Understanding Media and Culture

Understanding Media and Culture

An Introduction to Mass Communication

[Author removed at request of original publisher]

University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing edition, 2016. This edition adapted from a work originally produced in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that it not receive attribution.

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Understanding Media and Culture

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M Libraries Publishing logoUnderstanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication is adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support Initiative.

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Chapter 1: Media and Culture


1.1 Media and Culture
1.2 Intersection of American Media and Culture
1.3 The Evolution of Media
1.4 Convergence
1.5 The Role of Social Values in Communication
1.6 Cultural Periods
1.7 Mass Media and Popular Culture
1.8 Media Literacy

1.1 Media and Culture


Pop Culture Mania

Figure 1.1


In 1850, an epidemic swept America—but instead of leaving victims sick with fever or flu, this epidemic involved a rabid craze for the music of Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. American showman P. T. Barnum (who would later go on to found the circus now known as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey), a shrewd marketer and self-made millionaire, is credited with spreading “Lindomania” through a series of astute show-business moves. Barnum promised Lind an unprecedented $1,000-a-night fee (the equivalent of $28,300 in 2009) for her entire 93-performance tour of the United States. Ever the savvy self-promoter, Barnum turned his huge investment to his advantage by using it to create publicity—and it paid off. When the Swedish soprano’s ship docked on U.S. shores, she was greeted by 40,000 ardent fans; another 20,000 swarmed her hotel (Barnum). Congress was adjourned specifically for Lind’s visit to Washington, DC, where the National Theatre had to be enlarged to accommodate her audiences. A town in California and an island in Canada were named in her honor. Enthusiasts could purchase Jenny Lind hats, chairs, boots, opera glasses, and even pianos. Barnum’s marketing expertise made Lind a household name and created an overwhelming demand for a singer previously unknown to American audiences.

The “Jenny rage” that the savvy Barnum was able to create was not a unique phenomenon, however; a little more than a century later, a new craze transformed some American teenagers into screaming, fainting Beatlemaniacs. Though other performers like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley were no strangers to manic crowds, the Beatles attracted an unprecedented amount of attention when they first arrived in the United States. When the British foursome touched down at New York’s Kennedy Airport in 1964, they were met by more than 3,000 frenzied fans. Their performance on The Ed Sullivan Show was seen by 73 million people, or 40 percent of the U.S. population. The crime rate that night dropped to its lowest level in 50 years (Ehrenreich, et. al., 1992). Beatlemania was at such a fever pitch that Life magazine cautioned that “a Beatle who ventures out unguarded into the streets runs the very real peril of being dismembered or crushed to death by his fans.” The BBC publicized the trend and perhaps added to it by highlighting the paraphernalia for fans to spend their money on: “T-shirts, sweat shirts, turtle-neck sweaters, tight-legged trousers, night shirts, scarves, and jewelry inspired by the Beatles” were all available, as were Beatles-style mop-top wigs.

In the 21st century, rabid fans could turn their attention to a whole swath of pop stars in the making when the reality TV program American Idol hit the airwaves in 2002. The show was the only television program ever to have snagged the top spot in the Nielsen ratings for six seasons in a row, often averaging more than 30 million nightly viewers. Rival television network executives were alarmed, deeming the pop giant “the ultimate schoolyard bully,” “the Death Star,” or even “the most impactful show in the history of television,” according to former NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker (Carter, 2007). New cell phone technologies allowed viewers to have a direct role in the program’s star-making enterprise through casting votes, signing up for text alerts, or playing trivia games on their phones. In 2009, AT&T estimated that Idol-related text traffic amounted to 178 million messages (Poniewozik, 2009).

These three crazes all relied on various forms of media to create excitement. Whether through newspaper advertisements, live television broadcasts, or integrated Internet marketing, media industry tastemakers help shape what we care about. For as long as mass media has existed in the United States, it’s helped to create and fuel mass crazes, skyrocketing celebrities, and pop culture manias of all kinds. Even in our era of seemingly limitless entertainment options, mass hits like American Idol still have the ability to dominate the public’s attention. In the chapters to come, we’ll look at different kinds of mass media and how they have been changed by—and are changing—the world we live in.


Barnum, P. T.” Answers.com, http://www.answers.com/topic/p-t-barnum.

Carter, Bill. “For Fox’s Rivals, ‘American Idol’ Remains a ‘Schoolyard Bully,’” New York Times, February 20, 2007, Arts section.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs, “Beatlemania: Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis (New York: Routledge, 1992), 84–106.

Poniewozik, James. “American Idol’s Voting Scandal (Or Not),” Tuned In (blog), Time, May 28, 2009, http://tunedin.blogs.time.com/2009/05/28/american-idols-voting-scandal-or-not/.

1.2 Intersection of American Media and Culture


Learning Objectives

  1. Distinguish between mass communication and mass media.
  2. Identify key points in American media and culture.

Pop culture and American media are inextricably linked. Consider that Jenny Lind, the Beatles, and American Idol were each promoted using a then-new technology (photography for Lind, television for the Beatles, and the Internet and text messaging for American Idol).

Mass Communication, Mass Media, and Culture

The chapters to come will provide an in-depth look at many kinds of media, at how media trends are reshaping the United States’ cultural landscape, and at how that culture shapes media in turn. These topics will be explored through an examination of mass media and mass communication both past and present—and speculation about what the future might look like.

First, it is important to distinguish between mass communication and mass media and to attempt a working definition of culture. Mass communication refers to information transmitted to large segments of the population. The transmission of mass communication may happen using one or many different kinds of media (singular medium), which is the means of transmission, whether print, digital, or electronic. Mass media specifically refers to a means of communication that is designed to reach a wide audience. Mass media platforms are commonly considered to include radio, newspapers, magazines, books, video games, and Internet media such as blogs, podcasts, and video sharing. Another way to consider the distinction is that a mass media message may be disseminated through several forms of mass media, such as an ad campaign with television, radio, and Internet components. Culture generally refers to the shared values, attitudes, beliefs, and practices that characterize a social group, organization, or institution. Just as it is difficult to pin down an exact definition of culture, cultures themselves can be hard to draw boundaries around, as they are fluid, diverse, and often overlapping.

Figure 1.2


Advances in media technology allowed for unprecedented voter participation in the 2007 CNN/YouTube® presidential debates.

Throughout U.S. history, evolving media technologies have changed the way we relate socially, economically, and politically. In 2007, for example, a joint venture between the 24-hour news network CNN and the video-sharing site YouTube allowed voters to pose questions directly to presidential candidates in two televised debates. Voters could record their questions and upload them to YouTube, and a selection of these videos were then chosen by the debate moderators and played directly to the presidential candidates. This new format opened up the presidential debates to a much wider array of people, allowing for greater voter participation than has been possible in the past, where questions were posed solely by journalists or a few carefully chosen audience members.

In today’s wired world of smartphones and streaming satellite feeds, our expectations of our leaders, celebrities, teachers, and even ourselves are changing in even more drastic ways. This book provides you with the context, tools, and theories to engage with the world of mass media through an examination of the history, theory, and effects of media practices and roles in America. This book also provides you with the framework to consider some of the crucial issues affecting media and culture in today’s world.

Key Takeaways

  • Mass communication refers to a message transmitted to a large audience; the means of transmission is known as mass media. Many different kinds of mass media exist and have existed for centuries. Both the messages and the media affect culture, which is a diffused collection of behaviors, practices, beliefs, and values that are particular to a group, organization, or institution. Culture and media exert influence on each other in subtle, complex ways.
  • The 2008 election is an example of how changes in media technology have had a major impact on society. But the influence goes both ways, and sometimes cultural changes impact how media evolves.


Read the following questions about media and culture:

  1. The second half of the 20th century included a huge increase in forms of media available, including radio, cinema, television, and the Internet. But some form of mass communication has always been a part of U.S. history. What were the dominant forms of media present in the United States during the Industrial Revolution? World Wars I and II? Other important historical eras? How did these forms of media differ from the ones we have today? How did they help shape the way people interacted with and understood the world they lived in? How does mass communication differ from mass media?
  2. Contemporary Americans have more means of getting information and entertainment than ever before. What are the major media present in the United States today? How do these forms of media interact with one another? How do they overlap? How are they distinct?
  3. What is the role of media in American culture today?

    • Some people argue that high-profile cases in the 1990s, such as the criminal trial of O. J. Simpson, Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, and the first Persian Gulf War helped fuel the demand for 24-hour news access. What are some other ways that culture affects media?
    • Conversely, how does mass media affect culture? Do violent television shows and video games influence viewers to become more violent? Is the Internet making our culture more open and democratic or more shallow and distracted?
  4. Though we may not have hover cars and teleportation, today’s electronic gadgets would probably leave Americans of a century ago breathless. How can today’s media landscape help us understand what might await us in years to come? What will the future of American media and culture look like?
  5. Write down some of your initial responses or reactions, based on your prior knowledge or intuition. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph. Keep the piece of paper somewhere secure and return to it on the last day of the course. Were your responses on target? How has your understanding of media and culture changed? How might you answer questions differently now?

