraph” who later became the editor of the “Sunday Telegraph” of London. He ascribed part of the expression to Hearst: 5
The job of the Press is to get news and to print it: and, as William Randolph Hearst once remarked, “News is something which somebody wants suppressed.”
It is not always a pleasant job, and I doubt if the Press has ever been popular, at least with the politicians, when it has been doing that job well.
In 1955 newsman Brian R. Roberts authored an article in the London periodical “Time & Tide”. He again ascribed the saying to Hearst, but on this occasion he presented the full version: 6
It is the job of the Fourth Estate to act as a check and a restraint on the others, to illumine the dark corners of Ministries, to debunk the bureaucrat, to throw often unwelcome light on the measures and motives of our rulers. ‘News’, as Hearst once remarked, ‘is something which somebody wants suppressed: all the rest is advertising’. That job is an essential one and it is bound to be unpopular; indeed, in a democracy, it may be argued that the more unpopular the newspapers are with the politicians the better they are performing their most vital task.
In 1959 a newspaper in Ohio printed an interesting statement contrasting news and publicity: 7
Somebody once said the difference between publicity and news is this: publicity is what somebody wants to get in the paper: news is what somebody wants to keep out.
In 1968 a version of the adage was credited to Lord Northcliffe during a speech in the Parliament of Great Britain by the politician Jasper More: 8
All this looks rather unsatisfactory in the light of the test that was applied to these things by that master of modern journalism, Lord Northcliffe, when he said: “News is what people do not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”
In 1969 the U.K politician Ian Gilmour published a version of the saying which he attributed to Hearst in the book “The Body Politic”: 9
News, according to Hearst, is something which somebody wants suppressed—all the rest is advertising. Political news may be defined as what the government (or the opposition) does not want published, and political advertising as what it does want published.
In 1973 Malcolm Moos, the President of the University of Minnesota, spoke at the commencement ceremonies of Notre Dame University. He invoked a partial version of the saying which he credited to a journalist: 10
Some time ago a very wise and skilled journalist and a member of Parliament in England made the very cogent comment that “news is something somebody does not want you to print.” He also went on to say that “the relation between the politician and newspapers are founded not on sympathy but antipathy.”
In 1976 a newspaper in Melbourne, Australia printed an instance of the maxim and ascribed it to Lord Northcliffe: 11
As Northcliffe once said: news is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising.
In 1979 a New York newspaper printed a variant of the expression that replaced “advertising” with “public relations”. The words were credited to the prominent journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge: 12
Today’s thought: News is anything anybody wants to suppress; everything else is public relations. – Malcolm Muggeridge.
Also in 1979 a newspaper in San Diego, California ascribed the saying to Muggeridge: 13
“News is anything anybody wants to suppress; everything else is public relations.” So said Malcolm Muggeridge, and, true to his dictum, there is now a stampede to suppress a new means through which news might leak out to the world.
In 1988 a version of the maxim was credited to William Randolph Hearst during a speech in the U.K. Parliament by the politician Peter Archer: 14
William Randolph Hearst used to tell his reporters: “News is what someone, somewhere, doesn’t want reported: all the rest is advertisement.”
In 1998 an interview with John Humphrys, a BBC Radio 4 journalist and presenter, was published in the periodical “Third Way”, and Humphrys connected the saying to Lord Rothermere: 15
But there’s an old saw about what is news – I think it was Lord Rothermere who coined it: “News is that which somebody, somewhere, does not want to be published. Everything else is public relations.”
By January 1999 a version of the saying was being connected to the famous author and essayist George Orwell in the pages of the New York Post: 16
George Orwell said that journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.
In October 1999 a slightly different statement was ascribed to Orwell in a letter to a West Virginia newspaper. In this instance the words were placed between quotation marks: 17
George Orwell: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want published; everything else is public relations.”
An article at mediabistro.com titled “15 quotes to inspire journalists” included an instance of the saying credited to Katharine Graham, the long-time publisher of the Washington Post. The article was dated March 2010: 18
“News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising. The power is to set the agenda. What we print and what we don’t print matter a lot.”
– Katharine Graham
In conclusion, the earliest currently known evidence in 1937 ascribed the adage to an anonymous “editor of a big-circulation newspaper”. In 1953 the expression was used by a prominent newspaper editor in England named Brian R. Roberts, but he credited the words to the American press baron William Randolph Hearst. Attributions to Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) and several other individuals appeared later. The expression evolved over time, and the popular variant using “public relations” instead of “advertising” was in circulation by 1979. Based on current data QI would label the adage anonymous.
