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  • "My Spook Writes Steadese":Voice, Mediation, and the New Journalism in W.T. Stead's Borderland
  • Barbara D. Ferguson (bio)

when victorian journalist W.T. Stead states in the inaugural issue of his spiritualist periodical Borderland that he intends to "democratise the study of the spook" ("Seeking Counsel" 7), his words reflect two of the guiding passions of his life at that moment: the social power of journalism, and spiritualism. While the second was a relatively recent interest, the first had long underpinned Stead's career. Stead was an enthusiastic adopter of what Matthew Arnold called "the New Journalism," a movement which denounced the traditionally detached journalistic voice and promised a more personal authorial presence, ostensibly to reach a wider audience.1 The New Journalism established some journalistic practices still used today, such as the authorial byline and the interviewing of sources named and quoted directly in print. Critics, however, perceived it as foregrounding scandal and celebrity, seeking mass appeal through sensationalist headlines and rhetoric. By the 1880s, some commentators feared a schism in popular media that would leave the "influential few" to read traditional newspapers and the "variegated many" to read the New Journalism (qtd. in Hampton 83). Stead, however, remained unapologetic. Even following the public outcry and trial prompted by his exposé of child prostitution networks in London, "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon" (1885), Stead's willingness to embrace sensationalism as a justifiable means to an end, and his own proficiency at "exploiting [his] public persona" (Brake and Mussel, par. 9) ensured he remained one of the most successful journalists and editors of his age.

Co-founding Borderland with psychical researcher and writer Ana Goodrich Freer in 1894 might also have been perceived as another manifestation of Stead's savvy grasp of popular sentiment. Spiritualism had arrived in Britain in the 1850s, and the possibility of communicating with the dead, through a medium or otherwise, still held considerable public fascination.2 Many of Stead's contemporaries, however, found his turn to "lisping spooks and stuttering clairvoyants" (Stead, "Some More Opinions" 108) baffling. The editor of the Illustrated London News expressed not regret but "pity … that so brilliant a journalist—to whom we younger journalists owe so much—should waste his time with such arrant nonsense" (Stead, "Some More Opinions" 107). The sense of Borderland as both a commercial misstep (the periodical ended [End Page 135] within four years) and one ruinous to Stead's reputation persists in much of the scholarship around his career. One commentator observes that the spiritualist turn was an error that ended Stead's career with him "derided as a fanatic and a crank" (Mulpetre, "Stead and Spiritualism").

However, such disregard of Stead's spiritualist periodical under-appreciates the several ways in which Borderland was a natural extension of, rather than a breaking away from, his mainstream journalistic practices. Regardless of his subject matter, Stead had long fostered readership communities as integral to his vision of the press and its future (Hale 15), and in his manifesto, "The Future of Journalism," he asserts that only close co-operation between a publication and its readers makes it possible to move toward new social equalities (par. 34).3 Distinct from the use of the word in contemporary conversations around suffrage and political reform, the "democratisation" promised in the pages of Borderland sought to provide a platform receptive to his readers' interests and in turn to give voice to them. Moreover, Stead's long-held ideal of the journalistic author-editor role resonated with the professed roles of spiritualist mediums: both were conduits of communication ever caught in the tension between mediating a text and allowing it to pass unaltered to their audiences.

This article, in arguing for a new appreciation of Borderland's significance in Stead's career, explores how his performance of all these roles—author, editor, and medium—reconfigured and extended the ideals of voice and authority that characterized the New Journalism. In doing so, Stead's contributions to Borderland reveal the degree to which the New Journalism was predicated on a model of the authorial subject located not within a participatory collective but within a discrete and autonomous individual. Its limitations are...