1.3 The Evolution of Media


Learning Objectives

  1. Identify four roles the media performs in our society.
  2. Recognize events that affected the adoption of mass media.
  3. Explain how different technological transitions have shaped media industries.

In 2010, Americans could turn on their television and find 24-hour news channels as well as music videos, nature documentaries, and reality shows about everything from hoarders to fashion models. That’s not to mention movies available on demand from cable providers or television and video available online for streaming or downloading. Half of U.S. households receive a daily newspaper, and the average person holds 1.9 magazine subscriptions (State of the Media, 2004) (Bilton, 2007). A University of California, San Diego study claimed that U.S. households consumed a total of approximately 3.6 zettabytes of information in 2008—the digital equivalent of a 7-foot high stack of books covering the entire United States—a 350 percent increase since 1980 (Ramsey, 2009). Americans are exposed to media in taxicabs and buses, in classrooms and doctors’ offices, on highways, and in airplanes. We can begin to orient ourselves in the information cloud through parsing what roles the media fills in society, examining its history in society, and looking at the way technological innovations have helped bring us to where we are today.

What Does Media Do for Us?

Media fulfills several basic roles in our society. One obvious role is entertainment. Media can act as a springboard for our imaginations, a source of fantasy, and an outlet for escapism. In the 19th century, Victorian readers disillusioned by the grimness of the Industrial Revolution found themselves drawn into fantastic worlds of fairies and other fictitious beings. In the first decade of the 21st century, American television viewers could peek in on a conflicted Texas high school football team in Friday Night Lights; the violence-plagued drug trade in Baltimore in The Wire; a 1960s-Manhattan ad agency in Mad Men; or the last surviving band of humans in a distant, miserable future in Battlestar Galactica. Through bringing us stories of all kinds, media has the power to take us away from ourselves.

Media can also provide information and education. Information can come in many forms, and it may sometimes be difficult to separate from entertainment. Today, newspapers and news-oriented television and radio programs make available stories from across the globe, allowing readers or viewers in London to access voices and videos from Baghdad, Tokyo, or Buenos Aires. Books and magazines provide a more in-depth look at a wide range of subjects. The free online encyclopedia Wikipedia has articles on topics from presidential nicknames to child prodigies to tongue twisters in various languages. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has posted free lecture notes, exams, and audio and video recordings of classes on its OpenCourseWare website, allowing anyone with an Internet connection access to world-class professors.

Another useful aspect of media is its ability to act as a public forum for the discussion of important issues. In newspapers or other periodicals, letters to the editor allow readers to respond to journalists or to voice their opinions on the issues of the day. These letters were an important part of U.S. newspapers even when the nation was a British colony, and they have served as a means of public discourse ever since. The Internet is a fundamentally democratic medium that allows everyone who can get online the ability to express their opinions through, for example, blogging or podcasting—though whether anyone will hear is another question.

Similarly, media can be used to monitor government, business, and other institutions. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle exposed the miserable conditions in the turn-of-the-century meatpacking industry; and in the early 1970s, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered evidence of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, which eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. But purveyors of mass media may be beholden to particular agendas because of political slant, advertising funds, or ideological bias, thus constraining their ability to act as a watchdog. The following are some of these agendas:

  1. Entertaining and providing an outlet for the imagination
  2. Educating and informing
  3. Serving as a public forum for the discussion of important issues
  4. Acting as a watchdog for government, business, and other institutions

It’s important to remember, though, that not all media are created equal. While some forms of mass communication are better suited to entertainment, others make more sense as a venue for spreading information. In terms of print media, books are durable and able to contain lots of information, but are relatively slow and expensive to produce; in contrast, newspapers are comparatively cheaper and quicker to create, making them a better medium for the quick turnover of daily news. Television provides vastly more visual information than radio and is more dynamic than a static printed page; it can also be used to broadcast live events to a nationwide audience, as in the annual State of the Union address given by the U.S. president. However, it is also a one-way medium—that is, it allows for very little direct person-to-person communication. In contrast, the Internet encourages public discussion of issues and allows nearly everyone who wants a voice to have one. However, the Internet is also largely unmoderated. Users may have to wade through thousands of inane comments or misinformed amateur opinions to find quality information.

The 1960s media theorist Marshall McLuhan took these ideas one step further, famously coining the phrase “the medium is the message (McLuhan, 1964).” By this, McLuhan meant that every medium delivers information in a different way and that content is fundamentally shaped by the medium of transmission. For example, although television news has the advantage of offering video and live coverage, making a story come alive more vividly, it is also a faster-paced medium. That means more stories get covered in less depth. A story told on television will probably be flashier, less in-depth, and with less context than the same story covered in a monthly magazine; therefore, people who get the majority of their news from television may have a particular view of the world shaped not by the content of what they watch but its medium. Or, as computer scientist Alan Kay put it, “Each medium has a special way of representing ideas that emphasize particular ways of thinking and de-emphasize others (Kay, 1994).” Kay was writing in 1994, when the Internet was just transitioning from an academic research network to an open public system. A decade and a half later, with the Internet firmly ensconced in our daily lives, McLuhan’s intellectual descendants are the media analysts who claim that the Internet is making us better at associative thinking, or more democratic, or shallower. But McLuhan’s claims don’t leave much space for individual autonomy or resistance. In an essay about television’s effects on contemporary fiction, writer David Foster Wallace scoffed at the “reactionaries who regard TV as some malignancy visited on an innocent populace, sapping IQs and compromising SAT scores while we all sit there on ever fatter bottoms with little mesmerized spirals revolving in our eyes…. Treating television as evil is just as reductive and silly as treating it like a toaster with pictures (Wallace, 1997).” Nonetheless, media messages and technologies affect us in countless ways, some of which probably won’t be sorted out until long in the future.

A Brief History of Mass Media and Culture

Until Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th-century invention of the movable type printing press, books were painstakingly handwritten and no two copies were exactly the same. The printing press made the mass production of print media possible. Not only was it much cheaper to produce written material, but new transportation technologies also made it easier for texts to reach a wide audience. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Gutenberg’s invention, which helped usher in massive cultural movements like the European Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. In 1810, another German printer, Friedrich Koenig, pushed media production even further when he essentially hooked the steam engine up to a printing press, enabling the industrialization of printed media. In 1800, a hand-operated printing press could produce about 480 pages per hour; Koenig’s machine more than doubled this rate. (By the 1930s, many printing presses could publish 3,000 pages an hour.)

This increased efficiency went hand in hand with the rise of the daily newspaper. The newspaper was the perfect medium for the increasingly urbanized Americans of the 19th century, who could no longer get their local news merely through gossip and word of mouth. These Americans were living in unfamiliar territory, and newspapers and other media helped them negotiate the rapidly changing world. The Industrial Revolution meant that some people had more leisure time and more money, and media helped them figure out how to spend both. Media theorist Benedict Anderson has argued that newspapers also helped forge a sense of national identity by treating readers across the country as part of one unified community (Anderson, 1991).

In the 1830s, the major daily newspapers faced a new threat from the rise of penny papers, which were low-priced broadsheets that served as a cheaper, more sensational daily news source. They favored news of murder and adventure over the dry political news of the day. While newspapers catered to a wealthier, more educated audience, the penny press attempted to reach a wide swath of readers through cheap prices and entertaining (often scandalous) stories. The penny press can be seen as the forerunner to today’s gossip-hungry tabloids.

Figure 1.3


The penny press appealed to readers’ desires for lurid tales of murder and scandal.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

In the early decades of the 20th century, the first major nonprint form of mass media—radio—exploded in popularity. Radios, which were less expensive than telephones and widely available by the 1920s, had the unprecedented ability of allowing huge numbers of people to listen to the same event at the same time. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge’s preelection speech reached more than 20 million people. Radio was a boon for advertisers, who now had access to a large and captive audience. An early advertising consultant claimed that the early days of radio were “a glorious opportunity for the advertising man to spread his sales propaganda” because of “a countless audience, sympathetic, pleasure seeking, enthusiastic, curious, interested, approachable in the privacy of their homes (Briggs & Burke, 2005).” The reach of radio also meant that the medium was able to downplay regional differences and encourage a unified sense of the American lifestyle—a lifestyle that was increasingly driven and defined by consumer purchases. “Americans in the 1920s were the first to wear ready-made, exact-size clothing…to play electric phonographs, to use electric vacuum cleaners, to listen to commercial radio broadcasts, and to drink fresh orange juice year round (Mintz, 2007).” This boom in consumerism put its stamp on the 1920s and also helped contribute to the Great Depression of the 1930s (Library of Congress). The consumerist impulse drove production to unprecedented levels, but when the Depression began and consumer demand dropped dramatically, the surplus of production helped further deepen the economic crisis, as more goods were being produced than could be sold.

