"Media Divergence and Magazines: Agents of Transformation" By David Abrahamson Northwestern University For presentation at the American Journalism Historians Association Annual Conference, Billings, MT October 2, 2003 With all the current emphasis on media convergence, this may -- if we follow our reliably contrarian instincts -- be the appropriate time to revisit the historical concept of divergence, the process in the evolution of modern journalism by which media forms such as newspapers, magazines, etc. came to differentiate themselves from each other. The current affection for the convergence concept is indisputable. A number of journalism schools have actually done away with what are referred to as the "silos" or the "platforms" -- the traditionally defined media-centric divisions of the typical journalistic curriculum. University of Kansas, for example, is now two years into an experiment in which all the students are instructed in all of the platforms. So, with all this attention du jour given to convergence, the historical issue of divergence comes easily to mind. And I propose that there may be some benefit to exploring what might be the roots -- or at least the lower branches -- of journalism's family tree. The hope is that a search for the moments of differentiation in the profession's "biological ancestry", if you will, might reveal interesting aspects of the 19th century media history, as well as tell us something about journalism as a whole. First, it might be valuable to establish a few norms, or models, that will help us define the subject at hand. What is it that we really mean by divergence or convergence? And the more you think about this, the more it seems that it might be useful to look at the question in terms of spectra. For example; if one explores a stylistic criterion, you have on one end of the spectrum, objective newswriting reportage. Proceeding further across the scale you come to softer, slice-of-life kind of feature writing. And traveling all the way to the other end of the scale, you find yourself into the realm of long-form narrative prose. Another criterion might be referred to as contextual in a "text-image" sense. On one end of this spectrum is traditional, print-specific linear prose. Further along this spectrum the context suggests that the journalist write to image, which is the case in broadcast journalism and, more recently, when writing for the Internet. Then at the other end of this spectrum lies the form of writing that is required for the textual component of info-graphics -- which, it can certainly be argued, it is becoming more important every day in all of the forms of journalism. Yet a third and perhaps more ethereal criterion might be in the area of "journalistic intentionality". On one end of the spectrum is the factual explication in straight news -- the objective, accurate, balanced, "A said that, B said that". Further down the scale, we come to advocacy journalism, where the journalist is charged with not only telling us what A said and what B said, but also tells us that A is right and B is wrong. All the way to the other end of the spectrum (in the historical sense, in the territory so ably occupied by Emile Zola), lies an even more pronounced form of advocacy journalism. The journalist not only says "A said this and B said that, and A is right and B is wrong", but also tries to influence the outcome and make A's point of view the prevailing one. With those spectra or criteria in mind, let us turn now to the historical phenomenon themselves. My study subject is magazines, and my charge has been to try to explain what happened to the forms of magazine journalism in the second half of the 1900s -- which in turn resulted, in the early 20th century, in something that was distinctly differentiated from newspaper work. Once I had accomplished that, the next challenge was to ask the question of why this had happened, and to speculate on a few possible contributory factors. Starting by mid-century, magazines such as Godey's, and Harper's Weekly began to publish pieces longer than usual newspaper fare. About the same time, many newspapers began to move away from the narrative forms of prose, toward the more liner objective reporting. There are many effects of the newspapers' decisions to do this, but perhaps the most important was they were collectively diminishing the importance of story and drama while adding more and more emphasis on fact. And then by the late 1890s and early 20th century, with the creation of a national media market by Cyrus Curtis and the primacy of two very important publications, Edward Bok's Ladies Home Journal and George Horace Lorimer's Saturday Evening Post, the modern magazine's editorial form was firmly established. In a word, divergence had been accomplished. Looking back, its essential characteristics are fairly easy to enumerate. They include (a) narrative construction, (b) substantial story length, (c) analytical or interpretive intent, (d) a substantive, rather than secondary, role for photography and illustration, and (e) what we might call "reader friendliness." Another phrase that comes to mind today is "service journalism" or "news you can use." And one very central point to make about these