(Much appreciation to Justin B. Alcorn, Daniel Gackle, and Mike Hunt who each inquired about this quotation. The question was constructed by QI based on these inquiries. Great thanks to Daunte Bolden who obtained scans of the important 1937 citation. Also great thanks to Dennis Lien for obtaining scans of the significant 1953 citation. Plaudits to A., my always helpful local librarian. Special thanks to Dan J. Bye for pointing out the relevant biographical background information for Brian Richard Roberts. Of course, any errors in this post are the responsibility of QI.)
- 1937 December 14, The Motor, “You’ll Be Interested To Know” by Lacuna (pen name), Start Page 917, Quote Page 917, Column 1, Publisher Sutton, Surrey, Specialist & Professional Press. (Verified with scans; Special thanks to Daunte Bolden of the Cleveland Public Library for creating scans) ↩
- 1902 July 26, Saginaw Evening News (Saginaw News), Mr. Dooley Reviews the News of a Week by F. P. Dunne, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Saginaw, Michigan. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1903, Journalism as a Profession by Arthur Lawrence; With a chapter by Alfred C. Harmsworth, (Chapter X: The Making of a Newspaper by Alfred C. Harmsworth), Start Page 167, Quote Page 184 and 185, Hodder & Stoughton, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1939 August, Aeronautics [Incorporating Popular Flying], Volume 1, Number 1, Aviation and Interpretation by Oliver Stewart, Start Page 17, Quote Page 17, Column 1, Aeronautics, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1953 April, The Journal: The Organ of The Institute of Journalists, Volume 41, Number 413, Forum, (Letter to the editor from Brian R. Roberts of London titled “Can We Be Gentlemen of the Press?”), Quote Page 45, Column 1, Publisher Institute of Journalists, Great Britain. (Verified with scans; Great thanks to Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system) ↩
- 1955 October 29, Time & Tide: The Independent Weekly, Volume 36, The Offensive Against the Fourth Estate by Brian Roberts (Immediate Past President, Institute of Journalists), Start Page 1395, Quote Page 1395, Column 3, Published by Time and Tide, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1959 October 14, Lima News, Capital Circus by Frank Holeman, Quote Page 24, Column 5, Lima, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1968 May 10, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons Sitting, Freedom of Publication Protection Bill, Speaking: Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow), HL Deb 19, volume 764, cc819-26. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on July 2, 2012) ↩
- 1969, The Body Politic by Ian Gilmour, Quote Page 410, Radius Book/Hutchinson, London. (Verified on paper in revised edition printed October 1971) ↩
- Representative American Speeches: 1973/1974, Restoring the Tidemarks of Trust by Malcolm C. Moos, (Speech delivered by Malcolm C. Moos on May 20, 1973 at the spring commencement ceremonies at Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indiana), Start Page 148, Quote Page 150, H. W. Wilson Co, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1976 December 15, The Age, “Perkin Stood For What Is Best, And What Is Best Is Universal: Truth is the Task”, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Melbourne, Australia. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1979 October 12, Finger Lakes Times, Editor’s Notebook: Changing Times on Genesee Street, (Epigraph to article), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Geneva, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1979 October 28, San Diego Union, World Radio Talks Do Battle On Satellite, Short-Wave Issues by Gwynne Dyer, Page C-7, Column 4, (GNB Page 68), San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1988 January 15, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons Sitting: Orders of the Day, Protection of Official Information Bill, Speaking: Mr. Peter Archer (Warley, West), HC Deb, Volume 125, cc563-637. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on July 2, 2012) ↩
- 1998 September, Third Way, Talking Shop: Huw Spanner talks to John Humphrys, Start Page 16, Quote Page 18, Column 1, Third Way Trust Ltd., Harrow, Middlesex, London, U.K. (Google Books full view) ↩
- 1999 January 29, New York Post, “QUOTE: After 22 years as a columnist for the New York Post, Ray Kerrison has retired”, Start Page 30, New York. (Google News Archive; Preview at pqarchiver.com database for New York Post shows quotation; Full article was not viewed) ↩
- 1999 October 11, Charleston Gazette, Readers’ forum, [Letter to editor from Peter Miller, Martinsburg], Page P4A, Charleston, West Virginia. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2011 March 10 (date listed on website), Mediabistro, “10,000 Words: 15 quotes to inspire journalists” by Meranda Watling, WebMediaBrands Inc. (Accessed mediabistro.com on January 20, 2013) link ↩