The post–World War II era in the United States was marked by prosperity, and by the introduction of a seductive new form of mass communication: television. In 1946, about 17,000 televisions existed in the United States; within 7 years, two-thirds of American households owned at least one set. As the United States’ gross national product (GNP) doubled in the 1950s, and again in the 1960s, the American home became firmly ensconced as a consumer unit; along with a television, the typical U.S. household owned a car and a house in the suburbs, all of which contributed to the nation’s thriving consumer-based economy (Briggs & Burke, 2005). Broadcast television was the dominant form of mass media, and the three major networks controlled more than 90 percent of the news programs, live events, and sitcoms viewed by Americans. Some social critics argued that television was fostering a homogenous, conformist culture by reinforcing ideas about what “normal” American life looked like. But television also contributed to the counterculture of the 1960s. The Vietnam War was the nation’s first televised military conflict, and nightly images of war footage and war protesters helped intensify the nation’s internal conflicts.

Broadcast technology, including radio and television, had such a hold on the American imagination that newspapers and other print media found themselves having to adapt to the new media landscape. Print media was more durable and easily archived, and it allowed users more flexibility in terms of time—once a person had purchased a magazine, he or she could read it whenever and wherever. Broadcast media, in contrast, usually aired programs on a fixed schedule, which allowed it to both provide a sense of immediacy and fleetingness. Until the advent of digital video recorders in the late 1990s, it was impossible to pause and rewind a live television broadcast.

The media world faced drastic changes once again in the 1980s and 1990s with the spread of cable television. During the early decades of television, viewers had a limited number of channels to choose from—one reason for the charges of homogeneity. In 1975, the three major networks accounted for 93 percent of all television viewing. By 2004, however, this share had dropped to 28.4 percent of total viewing, thanks to the spread of cable television. Cable providers allowed viewers a wide menu of choices, including channels specifically tailored to people who wanted to watch only golf, classic films, sermons, or videos of sharks. Still, until the mid-1990s, television was dominated by the three large networks. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, an attempt to foster competition by deregulating the industry, actually resulted in many mergers and buyouts that left most of the control of the broadcast spectrum in the hands of a few large corporations. In 2003, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) loosened regulation even further, allowing a single company to own 45 percent of a single market (up from 25 percent in 1982).

Technological Transitions Shape Media Industries

New media technologies both spring from and cause social changes. For this reason, it can be difficult to neatly sort the evolution of media into clear causes and effects. Did radio fuel the consumerist boom of the 1920s, or did the radio become wildly popular because it appealed to a society that was already exploring consumerist tendencies? Probably a little bit of both. Technological innovations such as the steam engine, electricity, wireless communication, and the Internet have all had lasting and significant effects on American culture. As media historians Asa Briggs and Peter Burke note, every crucial invention came with “a change in historical perspectives.” Electricity altered the way people thought about time because work and play were no longer dependent on the daily rhythms of sunrise and sunset; wireless communication collapsed distance; the Internet revolutionized the way we store and retrieve information.

Figure 1.4


The transatlantic telegraph cable made nearly instantaneous communication between the United States and Europe possible for the first time in 1858.

Amber Case – 1858 trans-Atlantic telegraph cable route – CC BY-NC 2.0.

The contemporary media age can trace its origins back to the electrical telegraph, patented in the United States by Samuel Morse in 1837. Thanks to the telegraph, communication was no longer linked to the physical transportation of messages; it didn’t matter whether a message needed to travel 5 or 500 miles. Suddenly, information from distant places was nearly as accessible as local news, as telegraph lines began to stretch across the globe, making their own kind of World Wide Web. In this way, the telegraph acted as the precursor to much of the technology that followed, including the telephone, radio, television, and Internet. When the first transatlantic cable was laid in 1858, allowing nearly instantaneous communication from the United States to Europe, the London Times described it as “the greatest discovery since that of Columbus, a vast enlargement…given to the sphere of human activity.”

Not long afterward, wireless communication (which eventually led to the development of radio, television, and other broadcast media) emerged as an extension of telegraph technology. Although many 19th-century inventors, including Nikola Tesla, were involved in early wireless experiments, it was Italian-born Guglielmo Marconi who is recognized as the developer of the first practical wireless radio system. Many people were fascinated by this new invention. Early radio was used for military communication, but soon the technology entered the home. The burgeoning interest in radio inspired hundreds of applications for broadcasting licenses from newspapers and other news outlets, retail stores, schools, and even cities. In the 1920s, large media networks—including the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)—were launched, and they soon began to dominate the airwaves. In 1926, they owned 6.4 percent of U.S. broadcasting stations; by 1931, that number had risen to 30 percent.

Figure 1.5

1.3 collage 0

Gone With the Wind defeated The Wizard of Oz to become the first color film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1939.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain; Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

In addition to the breakthroughs in audio broadcasting, inventors in the 1800s made significant advances in visual media. The 19th-century development of photographic technologies would lead to the later innovations of cinema and television. As with wireless technology, several inventors independently created a form of photography at the same time, among them the French inventors Joseph Niépce and Louis Daguerre and the British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot. In the United States, George Eastman developed the Kodak camera in 1888, anticipating that Americans would welcome an inexpensive, easy-to-use camera into their homes as they had with the radio and telephone. Moving pictures were first seen around the turn of the century, with the first U.S. projection-hall opening in Pittsburgh in 1905. By the 1920s, Hollywood had already created its first stars, most notably Charlie Chaplin; by the end of the 1930s, Americans were watching color films with full sound, including Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

Television—which consists of an image being converted to electrical impulses, transmitted through wires or radio waves, and then reconverted into images—existed before World War II, but gained mainstream popularity in the 1950s. In 1947, there were 178,000 television sets made in the United States; 5 years later, 15 million were made. Radio, cinema, and live theater declined because the new medium allowed viewers to be entertained with sound and moving pictures in their homes. In the United States, competing commercial stations (including the radio powerhouses of CBS and NBC) meant that commercial-driven programming dominated. In Great Britain, the government managed broadcasting through the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Funding was driven by licensing fees instead of advertisements. In contrast to the U.S. system, the BBC strictly regulated the length and character of commercials that could be aired. However, U.S. television (and its increasingly powerful networks) still dominated. By the beginning of 1955, there were around 36 million television sets in the United States, but only 4.8 million in all of Europe. Important national events, broadcast live for the first time, were an impetus for consumers to buy sets so they could witness the spectacle; both England and Japan saw a boom in sales before important royal weddings in the 1950s.

Figure 1.6


In the 1960s, the concept of a useful portable computer was still a dream; huge mainframes were required to run a basic operating system.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

In 1969, management consultant Peter Drucker predicted that the next major technological innovation would be an electronic appliance that would revolutionize the way people lived just as thoroughly as Thomas Edison’s light bulb had. This appliance would sell for less than a television set and be “capable of being plugged in wherever there is electricity and giving immediate access to all the information needed for school work from first grade through college.” Although Drucker may have underestimated the cost of this hypothetical machine, he was prescient about the effect these machines—personal computers—and the Internet would have on education, social relationships, and the culture at large. The inventions of random access memory (RAM) chips and microprocessors in the 1970s were important steps to the Internet age. As Briggs and Burke note, these advances meant that “hundreds of thousands of components could be carried on a microprocessor.” The reduction of many different kinds of content to digitally stored information meant that “print, film, recording, radio and television and all forms of telecommunications [were] now being thought of increasingly as part of one complex.” This process, also known as convergence, is a force that’s affecting media today.

Key Takeaways

  • Media fulfills several roles in society, including the following:

    • entertaining and providing an outlet for the imagination,
    • educating and informing,
    • serving as a public forum for the discussion of important issues, and
    • acting as a watchdog for government, business, and other institutions.
  • Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press enabled the mass production of media, which was then industrialized by Friedrich Koenig in the early 1800s. These innovations led to the daily newspaper, which united the urbanized, industrialized populations of the 19th century.
  • In the 20th century, radio allowed advertisers to reach a mass audience and helped spur the consumerism of the 1920s—and the Great Depression of the 1930s. After World War II, television boomed in the United States and abroad, though its concentration in the hands of three major networks led to accusations of homogenization. The spread of cable and subsequent deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s led to more channels, but not necessarily to more diverse ownership.
  • Transitions from one technology to another have greatly affected the media industry, although it is difficult to say whether technology caused a cultural shift or resulted from it. The ability to make technology small and affordable enough to fit into the home is an important aspect of the popularization of new technologies.


Choose two different types of mass communication—radio shows, television broadcasts, Internet sites, newspaper advertisements, and so on—from two different kinds of media. Make a list of what role(s) each one fills, keeping in mind that much of what we see, hear, or read in the mass media has more than one aspect. Then, answer the following questions. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  1. To which of the four roles media plays in society do your selections correspond? Why did the creators of these particular messages present them in these particular ways and in these particular mediums?
  2. What events have shaped the adoption of the two kinds of media you selected?
  3. How have technological transitions shaped the industries involved in the two kinds of media you have selected?


Anderson, Benedict Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (London: Verso, 1991).

Bilton, Jim. “The Loyalty Challenge: How Magazine Subscriptions Work,” In Circulation, January/February 2007.

Briggs and Burke, Social History of the Media.

Briggs, Asa and Peter Burke, A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2005).

Kay, Alan. “The Infobahn Is Not the Answer,” Wired, May 1994.