essential characteristics is, since their evolution in the late 19th century they have remained in force for the subsequent 100 years. Which raises the interesting question of "Why?" Why did the modern magazine form evolve? With your permission, I would like to suggest a number of interrelated factors. The first involves audience demands. The late 19th century saw substantial increases in literacy in the United States. Similarly, there was significant expansion of education available to the general public -- all of which led to an enlargement of what was then the nascent middle class. This "embourgeoisement," this substantial increase in the middle class, with its fairly predictable middle class material and social aspirations, led to a clear appetite for a new kind of journalism. What resulted was this "magazine" kind of journalism. Another aspect that contributed entailed economic demands. At the heart of this was the rise of the commercial, advertising-based business model, developed by Cyrus Curtis and Curtis Publishing Company of Philadelphia in the 1890s. This, in turn, led advertisers in search of more committed readers, which would be better customers for the products and services featured in the advertisements. Similarly, though not as widely reported, it also led to a need for more right-hand pages upon which to display commercial advertising. Underlying this demand was a belief that in any publication the reader's attention spends more time on the right-hand page then the left-hand page. The longer forms of journalism, which was represented by what was typically done in magazines, meant that more right hand pages could be available for advertiser's ads. The third set of factors might be called editorial in origin. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were indeed times of great cultural and social change. As a result, it was also an era that produced (forgive me, there is no other way to say it) great stories. In the realm of fiction, writers such as William Dean Howells, Frank Norris and Jack London were exploring the social and cultural reality of the times in gripping, realistic narratives. And in like fashion, the era found similar attempts by magazine journalists in the arena of non-fiction. It could also be noted, without subscribing to any great "Great Man" theories, that this was also a time of visionary editors who had large aspirations for their publications. We already mentioned Bok and Lorimer, and there were a number of others of the period with similar successes. The last consideration that might be brought to bear to suggest why the magazine form evolved might simply be called the "vacuum abhorrence" hypothesis. While newspapers of the period were reorienting themselves, particularly after the heyday of the Yellow Press, toward a more objective style of reporting, it can be argued that this left an opportunity for magazine journalism to adopt the narrative devices so essential to the telling of stories. They were, in effect, filling a vacuum created by the newspapers' departure. As one contemplates this period of divergence between newspaper and magazine journalism, it is somewhat interesting to speculate on "counterfactual scenarios" about newspapers vis-à-vis magazines, if only to see what possibilities they might raise. For example, suppose the front page of newspapers had evolved not into the form that we have today, but rather into something more like today's magazine covers, where the articles do not begin on Page One. Instead, Page One would be essentially a collection of headlines, somehow arranged and ordered, not exclusively in order of importance per se, but clearly driven by a need to grab the reader's attention. The criteria would include what was most appealing to the reader -- what they would most want, rather than what they would need. If you conjure up such a counterfactual scenario, it has at least one interesting result: You realize what you are imagining is something of a hybrid, and that hybrid is today actually in existence in the alternative weeklies. I'm thinking now of the Village Voice, the Chicago Reader, the Boston Phoenix and the Houston Press. They are, in effect, examples of a hybrid that is neither newspaper nor magazine, but a very interesting combination of both which has evolved a newspaper- and magazine-like form of its own. Which leads to my closing remarks. If we can draw any lessons about this period of divergence in American journalism, might they yield for us any implications about this current fervor about convergence? Three thoughts come to mind: The first is that the notion of convergence may not be as much the shape of the future as some of our colleagues expect. And the reason for this -- which is observation number two -- is that it seems to me that the general direction of evolution in media, as in almost every other area, is almost always toward further specialization; hence, we might look forward to such a result in the not-too-distant future. And lastly, if that is true, certainly convergence is something that in the near future, as in the distant past, will be very interesting to keep a very, very close eye on. Thank you very much. Copyright 2003 David Abrahamson. All rights reserved.