Publishing at sea

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Seth Cayley reveals the story behind the Daily Mail Atlantic Edition, which Cengage has recently digitised and released

When Cengage released the Daily Mail Historical Archive 1896-2004, an archive of more than 100 years of the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper, it included a little-known addition, the Daily Mail Atlantic Edition, which was published on board the transatlantic liners that sailed between New York and Southampton between 1923 and 1931. Issues are extremely rare and are not held by the British Library, or available digitally from any other source.

When the Berengaria set sail from Southampton for New York on Saturday 10 February 1923 it was carrying an entirely new cargo; the machinery, materials and men to create a daily edition of the Daily Mail newspaper for the ship’s passengers.

What made this so revolutionary was that the day’s news would be transmitted to the ship wirelessly from Britain and America, wherever it was in the Atlantic. The newspaper’s on-board staff would then work through the night to write the stories, typeset and print them, so a crisp edition of the Daily Mail Atlantic Edition could be waiting at passengers’ breakfast tables. 

In the 1920s, as today, what made a newspaper a commercial success was the ability to attract advertisers. The five-day voyage provided a captive audience for a newspaper – and this was especially attractive, given the wealth of many of the trans-Atlantic travellers at the time. One of the key selling points of the paper was that it included stock exchange data. 

By striking an exclusive deal with the Cunard Line, and its sister company the Anchor Line from 1924, the Daily Mail had managed to corner a niche but extremely lucrative pocket of the industry. 

The plan was an instant success, with issues usually selling out. Perhaps the genius lay in the deliberate restriction on circulation. The larger liners typically had 3,000 passengers each, but the print run of the Atlantic Edition was 600 copies daily.

Mauretania was one ship on which passengers could read the Daily Mail Atlantic Edition. All images reproduced by kind permission of Associated Newspapers

Printing on board ships was nothing new. Presses had been installed on ships during the American War of Independence, primarily to produce notices. 

Even the process of transmitting news to a ship by radio or wireless was not a novel concept by 1923. In 1899 Guglielmo Marconi, the pioneer of wireless telegraphy, was on the SS St Paul, travelling from North America to England. He made preparations in advance to receive news of the Boer War, via the Marconi Company in London, before the ship docked in Southampton. As the St Paul approached the Isle of Wight, news of the war was communicated by wireless. It was apparently the captain’s idea that the messages be preserved and printed in the first edition of a new ship’s paper. The result was the Transatlantic Times, a single-page newspaper sold on board for a dollar and autographed by Marconi himself. 

However, on-board newspapers up to 1923 had contained little more than advertising and bulleted news updates from the wireless operator. These were not ‘newspapers’ in the modern sense. So while the concept of receiving wireless news in the Atlantic was not new, typesetting it and arranging it in the layout of a modern paper was. Added to this was the large amount of feature content that each issue of the Atlantic Edition would contain, including special cartoons and feature articles written with the floating reader in mind. 

The editor in chief of the Atlantic Edition was in charge of supplying this advance feature material to fill up the space that would not contain wireless news. When heading to Britain, this advance matter consisted of general articles, entertainment, leader articles, fashion, and news stories taken from recent issues of the other papers in the Mail family. Heading in the other direction, much of the news would be culled from the New York press, especially the Sunday editions. In either direction, the skill of the editors lay in selecting stories that readers were unlikely to have seen before, and that would not be embarrassingly out of date before being read at a mid-Atlantic breakfast table. In addition, the ships would sometimes be the source of news and gossip themselves.

Wireless news was transmitted to the ships four or five times during the day and night from wireless stations in Leafield (Oxfordshire), Chatham (Massachusetts), and from the Foreign Office. These messages were received by an operator on the ship, who would then pass them on to the Atlantic Edition editor.

A linotyper at work on the Daily Mail newspaper; the task was made more difficult at sea. All images reproduced by kind permission of Associated Newspapers

Weather could sometimes interfere with communications, causing bad static. Operators would contact other ships outside the storm area to see if they could fill in gaps, but sometimes this was not possible, and issues of the paper occasionally have a blank column or two explaining that weather had halted the news. 

The installation of linotype machines on the ships was the technical innovation that made the Atlantic Edition possible. Whereas traditionally, typesetters would have to set the text by hand, letter by letter, a linotype machine allowed the operator to use a keyboard that mechanically selected the letters. After each line of text was assembled, a metal cast of the line, known as a ‘slug’, would be taken and was then used to compose the columns and pages in readiness for printing. 

Linotype machines had never been used on board a liner, and ingenious tests with machines on rollers had to be conducted on land to replicate conditions at sea and ensure the technology would function adequately. 

The fortunes of the Atlantic Edition were always bound up with those of the wealthy and, when things started to go wrong on Wall Street in October 1929, the demise was inevitable. The Daily Mail Atlantic Edition ceased publication at the end of 1931 and has been largely consigned to history, barely receiving a footnote in most accounts of interwar journalism. Doubtless, this is because of a lack of accessibility; the issues are not held in any major library, including the British Library’s newspaper repository. Indeed, the only known ‘complete’ set is held by the Daily Mail and these lay forgotten and water-damaged for decades. Now these issues are available in digital format, it will be possible to appreciate this extraordinary enterprise once again.

Seth Cayley is publisher for media history at Cengage Learning