The concept of news as a component of a magazine’s editorial content is as old as the medium. The Gentleman’s Magazine is regarded by magazine historian Frank Luther Mott (1938) and others as the first to use the word as part of a periodical’s title; it was begun in 1731 by a London printer, Edward Cave, and contained tidbits of doings in the royal court and around the town. But the idea of devoting an entire magazine to in-depth articles and interpretive features on recent events worldwide is far more modern. To remain topical, news magazines had to be weekly or at least fortnightly. Their introduction had to await an array of historical developments, including an efficient postal service, faster printing presses, and general literacy. This article deals only with the genre in print and not the labeling of television or radio shows as “newsmagazines”.
Depending on definition, the first news magazine (or “newsmagazine,” as a single word, in much contemporary writing) was either British or American. Earlier periodicals of other sorts were almost certainly a continental innovation, such as Johann Rist’s Edifying Monthly (Hamburg, 1667) or Denys de Salls’s Journal des scavans (later savants; Paris, 1665), but these concentrated more on fashion, theology, and philosophy, confining recent events to digests of the news or satirical comments. News was thought to be too unsophisticated for most writers, as well as their audiences, particularly women.
Originally an Arabic word meaning a “storehouse for valuables,” magazines have always distinguished themselves by their ability to get the news and context needed to particular groups of readers. Business and trade, mixed with politics, were an early driving force for periodicals in general. Those people concerned with these topics, and educated enough to read and appreciate such news, became the core audience. In England, from its beginnings in September 1843, The Economist has concentrated on these subjects, only recently mixing in science and technology, personalities, and aspects of popular culture. Arguably it is the oldest continuously published news weekly. Even in the modern, multimedia era, The Economist occasionally refers to itself as a “newspaper,” but there is no doubt that in its glossy appearance and content, as well as in the minds of its more than a million transatlantic readers, it is a magazine, whether encountered in print or online.
The founding editor, James Wilson, came from a family of Scottish Quakers and was self-educated. Ironically, he failed in international investment, losing most of his fortune in the indigo trade during the 1837 depression, but recovered nicely to start both a bank and the magazine while also becoming a successful politician. Wilson was a Liberal member of the House of Commons and a member of several British governments. From the outset, his magazine took strong positions on most issues, opposing, among other things, the secret ballot and a privileged position for the Church of England.
The modern Economist continues to be known for its unequivocal stances, which have caused it to be banned in China, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere, as well as for its precise writing, laced with dry wit. Its international studies and analyses are widely quoted and well respected for their in-depth, independent research; and today are often published separately in books and online. Articles rarely identify authors, unless the writer is not on the staff. There is no masthead and, by tradition, not even the editor is listed. John Micklethwait, who previously edited the US edition, became editor-in-chief in 2006. Past Economist editors have included the constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot (1861–1877), after whom the weekly UK column is named. The philosopher Herbert Spencer worked as a sub-editor under the founding editor, Wilson.
While the current politics of the magazine are unstated, it favors globalization and is generally favorable to the Anglo American alliance. Its criticisms are handed out to both sides of both US and UK politics, and its editorial independence is part of The Economist’s tradition. It is one of the few European-published magazines, other than specialized journals such as the Lancet, to make a success in the United States. Feisty independence is thought to enhance its credibility. For example, the editor can only be removed with the permission of an independent board of trustees, not the publisher or stakeholders.
Generally, news magazines worldwide carry a strong social or political philosophy. International success depends on demographic factors, such as widespread diasporas, but also on quality reporting and writing. In this category come such well-regarded weeklies as Germany’s Der Spiegel, started in 1947, France’s L’Express (1953), and Le Nouvel Observateur (1964). England’s popular The Week (1933), begun as a frankly Marxist periodical, has not been continuously published. Its current life, much more apolitical and popular, began in 1995; it also publishes a North American edition. Other news periodicals throughout the world, influential within regions or nations, include Brazil’s Veja (founded 1968), censored and repeatedly closed by a military regime in the early 1970s, Mexico’s Proceso (1976), founded by left-wing journalists and invariably critical of government, and New African (1966), published in London but popular at African kiosks for its aggressively post-colonial, anti-imperialist approach to world events.
United States Beginnings
Journalism scholars (Mott 1938; Scott & Sieber 1992; Kitch 2005) have made the argument that the modern newsmagazine is an American invention. Their rationale centers on the departmentalized editorial formulae, publishing profits, and continuing multi-million circulations of three periodicals aimed at a heterogeneous audience: Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report.
In terms of publishing success and international prominence there has been nothing to surpass the publication founded in March 1923 by two young Yale University graduates, Henry Robinson Luce and Briton Hadden. With a circulation exceeding four million, Time is the largest-circulation newsmagazine in the world. It is also the flagship of one of the three largest media companies in the world, Time-Warner Communications.
In their prospectus for Time Magazine, Luce and Hadden (who died in 1929) caught the flavor of their product well. “People in America are, for the most part, poorly informed . . . To say with the facile cynic that it is the fault of the people themselves is to beg the question. People are uninformed because no publication has adapted itself to the time which busy men are able to spend on simply keeping informed.” Both the writing of the magazine’s articles (“Time-speak” as it is sometimes called) and the positions it took were heavily those of Luce for more than three decades. The son of Christian missionaries to China, Luce lobbied the US government to recognize Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwanese government. A frequent guest at the White House, he advised Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower on Asian affairs, United Nations policy stances, and antiCommunism. Time readers were never in doubt about where its publisher stood, even though his byline never appeared. In point of fact, the magazine did not carry bylines until the 1990s.
