"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.