Library of Congress, “Radio: A Consumer Product and a Producer of Consumption,” Coolidge-Consumerism Collection, http://lcweb2.loc.gov:8081/ammem/amrlhtml/inradio.html.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).

Mintz, Steven “The Jazz Age: The American 1920s: The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture,” Digital History, 2007, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?hhid=454.

Ramsey, Doug. “UC San Diego Experts Calculate How Much Information Americans Consume” UC San Diego News Center, December 9, 2009, http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/general/12-09Information.asp.

State of the Media, project for Excellence in Journalism, The State of the News Media 2004, http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2004/.

Wallace, David Foster “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (New York: Little Brown, 1997).

1.4 Convergence


Learning Objectives

  1. Identify examples of convergence in contemporary life.
  2. Name the five types of convergence identified by Henry Jenkins.
  3. Recognize how convergence is affecting culture and society.

It’s important to keep in mind that the implementation of new technologies doesn’t mean that the old ones simply vanish into dusty museums. Today’s media consumers still watch television, listen to radio, read newspapers, and become immersed in movies. The difference is that it’s now possible to do all those things through one device—be it a personal computer or a smartphone—and through the Internet. Such actions are enabled by media convergence, the process by which previously distinct technologies come to share tasks and resources. A cell phone that also takes pictures and video is an example of the convergence of digital photography, digital video, and cellular telephone technologies. An extreme, and currently nonexistent, example of technological convergence would be the so-called black box, which would combine all the functions of previously distinct technology and would be the device through which we’d receive all our news, information, entertainment, and social interaction.

Kinds of Convergence

But convergence isn’t just limited to technology. Media theorist Henry Jenkins argues that convergence isn’t an end result (as is the hypothetical black box), but instead a process that changes how media is both consumed and produced. Jenkins breaks convergence down into five categories:

  1. Economic convergence occurs when a company controls several products or services within the same industry. For example, in the entertainment industry a single company may have interests across many kinds of media. For example, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation is involved in book publishing (HarperCollins), newspapers (New York Post, The Wall Street Journal), sports (Colorado Rockies), broadcast television (Fox), cable television (FX, National Geographic Channel), film (20th Century Fox), Internet (MySpace), and many other media.
  2. Organic convergence is what happens when someone is watching a television show online while exchanging text messages with a friend and also listening to music in the background—the “natural” outcome of a diverse media world.
  3. Cultural convergence has several aspects. Stories flowing across several kinds of media platforms is one component—for example, novels that become television series (True Blood); radio dramas that become comic strips (The Shadow); even amusement park rides that become film franchises (Pirates of the Caribbean). The character Harry Potter exists in books, films, toys, and amusement park rides. Another aspect of cultural convergence is participatory culture—that is, the way media consumers are able to annotate, comment on, remix, and otherwise influence culture in unprecedented ways. The video-sharing website YouTube is a prime example of participatory culture. YouTube gives anyone with a video camera and an Internet connection the opportunity to communicate with people around the world and create and shape cultural trends.
  4. Global convergence is the process of geographically distant cultures influencing one another despite the distance that physically separates them. Nigeria’s cinema industry, nicknamed Nollywood, takes its cues from India’s Bollywood, which is in turn inspired by Hollywood in the United States. Tom and Jerry cartoons are popular on Arab satellite television channels. Successful American horror movies The Ring and The Grudge are remakes of Japanese hits. The advantage of global convergence is access to a wealth of cultural influence; its downside, some critics posit, is the threat of cultural imperialism, defined by Herbert Schiller as the way developing countries are “attracted, pressured, forced, and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating centre of the system (White, 2001).” Cultural imperialism can be a formal policy or can happen more subtly, as with the spread of outside influence through television, movies, and other cultural projects.
  5. Technological convergence is the merging of technologies such as the ability to watch TV shows online on sites like Hulu or to play video games on mobile phones like the Apple iPhone. When more and more different kinds of media are transformed into digital content, as Jenkins notes, “we expand the potential relationships between them and enable them to flow across platforms (Jenkins, 2001).”

Figure 1.7


Nigeria’s Nollywood produces more films annually than any other country besides India.

Paul Keller – nigerian VCDs at kwakoe – CC BY 2.0.

Effects of Convergence

Jenkins’s concept of organic convergence is perhaps the most telling. To many people, especially those who grew up in a world dominated by so-called old media, there is nothing organic about today’s media-dominated world. As a New York Times editorial recently opined, “Few objects on the planet are farther removed from nature—less, say, like a rock or an insect—than a glass and stainless steel smartphone (New York Times, 2010).” But modern American culture is plugged in as never before, and today’s high school students have never known a world where the Internet didn’t exist. Such a cultural sea change causes a significant generation gap between those who grew up with new media and those who didn’t.

A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Americans aged 8 to 18 spend more than 7.5 hours with electronic devices each day—and, thanks to multitasking, they’re able to pack an average of 11 hours of media content into that 7.5 hours (Lewin, 2010). These statistics highlight some of the aspects of the new digital model of media consumption: participation and multitasking. Today’s teenagers aren’t passively sitting in front of screens, quietly absorbing information. Instead, they are sending text messages to friends, linking news articles on Facebook, commenting on YouTube videos, writing reviews of television episodes to post online, and generally engaging with the culture they consume. Convergence has also made multitasking much easier, as many devices allow users to surf the Internet, listen to music, watch videos, play games, and reply to e-mails on the same machine.

However, it’s still difficult to predict how media convergence and immersion are affecting culture, society, and individual brains. In his 2005 book Everything Bad Is Good for You, Steven Johnson argues that today’s television and video games are mentally stimulating, in that they pose a cognitive challenge and invite active engagement and problem solving. Poking fun at alarmists who see every new technology as making children stupider, Johnson jokingly cautions readers against the dangers of book reading: It “chronically understimulates the senses” and is “tragically isolating.” Even worse, books “follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion—you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you…. This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one (Johnson, 2005).”

A 2010 book by Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains is more pessimistic. Carr worries that the vast array of interlinked information available through the Internet is eroding attention spans and making contemporary minds distracted and less capable of deep, thoughtful engagement with complex ideas and arguments. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words,” Carr reflects ruefully. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski (Carr, 2010).” Carr cites neuroscience studies showing that when people try to do two things at once, they give less attention to each and perform the tasks less carefully. In other words, multitasking makes us do a greater number of things poorly. Whatever the ultimate cognitive, social, or technological results, convergence is changing the way we relate to media today.

Video Killed the Radio Star: Convergence Kills Off Obsolete Technology—or Does It?

When was the last time you used a rotary phone? How about a street-side pay phone? Or a library’s card catalog? When you need brief, factual information, when was the last time you reached for a volume of Encyclopedia Britannica? Odds are it’s been a while. All of these habits, formerly common parts of daily life, have been rendered essentially obsolete through the progression of convergence.

But convergence hasn’t erased old technologies; instead, it may have just altered the way we use them. Take cassette tapes and Polaroid film, for example. Influential musician Thurston Moore of the band Sonic Youth recently claimed that he only listens to music on cassette. Polaroid Corporation, creators of the once-popular instant-film cameras, was driven out of business by digital photography in 2008, only to be revived 2 years later—with pop star Lady Gaga as the brand’s creative director. Several Apple iPhone apps allow users to apply effects to photos to make them look more like a Polaroid photo.

Cassettes, Polaroid cameras, and other seemingly obsolete technologies have been able to thrive—albeit in niche markets—both despite and because of Internet culture. Instead of being slick and digitized, cassette tapes and Polaroid photos are physical objects that are made more accessible and more human, according to enthusiasts, because of their flaws. “I think there’s a group of people—fans and artists alike—out there to whom music is more than just a file on your computer, more than just a folder of MP3s,” says Brad Rose, founder of a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based cassette label (Hogan, 2010). The distinctive Polaroid look—caused by uneven color saturation, underdevelopment or overdevelopment, or just daily atmospheric effects on the developing photograph—is emphatically analog. In an age of high resolution, portable printers, and camera phones, the Polaroid’s appeal to some has something to do with ideas of nostalgia and authenticity. Convergence has transformed who uses these media and for what purposes, but it hasn’t eliminated these media.

Key Takeaways

  • Twenty-first century media culture is increasingly marked by convergence, or the coming together of previously distinct technologies, as in a cell phone that also allows users to take video and check e-mail.
  • Media theorist Henry Jenkins identifies the five kinds of convergence as the following:
    1. Economic convergence is when a single company has interests across many kinds of media.
    2. Organic convergence is multimedia multitasking, or the natural outcome of a diverse media world.
    3. Cultural convergence is when stories flow across several kinds of media platforms and when readers or viewers can comment on, alter, or otherwise talk back to culture.
    4. Global convergence is when geographically distant cultures are able to influence one another.
    5. Technological convergence is when different kinds of technology merge. The most extreme example of technological convergence would be one machine that controlled every media function.
  • The jury is still out on how these different types of convergence will affect people on an individual and societal level. Some theorists believe that convergence and new-media technologies make people smarter by requiring them to make decisions and interact with the media they’re consuming; others fear the digital age is giving us access to more information but leaving us shallower.


