No other popular mass medium rivals magazines for timelessness, permanence, and scope. Magazines reflect and mold the issues, opinions, and trends of the present; they also interpret and shape society’s collective memory of the past. Although critics fret about celebrity journalism and advertising pressure on editorial content, the diversity of magazines makes them a voice for the old and young, men and women, liberals and conservatives, the mighty and the marginalized.
Consumer magazines cover a broad array of topics of interest to the general public. They can be divided into general-interest magazines, which appeal to broad readerships, and special-interest magazines, which target niche audiences. Trade magazines, also known as specialized business magazines or business-to-business magazines, serve specific industries and professions. Uses-and-gratifications studies indicate that readers of trade magazines and news weeklies prefer insight and information, while readers of consumer magazines seek diversion. For many readers, magazines play a social role, constructing a community or affinity group in which they consider themselves members. Magazine editors, in turn, stay attuned to their readers. Major publishers conduct extensive research so they can tailor content to readers’ needs and interests.
Histories of the American magazine by Frank Luther Mott (1930) and Theodore Peterson (1964) established periodicals as a legitimate field of scholarly inquiry. More recently, Norberto Angeletti and Alberto Oliva (2004) offered a detailed analysis of eight history-making magazines: Time, Life, People, Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, Der Spiegel, Paris Match, and ¡Hola! David Abrahamson’s (1995) benchmark anthology of The American magazine sets forth theoretical and methodological issues. Content analysis, the most popular approach to this area, provides insights into the characteristics and meaning of magazine articles and advertisements. Historical, feminist, visual culture, and other perspectives seek to understand different dynamics, such as the decline of a magazine or the relationship between an editor’s opinions and a magazine’s content.
Magazines mirror the social, political, and economic values of their time and place. By positioning their subjects in a specific time period, scholars draw connections among a publication’s producers, content, and environment. Intellectual historians have traced successful magazines to dynamic visionaries, such as Time Inc. co-founder Henry Luce and Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown. Social historians have examined the interaction of economics and society. The decline of many popular general-interest magazines in post-World War II America, for example, has been attributed to competition from television, poor management, and failure to adapt to a changing readership (Abrahamson 1996). Research on the economic forces that shape the magazine industry focus on the business aspects of publishing, such as emerging technologies, revenue streams from advertising, subscriptions, and newsstand sales, and gender as a factor in marketing and readership. Joan Barrell and Brian Braithwaite (1988) view women’s magazines in the United Kingdom from a business perspective, while Ann Gough-Yates (2002) traces changes in production, advertising, and marketing practices, and analyzes how a variety of titles have fared in the global marketplace.
Historians first explored the role that gender plays in the positioning of editorial content and advertising, especially during the nineteenth century. Although scholars have begun to examine the relationships between gender and quantitative measures of magazine publishing, such as circulation, publication frequency, and advertising costs, much research about current trends appears in industry reports and trade journals. Most studies of gender role portrayals in magazine advertising have focused on US publications, thus limiting generalizations about their effects. Traditionally, women appeared as entertainers, as decorative objects, or in stereotypical roles, for example as mothers, homemakers, and teachers. Although females today are also shown in occupational roles, they are still often depicted in sexually explicit ways. Portrayals of males have shifted from stereotypical businessmen and servicemen to more varied roles – as decorative objects, as entertainers and sports figures, and in family-oriented roles, such as washing dishes or doing laundry.
Gender role portrayals in international magazine advertisements also reveal cultural values, biases, and stereotypes. In some countries, men and women are more likely to be portrayed in decorative roles, while in others they appear in recreational and family roles. Stereotypes cut across national borders. Women are generally portrayed as more concerned with appearance than men and are not depicted as product authorities. Advertisements rarely feature older models, even in magazines targeted at older readers or in Asian countries where the elderly command respect.
Academics debate whether international advertisers should adapt their messages to reflect cultural differences in their target markets or standardize their brand for a more homogeneous global market. US advertisers generally tailor messages to the magazine’s editorial mission and target audience. In the tug-of-war between advertising pressure and editorial neutrality, for example, magazines that advertise cigarettes tend to shy away from articles about health issues associated with smoking.
Scholars pay a great deal of attention to the depiction of young women, especially in terms of socialization, body image, and ideal body shape. Janet Cramer’s (2002) bibliographic essay describes how a lot of research about US women’s magazines concentrates on representations of identity. Several studies of sports photographs reinforce the sexual differences between female and male athletes, with an emphasis on the body aesthetic. Magazine articles tend to reinforce stereotypes of older women by portraying them more often in a negative light (as slow or helpless) than in a positive one (as trustworthy or wise).
Analyzing non-US magazines can enhance the potential for cross-cultural comparisons. Studies of images of Soviet women, Japanese women, and British women illustrate how a particular socio-political environment might affect meaning and content for readers (Cramer 2002). Other potential topics for cross-cultural comparisons include censorship issues, political posturing of the press, and social issues like AIDS.
While newspapers practice daily, fact-based, deadline-driven journalism generally rooted in a geographic area, international licensing and joint ventures have fostered the spread of magazine brands around the globe. Their diverse subject matter, thoughtful analysis, depth of coverage, breadth of information, and engaging presentation make magazines more complex than newspapers – and harder to throw away. In today’s rapidly changing media world, these enduring qualities will help insure their survival.
- Abrahamson, D. (ed.) (1995). The American magazine: Research perspectives and prospects. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.
- Abrahamson, D. (1996). Magazine-made America: The cultural transformation of the postwar periodical. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Angeletti, N., & Oliva, A. (2004). Magazines that make history: Their origins, development, and influence. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.
- Barrell, J., & Braithwaite, B. (1988). The business of women’s magazines. London: Kogan Page.
- Cramer, J. M. (2002). The state of women’s magazine research. Journal of Magazine and New Media Research, 2(2). At http://aejmemagazine.bsu.edu/journal/archive/Spring_2000/Cramer3 –1.html, accessed August 2, 2007.
- Gough-Yates, A. (2002). Understanding women’s magazines: Publishing, marketing and readerships. London: Routledge.
- Johnson, S. (2002). The art and science of magazine cover research. Journal of Magazine and New Media Research, 5(1). At http://aejmemagazine.bsu.edu/journal/archive/Fall_2002/Sjohnson1.htm, accessed August 2, 2007.
- Johnson, S., & Prijatel, P. (2007). The magazine from cover to cover. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Mott, F. L. (1930). A history of American magazines, 5 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Peterson, T. (1964). Magazines in the twentieth century, 2nd edn. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.