Abstract: The Grand Telegraphic Alliance: The Global Telegraphic News Agency Cartel, 1870-1914

Alex Nalbach


Contemporaries and historians long marveled at the unprecedented opinion-shaping power of the four international wire news services of the nineteenth century: the Associated Press of New York, Reuters of London, the Agence Havas of Paris, and the Wolff Telegraphic Bureau of Berlin. In many respects, the awe was justified. Their cheap rates, rapid delivery, and comprehensive coverage were difficult for any rival, at home or abroad, to match. As a result, the services came to enjoy quasi-monopolies over the telegraphic dispatches in nearly all newspapers, not only within their national territories, but also within overseas empires, independent continents like South America, and even other Great Powers like Russia or Japan. These monopolies often inspired fears that news, and the public opinions shaped by it, could be manipulated on a breathtaking scale. Indeed, the agencies peddled this influence to business interests and statesmen. But in many respects, the very networks that allowed the wire services their strengths—speedy state-owned telegraph facilities; cheap stringers, part-timers, and non-journalists as sources; and comprehensive news exchange agreements with other news-brokers—made it difficult for them to gather or distribute news in the service of any particular agenda. The need for cheap, comprehensive, and fast service explains both the source of wire services' power, and the limits of their ability to "control" the flow of news.