Review the viewpoints of Henry Jenkins, Steven Johnson, and Nicholas Carr. Then, answer the following questions. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  1. Define convergence as it relates to mass media and provide some examples of convergence you’ve observed in your life.
  2. Describe the five types of convergence identified by Henry Jenkins and provide an example of each type that you’ve noted in your own experience.
  3. How do Steven Johnson and Nicholas Carr think convergence is affecting culture and society? Whose argument do you find more compelling and why?


Carr, Nicholas The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2010).

Hogan, Marc. “This Is Not a Mixtape,” Pitchfork, February 22, 2010, http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7764-this-is-not-a-mixtape/2/.

Jenkins, Henry. “Convergence? I Diverge,” Technology Review, June 2001, 93.

Johnson, Steven Everything Bad Is Good for You (Riverhead, NY: Riverhead Books, 2005).

Lewin, Tamar “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online,” New York Times, January 20, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/20/education/20wired.html.

New York Times, editorial, “The Half-Life of Phones,” New York Times, June 18, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/20/opinion/20sun4.html1.

White, Livingston A. “Reconsidering Cultural Imperialism Theory,” TBS Journal 6 (2001), http://www.tbsjournal.com/Archives/Spring01/white.html.

1.5 The Role of Social Values in Communication


Learning Objectives

  1. Identify two limitations on free speech that are based on social values.
  2. Identify examples of propaganda in mass media.
  3. Explain the role of the gatekeeper in mass media.

In a 1995 Wired magazine article, “The Age of Paine,” Jon Katz suggested that the Revolutionary War patriot Thomas Paine should be considered “the moral father of the Internet.” The Internet, Katz wrote, “offers what Paine and his revolutionary colleagues hoped for—a vast, diverse, passionate, global means of transmitting ideas and opening minds.” In fact, according to Katz, the emerging Internet era is closer in spirit to the 18th-century media world than to the 20th-century’s “old media” (radio, television, print). “The ferociously spirited press of the late 1700s…was dominated by individuals expressing their opinions. The idea that ordinary citizens with no special resources, expertise, or political power—like Paine himself—could sound off, reach wide audiences, even spark revolutions, was brand-new to the world (Creel, 1920).” Katz’s impassioned defense of Paine’s plucky independence speaks to the way social values and communication technologies are affecting our adoption of media technologies today. Keeping Katz’s words in mind, we can ask ourselves additional questions about the role of social values in communication. How do they shape our ideas of mass communication? How, in turn, does mass communication change our understanding of what our society values?

Figure 1.8


Thomas Paine is regarded by some as the “moral father of the Internet” because his independent spirit is reflected in the democratization of mass communication via the Internet.

Marion Doss – Thomas Paine, Engraving – CC BY-SA 2.0.

Free Speech and Its Limitations

The value of free speech is central to American mass communication and has been since the nation’s revolutionary founding. The U.S. Constitution’s very first amendment guarantees the freedom of the press. Because of the First Amendment and subsequent statutes, the United States has some of the broadest protections on speech of any industrialized nation. However, there are limits to what kinds of speech are legally protected—limits that have changed over time, reflecting shifts in U.S. social values.

Figure 1.9

1.5 collage 0

Artist Shepard Fairey, creator of the iconic Obama HOPE image, was sued by the Associated Press for copyright infringement; Fairey argued that his work was protected by the fair use exception.

Definitions of obscenity, which is not protected by the First Amendment, have altered with the nation’s changing social attitudes. James Joyce’s Ulysses, ranked by the Modern Library as the best English-language novel of the 20th century, was illegal to publish in the United States between 1922 and 1934 because the U.S. Customs Court declared the book obscene because of its sexual content. The 1954 Supreme Court case Roth v. the United States defined obscenity more narrowly, allowing for differences depending on community standards. The sexual revolution and social changes of the 1960s made it even more difficult to pin down just what was meant by community standards—a question that is still under debate to this day. The mainstreaming of sexually explicit content like Playboy magazine, which is available in nearly every U.S. airport, is another indication that obscenity is still open to interpretation.

Regulations related to obscene content are not the only restrictions on First Amendment rights; copyright law also puts limits on free speech. Intellectual property law was originally intended to protect just that—the proprietary rights, both economic and intellectual, of the originator of a creative work. Works under copyright can’t be reproduced without the authorization of the creator, nor can anyone else use them to make a profit. Inventions, novels, musical tunes, and even phrases are all covered by copyright law. The first copyright statute in the United States set 14 years as the maximum term for copyright protection. This number has risen exponentially in the 20th century; some works are now copyright-protected for up to 120 years. In recent years, an Internet culture that enables file sharing, musical mash-ups, and YouTube video parodies has raised questions about the fair use exception to copyright law. The exact line between what types of expressions are protected or prohibited by law are still being set by courts, and as the changing values of the U.S. public evolve, copyright law—like obscenity law—will continue to change as well.

Propaganda and Other Ulterior Motives

Sometimes social values enter mass media messages in a more overt way. Producers of media content may have vested interests in particular social goals, which, in turn, may cause them to promote or refute particular viewpoints. In its most heavy-handed form, this type of media influence can become propaganda, communication that intentionally attempts to persuade its audience for ideological, political, or commercial purposes. Propaganda often (but not always) distorts the truth, selectively presents facts, or uses emotional appeals. During wartime, propaganda often includes caricatures of the enemy. Even in peacetime, however, propaganda is frequent. Political campaign commercials in which one candidate openly criticizes the other are common around election time, and some negative ads deliberately twist the truth or present outright falsehoods to attack an opposing candidate.

Other types of influence are less blatant or sinister. Advertisers want viewers to buy their products; some news sources, such as Fox News or The Huffington Post, have an explicit political slant. Still, people who want to exert media influence often use the tricks and techniques of propaganda. During World War I, the U.S. government created the Creel Commission as a sort of public relations firm for the United States’ entry into the war. The Creel Commission used radio, movies, posters, and in-person speakers to present a positive slant on the U.S. war effort and to demonize the opposing Germans. Chairman George Creel acknowledged the commission’s attempt to influence the public but shied away from calling their work propaganda:

In no degree was the Committee an agency of censorship, a machinery of concealment or repression…. In all things, from first to last, without halt or change, it was a plain publicity proposition, a vast enterprise in salesmanship, the world’s greatest adventures in advertising…. We did not call it propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption. Our effort was educational and informative throughout, for we had such confidence in our case as to feel that no other argument was needed than the simple, straightforward presentation of the facts (Creel, 1920).

Of course, the line between the selective (but “straightforward”) presentation of the truth and the manipulation of propaganda is not an obvious or distinct one. (Another of the Creel Commission’s members was later deemed the father of public relations and authored a book titled Propaganda.) In general, however, public relations is open about presenting one side of the truth, while propaganda seeks to invent a new truth.

Figure 1.10


World War I propaganda posters were sometimes styled to resemble movie posters in an attempt to glamorize the war effort.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.


In 1960, journalist A. J. Liebling wryly observed that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Liebling was referring to the role of gatekeepers in the media industry, another way in which social values influence mass communication. Gatekeepers are the people who help determine which stories make it to the public, including reporters who decide what sources to use and editors who decide what gets reported on and which stories make it to the front page. Media gatekeepers are part of society and thus are saddled with their own cultural biases, whether consciously or unconsciously. In deciding what counts as newsworthy, entertaining, or relevant, gatekeepers pass on their own values to the wider public. In contrast, stories deemed unimportant or uninteresting to consumers can linger forgotten in the back pages of the newspaper—or never get covered at all.

In one striking example of the power of gatekeeping, journalist Allan Thompson lays blame on the news media for its sluggishness in covering the Rwandan genocide in 1994. According to Thompson, there weren’t many outside reporters in Rwanda at the height of the genocide, so the world wasn’t forced to confront the atrocities happening there. Instead, the nightly news in the United States was preoccupied by the O. J. Simpson trial, Tonya Harding’s attack on a fellow figure skater, and the less bloody conflict in Bosnia (where more reporters were stationed). Thompson went on to argue that the lack of international media attention allowed politicians to remain complacent (Thompson, 2007). With little media coverage, there was little outrage about the Rwandan atrocities, which contributed to a lack of political will to invest time and troops in a faraway conflict. Richard Dowden, Africa editor for the British newspaper The Independent during the Rwandan genocide, bluntly explained the news media’s larger reluctance to focus on African issues: “Africa was simply not important. It didn’t sell newspapers. Newspapers have to make profits. So it wasn’t important (Thompson, 2007).” Bias on the individual and institutional level downplayed the genocide at a time of great crisis and potentially contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Gatekeepers had an especially strong influence in old media, in which space and time were limited. A news broadcast could only last for its allotted half hour, while a newspaper had a set number of pages to print. The Internet, in contrast, theoretically has room for infinite news reports. The interactive nature of the medium also minimizes the gatekeeper function of the media by allowing media consumers to have a voice as well. News aggregators like Digg allow readers to decide what makes it on to the front page. That’s not to say that the wisdom of the crowd is always wise—recent top stories on Digg have featured headlines like “Top 5 Hot Girls Playing Video Games” and “The girl who must eat every 15 minutes to stay alive.” Media expert Mark Glaser noted that the digital age hasn’t eliminated gatekeepers; it’s just shifted who they are: “the editors who pick featured artists and apps at the Apple iTunes store, who choose videos to spotlight on YouTube, and who highlight Suggested Users on Twitter,” among others (Glaser, 2009). And unlike traditional media, these new gatekeepers rarely have public bylines, making it difficult to figure out who makes such decisions and on what basis they are made.