Time’s distinctive, red-bordered cover was soon joined on newsstands by a number of rivals. Two continue in a triumvirate that has remained among the top 20 circulated US magazines for generations. U.S. News and World Report began in 1933 as U.S. News, which merged with World Report in 1948. Founded by David Lawrence, a Washington, DC, “insider,” it is now owned by Mortimer Zuckerman, owner of the tabloid New York Daily News. Newsweek, established in 1933 by Thomas J. C. Martyn with a hyphenated logotype (News-Week), appeared in New York City in the same year. Each carries more advertising and has more readers, in the United States and worldwide, than any of its rivals in other nations. Their circulations have remained relatively stable since a brief circulation war ended in 1990: Time at the top with just over four million readers, Newsweek next with over three million and U.S. News (it downplays the title tail) at about two million.
The circulation détente persists because each takes a different approach to the news and draws a somewhat different reader to its pages. Newsweek, purchased in 1961 by Katherine Graham and her Washington Post company, displayed in the late twentieth century a more liberal approach than Luce’s product. In addition to Democrats, it attracted somewhat younger, upwardly mobile readers. In contrast, U.S. News discovered its most comfortable audience “inside the Beltway” with government insiders and bureaucrats, and in school libraries, where students pored over its extensive tables and charts for their own reports. This distinction has begun to fade.
News periodicals have been less studied by scholars than newspapers or broadcast media. Many studies use content analysis to determine how news magazines reflect or promote social issues, from women’s rights to free trade, anti-smoking to computer games. The covers of Newsweek and Time, particularly the latter’s “man of the year” (now “person of the year”), have been a particular point of focus. Perhaps the most-cited work is that of the Columbia University media sociologist, Herbert J. Gans. His 1979 study, Deciding what’s news: A study of CBS evening news, NBC nightly news, Newsweek, and Time (2005), placed news weeklies firmly in a hierarchy of influential opinion-making and of setting the agenda for public issues among elites in particular. Gans blamed these influential news media for underreporting and even ignoring some segments of society through their “unwritten rules.” On the twenty-fifth anniversary of his classic work, he insisted this was still the case. But much else has changed.
Twenty-First Century Changes And Challenges
While retaining their print editions, modern newsmagazines are turning to the online world and to other products. This is particularly true in the United States, where general-circulation magazines are yielding to specialized periodicals. U.S. News has become known for its special reports on various institutions, particularly its annual ranking of American colleges and universities, first compiled in 1983 and now an object of annual attention, controversy, and institutional envy. Time and Newsweek both have international editions, whose major articles and advertisers, as well as their commentaries, are often stridently different from what domestic readers encounter. All three magazines also offer a variety of regional and demographic “split runs” that carry specialized ads and sometimes editorial matter to various parts of the United States, to students, to physicians and lawyers, and to those in the highest socio-economic groups. All of this is in an effort to compete with specialized purveyors of news, from sports to business, delivered in print and online.
First Newsweek and then Time broke tradition in the last two decades by carrying bylined articles. Now, not only columns, but all articles except the briefest items, carry the names of journalists who, the editors believe, will attract a following of readers. In common with most other magazines, the US rivals have undergone multiple redesigns, primarily aimed at attracting the attention of a younger, TV-oriented generation. In January 2007
Time announced that, after more than 50 years, it was changing its publication day to Friday in order, as managing editor Richard Stengel explained, to “set the news agenda, not just mirror it.” Media observers believed the purpose was equally to attract the leisurely weekend reader, and not those Luce and Hadden envisioned as needing the news during their working week. Media usage studies reflect that for immediate news needs, broadcasting and the Internet are now favored by audiences. In his same editorial, Stengel directed readers to Time.com, calling the interactive website and the print magazine “complementary halves of the TIME brand.”
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, in common with daily newspapers in the United States, newsmagazines laid off hundreds of staff members. They also closed overseas bureaus and fired international correspondents worldwide. Alarmed commentators worried that this signaled a narrowing, even trivialization, of news magazine reportage, or even the impending death of a publishing genre. Evidence from other nations suggests otherwise. As they emerge and stabilize, the economies of individual nations appear to include an expressed need for the kind of in-depth reports carried in newsmagazines (although sometimes the travails of emergence get in the way). Examples include Brazil’s Veja, mentioned above, which despite a decade of military censorship now boasts a weekly circulation of more than a million; and New African, which is distributed and read throughout the continent.
The most frequently consulted online directory of news-oriented periodicals, www.world-newspapers.com, indicates that the family of newsmagazines, particularly those linked with politics, continues to grow. The trend appears to be strongly toward those that have a global or at least a multi-national perspective, and that have both print and online products. The method for encountering the “storehouse for valuables” has not changed the essential role of the newsmagazine.
- Gans, H. J. (2005). Deciding what’s news: A study of CBS evening news, NBC nightly news, Newsweek, and Time, 25th anniversary edn. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. (Original work published 1979).
- Kitch, C. (2005). Pages from the past: History and memory in American magazines. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
- Mott, F. L. (1938). History of American magazines, 4 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Scott, B. T. (1997). US magazines since 1945. In C. J. Bertrand (ed.), Les medias et l’information aux Etats-Unis, depuis 1945. Paris: C.A.P.E.S. and Agregatopm Anglais, pp. 82 – 87.
- Scott, B. T., & Sieber, A. W. (1992). Remaking Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. In P. S. Cook, D. Gomery, & L. W. Lichty (eds.), The future of news: Television – newspapers – wire services – newsmagazines. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 191–205.