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5.4 How Magazines Control the Public’s Access to Information

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe how the formats of newspapers and magazines differ.
  2. Explain the impact of advertisements on story.

Magazines control the public’s access to information in a variety of ways. Like the newspaper industry, the magazine industry dictates not only which stories get told but also how those stories are presented. Although significant similarities between the newspaper and magazine industries’ control over information exist, some notable differences within the industries themselves deserve exploration.

Format

In general, the formatThe physical appearance and specifications of a magazine. of most magazines allows for a more in-depth discussion of a topic than is possible in the relatively constrained space available in newspapers. Most large newspapers, such as The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times, generally cap even their longest articles at 1,000 words.Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Newspapers” in The State of the News Media 2004, http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2004/narrative_newspapers_contentanalysis.asp?cat=2&media=2. Magazines, however, frequently allow for double that word count when publishing articles of great interest.Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Magazines” in The State of the News Media 2004, http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2004/narrative_magazines_contentanalysis.asp?cat=2&media=7. Length, however, varies from magazine to magazine and story to story. Coverage of the war in Iraq offers a good example of this variance. Researchers studied magazine coverage of Iraq over a period of 4 weeks in 2003 by examining the difference in reporting among Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report.

In these four issues, the war in Iraq accounted for more than a fifth (22 percent) of all stories and roughly a third (32 percent) of all the space. These stories were also more likely than others to be long and in depth…. There were also differences in the way that the three magazines covered the situation. Time devoted the most space to the war, 37 percent, compared to the 34 percent for Newsweek and 24 percent for U.S. News. And again, Time had more long stories (seven stories in the four issues studied were more than 2,000 words). Newsweek ran six long stories in the four issues studied and U.S. News ran two long stories.Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Magazines” in The State of the News Media 2004, http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2004/narrative_magazines_contentanalysis.asp?cat=2&media=7.

Although these differences might not appear that great, the results reflect editorial choice and, therefore, the power the magazine industry has over information control.

Choice to Publish

Just as newspapers do, magazines control which stories reach the public by deciding which articles to include in their publications. As might be expected, the choice of stories depends on the political climate and on global events.

Leading newsmagazines Time and Newsweek both underwent major transitions in their content during the late 20th century. Between the 1970s and 1990s, both greatly increased science articles, entertainment articles, and stories on personal health. Interestingly, despite both publications’ stated commitment to news, a dramatic decrease took place in articles on domestic- and foreign-government affairs. Whether these changes reflected a change in reader interest or an alteration in the editors’ perspectives remains unclear; however, these shifts demonstrate that what is published is entirely up to the magazine and its editorial staff, as they are the ones who have the final word.

Advertisers’ Influence

Magazines derive approximately half of their income from advertisers.“Magazines: Economics and Careers,” March 20, 2010, http://www.cybercollege.com/frtv/mag3.htm. With such a large stake in the magazine industry, advertisers can play a major role in deciding which stories are printed. Because magazines are so dependent on advertisers for their revenue, they are cautious about the content they place in their pages.

Magazines tend to shy away from controversial content that can turn off advertisers. Recently, a large American auto manufacturer sent a memo to about 50 magazines asking that their ad agency be notified if future issues of the magazine contained articles that addressed political, sexual, or social issues that might be seen as provocative, controversial, or offensive.“Magazines: Economics and Careers,” March 20, 2010, http://www.cybercollege.com/frtv/mag3.htm.

The balance that magazines must maintain to keep advertisers happy is a delicate one. With ad prices driving the magazine industry, many publications are forced to satisfy advertisers by avoiding potentially controversial stories.

Another anecdote about advertisers controlling stories illustrates how some publishers must conform to advertiser demands.

In an even more blatant attempt to influence magazine content, another large corporation informed a number of magazine publishers that the content of their magazines would be carefully monitored for several months and that a large advertising contract would be awarded to the publication that portrayed their industry in the most favorable light.“Magazines: Economics and Careers,” March 20, 2010, http://www.cybercollege.com/frtv/mag3.htm.

With stories such as these, it may seem easy to paint the advertising industry as an evil, controlling entity that seeks to keep stories from the public. While advertisers may exhibit some control over stories, they also have a lot at stake.

As online media grows, today many advertisers are pulling their expensive print ads in favor of cheaper, web-based advertisements.David Knarr, “Magazine Advertising – Trade Secrets,” http://www.studio1productions.com/Articles/MagAds.htm. Advertising revenue has decreased steadily since the 1990s, mirroring the rise in online readership.“Periodicals: Publishing, or Publishing and Printing” http://business.highbeam.com/industry-reports/wood/periodicals-publishing-publishing-printing. This drop in advertising may, in fact, force magazines to give advertisers more control over their content to avoid losing further funding. While it may be difficult to precisely pin down the level of influence advertisers exert over magazine content, evidence suggests they do exert some control.

Editorial Leanings

Each magazine has its own editorial slant, which helps determine which stories get published and how those stories are presented. A 2003 study examining leading newsmagazines Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report verified these differences by demonstrating variations in how the publications presented their articles to the reading public.

U.S. News & World Report … is the most information-laden, the most likely to publish highly traditional hard news topics and the most likely to report in a neutral manner—a more straightforward accounting of the facts of events with less of a writer’s “take” or opinion on what those events mean. Newsweek is lighter, more oriented toward lifestyle and celebrity coverage, and more likely to publish stories that contain an emotional component. Time magazine is something of a hybrid between the two. Its content is more like U.S. News’—neutral and information driven. Its covers, on the other hand, look a good deal more like Newsweek’s—highlighting lifestyle and entertainment.Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Magazines” in The State of the News Media 2004.

These distinctions among the three publications may seem slight, but they have an effect on the information contained between their covers. However, these editorial leanings do not make one magazine more prestigious or valid than the others; U.S. News & World Report may offer facts and figures about a particular event, while Newsweek may provide the human side of the story. Readers should understand, though, that several variables affect the articles that they see in each publication.

Online News Sources

The Internet has significantly changed the way that the public receives information. The advent of online news sources has somewhat lessened the control that magazines have over information. Today, several online-only magazines provide, for little to no cost, news and coverage that would have previously been available only through print publications. Online-only magazines include Slate, which offers a daily digest of information from newspapers around the globe, and Salon, which provides readers many stories for free and more in-depth coverage for a subscription cost. Like their print counterparts, online magazines rely on revenue from advertisers, but because that advertising is less costly, advertisers may have less of a stake in online content. All these factors contribute to changing perspectives on the way that information is being controlled in the journalism industry.

Key Takeaways

  • In general, magazine formats offer more space for coverage than newspapers. This increased space permits greater coverage and can give readers more in-depth information about events.
  • Advertisers, which provide approximately half of all magazine revenue, maintain some control over the magazine industry by threatening to pull ads from magazines that print stories that are considered too racy, too political, or not consistent with their beliefs.

Exercises

Select a current major news event that interests you. Read an article from a major newspaper and an article from a magazine on the event. Then, answer the following writing prompts.

  1. How do the articles differ? How are they similar?
  2. What advertisements surround the article? How might they affect the story or reveal who the target audience is?
  3. Do you think that this audience has an effect on the way the story is covered? Why or why not?