Observing how distinct cultures and subcultures present the same story can be indicative of those cultures’ various social values. Another way to look critically at today’s media messages is to examine how the media has functioned in the world and in the United States during different cultural periods.

Key Takeaways

  • American culture puts a high value on free speech; however, other societal values sometimes take precedence. Shifting ideas about what constitutes obscenity, a kind of speech that is not legally protected by the First Amendment, is a good example of how cultural values impact mass communication—and of how those values change over time. Copyright law, another restriction put on free speech, has had a similar evolution over the nation’s history.
  • Propaganda is a type of communication that attempts to persuade the audience for ideological, political, or social purposes. Some propaganda is obvious, explicit, and manipulative; however, public relations professionals borrow many techniques from propaganda and they try to influence their audience.
  • Gatekeepers influence culture by deciding which stories are considered newsworthy. Gatekeepers can promote social values either consciously or subconsciously. The digital age has lessened the power of gatekeepers somewhat, as the Internet allows for nearly unlimited space to cover any number of events and stories; furthermore, a new gatekeeper class has emerged on the Internet as well.


Please answer the following questions. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  1. Find an advertisement—either in print, broadcast, or online—that you have recently found to be memorable. Now find a nonadvertisement media message. Compare the ways that the ad and the nonad express social values. Are the social values the same for each of them? Is the influence overt or covert? Why did the message’s creators choose to present their message in this way? Can this be considered propaganda?
  2. Go to a popular website that uses user-uploaded content (YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Metafilter, etc.). Look at the content on the site’s home page. Can you tell how this particular content was selected to be featured? Does the website list a policy for featured content? What factors do you think go into the selection process?
  3. Think of two recent examples where free speech was limited because of social values. Who were the gatekeepers in these situations? What effect did these limitations have on media coverage?


Creel, George.How We Advertised America (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1920).

Glaser, Marc. “New Gatekeepers Twitter, Apple, YouTube Need Transparency in Editorial Picks,” PBS Mediashift, March 26, 2009, http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2009/03/new-gatekeepers-twitter-apple-youtube-need-transparency-in-editorial-picks085.html.

Thompson, Allan. “The Media and the Rwanda Genocide” (lecture, Crisis States Research Centre and POLIS at the London School of Economics, January 17, 2007), http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/pdf/20070117_PolisRwanda.pdf.

1.6 Cultural Periods


Learning Objectives

  1. Identify recent cultural periods.
  2. Identify the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the modern era.
  3. Explain the ways that the postmodern era differs from the modern era.

Table 1.1 Cultural Periods

Modern Era

Early Modern Period (late 1400s–1700s)

Began with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press; characterized by improved transportation, educational reform, and scientific inquiry.

Late Modern Period (1700s–1900s)

Sparked by the Industrial Revolution; characterized by technical innovations, increasingly secular politics, and urbanization.

Postmodern Age (1950s–present)

Marked by skepticism, self-consciousness, celebration of differences, and the digitalization of culture.

After exploring the ways technology, culture, and mass media have affected one another over the years, it may also be helpful to look at recent cultural eras more broadly. A cultural period is a time marked by a particular way of understanding the world through culture and technology. Changes in cultural periods are marked by fundamental switches in the way people perceive and understand the world. In the Middle Ages, truth was dictated by authorities like the king and the church. During the Renaissance, people turned to the scientific method as a way to reach truth through reason. And, in 2008, Wired magazine’s editor in chief proclaimed that Google was about to render the scientific method obsolete (Anderson, 2008). In each of these cases, it wasn’t that the nature of truth changed, but the way humans attempted to make sense of a world that was radically changing. For the purpose of studying culture and mass media, the post-Gutenberg modern and postmodern ages are the most relevant ones to explore.

The Modern Age

The Modern Age, or modernity, is the postmedieval era, a wide span of time marked in part by technological innovations, urbanization, scientific discoveries, and globalization. The Modern Age is generally split into two parts: the early and the late modern periods.

The early modern period began with Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press in the late 15th century and ended in the late 18th century. Thanks to Gutenberg’s press, the European population of the early modern period saw rising literacy rates, which led to educational reform. As noted in preceding sections, Gutenberg’s machine also greatly enabled the spread of knowledge and, in turn, spurred the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. During the early modern period, transportation improved, politics became more secularized, capitalism spread, nation-states grew more powerful, and information became more widely accessible. Enlightenment ideals of reason, rationalism, and faith in scientific inquiry slowly began to replace the previously dominant authorities of king and church.

Huge political, social, and economic changes marked the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the late modern period. The Industrial Revolution, which began in England around 1750, combined with the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789, marked the beginning of massive changes in the world.

The French and American revolutions were inspired by a rejection of monarchy in favor of national sovereignty and representative democracy. Both revolutions also heralded the rise of secular society as opposed to church-based authority systems. Democracy was well suited to the so-called Age of Reason, with its ideals of individual rights and progress.

Though less political, the Industrial Revolution had equally far-reaching consequences. It did not merely change the way goods were produced—it also fundamentally changed the economic, social, and cultural framework of its time. The Industrial Revolution doesn’t have clear start or end dates. However, during the 19th century, several crucial inventions—the internal combustion engine, steam-powered ships, and railways, among others—led to innovations in various industries. Steam power and machine tools increased production dramatically. But some of the biggest changes coming out of the Industrial Revolution were social in character. An economy based on manufacturing instead of agriculture meant that more people moved to cities, where techniques of mass production led people to value efficiency both in and out of the factory. Newly urbanized factory laborers could no longer produce their own food, clothing, or supplies, and instead turned to consumer goods. Increased production led to increases in wealth, though income inequalities between classes also started to grow.

These overwhelming changes affected (and were affected by) the media. As noted in preceding sections, the fusing of steam power and the printing press enabled the explosive expansion of books and newspapers. Literacy rates rose, as did support for public participation in politics. More and more people lived in the city, had an education, got their news from the newspaper, spent their wages on consumer goods, and identified as citizens of an industrialized nation. Urbanization, mass literacy, and new forms of mass media contributed to a sense of mass culture that united people across regional, social, and cultural boundaries.

Modernity and the Modern Age, it should be noted, are distinct from (but related to) the cultural movement of modernism. The Modern Era lasted from the end of the Middle Ages to the middle of the 20th century; modernism, however, refers to the artistic movement of late 19th and early 20th centuries that arose from the widespread changes that swept the world during that period. Most notably, modernism questioned the limitations of traditional forms of art and culture. Modernist art was in part a reaction against the Enlightenment’s certainty of progress and rationality. It celebrated subjectivity through abstraction, experimentalism, surrealism, and sometimes pessimism or even nihilism. Prominent examples of modernist works include James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness novels, cubist paintings by Pablo Picasso, atonal compositions by Claude Debussy, and absurdist plays by Luigi Pirandello.

The Postmodern Age

Modernism can also be seen as a transitional phase between the modern and postmodern eras. While the exact definition and dates of the Postmodern Age are still being debated by cultural theorists and philosophers, the general consensus is that the Postmodern Age began during the second half of the 20th century and was marked by skepticism, self-consciousness, celebration of difference, and the reappraisal of modern conventions. The Modern Age took for granted scientific rationalism, the autonomous self, and the inevitability of progress; the Postmodern Age questioned or dismissed many of these assumptions. If the Modern Age valued order, reason, stability, and absolute truth, the Postmodern Age reveled in contingency, fragmentation, and instability. The effect of technology on culture, the rise of the Internet, and the Cold War are all aspects that led to the Postmodern Age.

The belief in objective truth that characterized the Modern Age is one of the major assumptions overturned in the Postmodern Age. Postmodernists instead took their cues from Erwin Schrödinger, the quantum physicist who famously devised a thought experiment in which a cat is placed inside a sealed box with a small amount of radiation that may or may not kill it. While the box remains sealed, Schrödinger proclaimed, the cat exists simultaneously in both states, dead and alive. Both potential states are equally true. Although the thought experiment was devised to explore issues in quantum physics, it appealed to postmodernists in its assertion of radical uncertainty. Rather than there being an absolute objective truth accessible by rational experimentation, the status of reality was contingent and depended on the observer.

This value of the relative over the absolute found its literary equivalent in the movement of deconstruction. While Victorian novelists took pains to make their books seem more realistic, postmodern narratives distrusted professions of reality and constantly reminded readers of the artificial nature of the story they were reading. The emphasis was not on the all-knowing author, but instead on the reader. For the postmodernists, meaning was not injected into a work by its creator, but depended on the reader’s subjective experience of the work. The poetry of Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg exemplify this, as much of their work is emotionally charged and designed to create a dialogue with the reader, oftentimes forcing the reader to confront controversial issues such as mental illness or homosexuality.

Another way the Postmodern Age differed from the Modern Age was in the rejection of what philosopher Jean-François Lyotard deemed “grand narratives.” The Modern Age was marked by different large-scale theories that attempted to explain the totality of human experience, such as capitalism, Marxism, rationalism, Freudianism, Darwinism, fascism, and so on. However, increasing globalization and the rise of subcultures called into question the sorts of theories that claimed to explain everything at once. Totalitarian regimes during the 20th century, such as Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and the USSR under Joseph Stalin, led to a mistrust of power and the systems held up by power. The Postmodern Age, Lyotard theorized, was one of micronarratives instead of grand narratives—that is, a multiplicity of small, localized understandings of the world, none of which can claim an ultimate or absolute truth. An older man in Kenya, for example, does not view the world in the same way as a young woman from New York. Even people from the same cultural backgrounds have different views of the world—when you were a teenager, did your parents understand your way of thinking? The diversity of human experience is a marked feature of the postmodern world. As Lyotard noted, “Eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary general culture; one listens to reggae, watches a Western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothes in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games (Lyotard, 1984).”

Postmodernists also mistrusted the idea of originality and freely borrowed across cultures and genres. William S. Burroughs gleefully proclaimed a sort of call to arms for his generation of writers in 1985: “Out of the closets and into the museums, libraries, architectural monuments, concert halls, bookstores, recording studios and film studios of the world. Everything belongs to the inspired and dedicated thief (Burroughs,1993).” The feminist artist Barbara Kruger, for example, creates works of art from old advertisements, and writers, such as Kathy Acker, reconstructed existing texts to form new stories. The rejection of traditional forms of art and expression embody the Postmodern Age.

From the early Modern Age through the Postmodern Age, people have experienced the world in vastly different ways. Not only has technology rapidly become more complex, but culture itself has changed with the times. When reading further, it’s important to remember that forms of media and culture are hallmarks of different eras, and the different ways in which media are presented often tell us a lot about the culture and times.

Key Takeaways

  • A cultural period is a time marked by a particular way of understanding the world through culture and technology. Changes in cultural periods are marked by fundamental changes in the way we perceive and understand the world. The Modern Age began after the Middle Ages and lasted through the early decades of the 20th century, when the Postmodern Age began.
  • The Modern Age was marked by Enlightenment philosophy, which focused on the individual and placed a high value on rational decision making. This period saw the wide expansion of capitalism, colonialism, democracy, and science-based rationalism. The Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the American and French Revolutions, and World War I were all significant events that took place during the Modern Age. One of the most significant, however, was the Industrial Revolution; its emphasis on routinization and efficiency helped society restructure itself similarly.
  • Postmodernity differed from modernity in its questioning of reason, rejection of grand narratives, and emphasis on subcultures. Rather than searching for one ultimate truth that could explain all of history, the postmodernists focused on contingency, context, and diversity.



Draw a Venn diagram of the two cultural periods discussed at length in this chapter. Make a list of the features, values, and events that mark each period. Then, answer the questions below. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  1. What defines a cultural period?
  2. How do the two periods differ? Do they overlap in any ways?
  3. What do you predict the next cultural era has in store? When will it begin?


Anderson, Chris. “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete,” Wired, June 23, 2008, http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/magazine/16-07/pb_theory.

Burroughs, William S. “Les Velours,” The Adding Machine, (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1993), 19–21.

Lyotard, Jean-François The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

1.8 Media Literacy


Learning Objectives

  1. Define media literacy.
  2. Describe the role of individual responsibility and accountability when responding to pop culture.
  3. List the five key considerations about any media message.

In Gutenberg’s age and the subsequent modern era, literacy—the ability to read and write—was a concern not only of educators, but also of politicians, social reformers, and philosophers. A literate population, many reasoned, would be able to seek out information, stay informed about the news of the day, communicate effectively, and make informed decisions in many spheres of life. Because of this, literate people made better citizens, parents, and workers. Several centuries later, as global literacy rates continued to grow, there was a new sense that merely being able to read and write was not enough. In a media-saturated world, individuals needed to be able to sort through and analyze the information they were bombarded with every day. In the second half of the 20th century, the skill of being able to decode and process the messages and symbols transmitted via media was named media literacy. According to the nonprofit National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), a person who is media literate can access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate information. Put another way by John Culkin, a pioneering advocate for media literacy education, “The new mass media—film, radio, TV—are new languages, their grammar as yet unknown (Moody, 1993).” Media literacy seeks to give media consumers the ability to understand this new language. The following are questions asked by those that are media literate:

  1. Who created the message?
  2. What are the author’s credentials?
  3. Why was the message created?
  4. Is the message trying to get me to act or think in a certain way?
  5. Is someone making money for creating this message?
  6. Who is the intended audience?
  7. How do I know this information is accurate?

Why Be Media Literate?

Culkin called the pervasiveness of media “the unnoticed fact of our present,” noting that media information was as omnipresent and easy to overlook as the air we breathe (and, he noted, “some would add that it is just as polluted”) (Moody, 1993). Our exposure to media starts early—a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 68 percent of children ages 2 and younger spend an average of 2 hours in front of a screen (either computer or television) each day, while children under 6 spend as much time in front of a screen as they do playing outside (Lewin). U.S. teenagers are spending an average of 7.5 hours with media daily, nearly as long as they spend in school. Media literacy isn’t merely a skill for young people, however. Today’s Americans get much of their information from various media sources—but not all that information is created equal. One crucial role of media literacy education is to enable us to skeptically examine the often-conflicting media messages we receive every day.


Many of the hours people spend with media are with commercial-sponsored content. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimated that each child aged 2 to 11 saw, on average, 25,629 television commercials in 2004 alone, or more than 10,700 minutes of ads. Each adult saw, on average, 52,469 ads, or about 15.5 days’ worth of television advertising (Holt, 2007). Children (and adults) are bombarded with contradictory messages—newspaper articles about the obesity epidemic run side by side with ads touting soda, candy, and fast food. The American Academy of Pediatrics maintains that advertising directed to children under 8 is “inherently deceptive” and exploitative because young children can’t tell the difference between programs and commercials (Shifrin, 2005). Advertising often uses techniques of psychological pressure to influence decision making. Ads may appeal to vanity, insecurity, prejudice, fear, or the desire for adventure. This is not always done to sell a product—antismoking public service announcements may rely on disgusting images of blackened lungs to shock viewers. Nonetheless, media literacy involves teaching people to be guarded consumers and to evaluate claims with a critical eye.

Bias, Spin, and Misinformation

Advertisements may have the explicit goal of selling a product or idea, but they’re not the only kind of media message with an agenda. A politician may hope to persuade potential voters that he has their best interests at heart. An ostensibly objective journalist may allow her political leanings to subtly slant her articles. Magazine writers might avoid criticizing companies that advertise heavily in their pages. News reporters may sensationalize stories to boost ratings—and advertising rates.

Mass-communication messages are created by individuals, and each individual has his or her own set of values, assumptions, and priorities. Accepting media messages at face value could lead to confusion because of all the contradictory information available. For example, in 2010, a highly contested governor’s race in New Mexico led to conflicting ads from both candidates, Diane Denish and Susana Martinez, each claiming that the other agreed to policies that benefited sex offenders. According to media watchdog site FactCheck.org, the Denish team’s ad “shows a preteen girl—seemingly about 9 years old—going down a playground slide in slow-motion, while ominous music plays in the background and an announcer discusses two sex crime cases. It ends with an empty swing, as the announcer says: ‘Today we don’t know where these sex offenders are lurking, because Susana Martinez didn’t do her job.’” The opposing ad proclaims that “a department in Denish’s cabinet gave sanctuary to criminal illegals, like child molester Juan Gonzalez (Robertson & Kiely, 2010).” Both claims are highly inflammatory, play on fear, and distort the reality behind each situation. Media literacy involves educating people to look critically at these and other media messages and to sift through various messages and make sense of the conflicting information we face every day.

New Skills for a New World

In the past, one goal of education was to provide students with the information deemed necessary to successfully engage with the world. Students memorized multiplication tables, state capitals, famous poems, and notable dates. Today, however, vast amounts of information are available at the click of a mouse. Even before the advent of the Internet, noted communications scholar David Berlo foresaw the consequences of expanding information technology: “Most of what we have called formal education has been intended to imprint on the human mind all of the information that we might need for a lifetime.” Changes in technology necessitate changes in how we learn, Berlo noted, and these days “education needs to be geared toward the handling of data rather than the accumulation of data (Shaw, 2003).”

Wikipedia, a hugely popular Internet encyclopedia, is at the forefront of the debate on the proper use of online sources. In 2007, Middlebury College banned the use of Wikipedia as a source in history papers and exams. One of the school’s librarians noted that the online encyclopedia “symbolizes the best and worst of the Internet. It’s the best because everyone gets his/her say and can state their views. It’s the worst because people who use it uncritically take for truth what is only opinion (Byers, 2007).” Or, as comedian and satirist Stephen Colbert put it, “Any user can change any entry, and if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true (Colbert, 2006).” A computer registered to the U.S. Democratic Party changed the Wikipedia page for Rush Limbaugh to proclaim that he was “racist” and a “bigot,” and a person working for the electronic voting machine manufacturer Diebold was found to have erased paragraphs connecting the company to Republican campaign funds (Fildes, 2007). Media literacy teaches today’s students how to sort through the Internet’s cloud of data, locate reliable sources, and identify bias and unreliable sources.

Individual Accountability and Popular Culture

Ultimately, media literacy involves teaching that images are constructed with various aims in mind and that it falls to the individual to evaluate and interpret these media messages. Mass communication may be created and disseminated by individuals, businesses, governments, or organizations, but it is always received by an individual. Education, life experience, and a host of other factors make each person interpret constructed media in different ways; there is no correct way to interpret a media message. But on the whole, better media literacy skills help us function better in our media-rich environment, enabling us to be better democratic citizens, smarter shoppers, and more skeptical media consumers. When analyzing media messages, consider the following:

  1. Author: Consider who is presenting the information. Is it a news organization, a corporation, or an individual? What links do they have to the information they are providing? A news station might be owned by the company it is reporting on; likewise, an individual might have financial reasons for supporting a certain message.
  2. Format: Television and print media often use images to grab people’s attention. Do the visuals only present one side of the story? Is the footage overly graphic or designed to provoke a specific reaction? Which celebrities or professionals are endorsing this message?
  3. Audience: Imagine yourself in another’s shoes. Would someone of the opposite gender feel the same way as you do about this message? How might someone of a different race or nationality feel about it? How might an older or younger person interpret this information differently? Was this message made to appeal to a specific audience?
  4. Content: Even content providers that try to present information objectively can have an unconscious slant. Analyze who is presenting this message. Does he or she have any clear political affiliations? Is he or she being paid to speak or write this information? What unconscious influences might be at work?
  5. Purpose: Nothing is communicated by mass media without a reason. What reaction is the message trying to provoke? Are you being told to feel or act a certain way? Examine the information closely and look for possible hidden agendas.

With these considerations as a jumping-off place, we can ensure that we’re staying informed about where our information comes from and why it is being sent—important steps in any media literacy education (Center for Media Literacy).

Key Takeaways

  • Media literacy, or the ability to decode and process media messages, is especially important in today’s media-saturated society. Media surrounds contemporary Americans to an unprecedented degree and from an early age. Because media messages are constructed with particular aims in mind, a media-literate individual will interpret them with a critical eye. Advertisements, bias, spin, and misinformation are all things to look for.
  • Individual responsibility is crucial for media literacy because, while media messages may be produced by individuals, companies, governments, or organizations, they are always received and decoded by individuals.
  • When analyzing media messages, consider the message’s author, format, audience, content, and purpose.


List the considerations for evaluating media messages and then search the Internet for information on a current event. Choose one blog post, news article, or video about the topic and identify the author, format, audience, content, and purpose of your chosen subject. Then, respond to the following questions. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  1. How did your impression of the information change after answering the five questions? Do you think other questions need to be asked?
  2. Is it difficult or easy to practice media literacy on the Internet? What are a few ways you can practice media literacy for television or radio shows?
  3. Do you think the public has a responsibility to be media literate? Why or why not?

End-of-Chapter Assessment

Review Questions

  1. Section 1

    1. What is the difference between mass communication and mass media?
    2. What are some ways that culture affects media?
    3. What are some ways that media affect culture?
  2. Section 2

    1. List four roles that media plays in society.
    2. Identify historical events that have shaped the adoption of various mass-communication platforms.
    3. How have technological shifts affected the media over time?
  3. Section 3

    1. What is convergence, and what are some examples of it in daily life?
    2. What were the five types of convergence identified by Jenkins?
    3. How are different kinds of convergence shaping the digital age on both an individual and a social level?
  4. Section 4

    1. How does the value of free speech affect American culture and media?
    2. What are some of the limits placed on free speech, and how do they reflect social values?
    3. What is propaganda, and how does it reflect and/or impact social values?
    4. Who are gatekeepers, and how do they influence the media landscape?
  5. Section 5

    1. What is a cultural period?
    2. How did events, technological advances, political changes, and philosophies help shape the Modern Era?
    3. What are some of the major differences between the modern and postmodern eras?
  6. Section 6

    1. What is media literacy, and why is it relevant in today’s world?
    2. What is the role of the individual in interpreting media messages?
    3. What are the five considerations for evaluating media messages?

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. What does the history of media technology have to teach us about present-day America? How might current and emerging technologies change our cultural landscape in the near future?
  2. Are gatekeepers and tastemakers necessary for mass media? How is the Internet helping us to reimagine these roles?
  3. The idea of cultural periods presumes that changes in society and technology lead to dramatic shifts in the way people see the world. How have digital technology and the Internet changed how people interact with their environment and with each other? Are we changing to a new cultural period, or is contemporary life still a continuation of the Postmodern Age?
  4. U.S. law regulates free speech through laws on obscenity, copyright infringement, and other things. Why are some forms of expression protected while others aren’t? How do you think cultural values will change U.S. media law in the near future?
  5. Does media literacy education belong in U.S. schools? Why or why not? What might a media literacy curriculum look like?

Career Connection

In a media-saturated world, companies use consultants to help analyze and manage the interaction between their organizations and the media. Independent consultants develop projects, keep abreast of media trends, and provide advice based on industry reports. Or, as writer, speaker, and media consultant Merlin Mann put it, the “primary job is to stay curious about everything, identify the points where two forces might clash, then enthusiastically share what that might mean, as well as why you might care (Mann).”

Read the blog post “So what do consultants do?” at http://www.consulting-business.com/so-what-do-consultants-do.html.

Now, explore writer and editor Merlin Mann’s website (http://www.merlinmann.com). Be sure to take a look at the “Bio” and “FAQs” sections. These two pages will help you answer the following questions:

  1. Merlin Mann provides some work for free and charges a significant amount for other projects. What are some of the indications he gives in his biography about what he values? How do you think this impacts his fees?
  2. Check out Merlin Mann’s projects. What are some of the projects Merlin is or has been involved with? Now look at the “Speaking” page. Can you see a link between his projects and his role as a prominent writer, speaker, and consultant?
  3. Check out Merlin’s FAQ section. What is his attitude about social networking sites? What about public relations? Why do you think he holds these opinions?
  4. Think about niches in the Internet industry where a consultant might be helpful. Do you have expertise, theories, or reasonable advice that might make you a useful asset for a business or organization? Find an example of an organization or group with some media presence. If you were this group’s consultant, how would you recommend they better reach their goals?


Byers, Meredith “Controversy Over Use of Wikipedia in Academic Papers Arrives at Smith,” Smith College Sophian, News section, March 8, 2007.

Center for Media Literacy, “Five Key Questions Form Foundation for Media Inquiry,” http://www.medialit.org/reading-room/five-key-questions-form-foundation-media-inquiry.

Colbert, Stephen. “The Word: Wikiality,” The Colbert Report, July 31, 2006.

Fildes, Jonathan. “Wikipedia ‘Shows CIA Page Edits,’” BBC News, Science and Technology section, August 15, 2007.

Holt, Debra. and others, Children’s Exposure to TV Advertising in 1977 and 2004, Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Economics staff report, June 1, 2007.

Lewin. “If Your Kids Are Awake.”

Mann, Merlin. http://www.merlinmann.com/projects/.

Moody, Kate. “John Culkin, SJ: The Man Who Invented Media Literacy: 1928–1993,” Center for Media Literacy, http://www.medialit.org/reading_room/article408.html.

Robertson, Lori and Eugene Kiely, “Mudslinging in New Mexico: Gubernatorial Candidates Launch Willie Horton-Style Ads, Each Accusing the Other of Enabling Sex Offenders to Strike Again,” FactCheck.org, June 24, 2010, http://factcheck.org/2010/06/mudslinging-in-new-mexico/.

Shaw, David. “A Plea for Media Literacy in our Nation’s Schools,” Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2003.

Shifrin, Donald. “Perspectives on Marketing, Self-Regulation and Childhood Obesity” (remarks, Federal Trade Commission Workshop, Washington, DC, July 14–15, 2005).

Chapter 2: Media Effects


2.1 Mass Media and Its Messages
2.2 Media Effects Theories
2.3 Methods of Researching Media Effects
2.4 Media Studies Controversies

2.1 Mass Media and Its Messages


Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the different ways mass media affects culture.
  2. Analyze cultural messages that the media send.
  3. Explain the ways new media have affected culture.

When media consumers think of media messages, they may think of televised public service announcements or political advertisements. These obvious examples provide a venue for the transfer of a message through a medium, whether that message is a plea for fire safety or the statement of a political position. But what about more abstract political advertisements that simply show the logo of a candidate and a few simple words? Media messages can range from overt statements to vague expressions of cultural values.

Disagreements over the content of media messages certainly exist. Consider the common allegations of political bias against various news organizations. Accusations of hidden messages or agenda-driven content have always been an issue in the media, but as the presence of media grows, the debate concerning media messages increases. This dialogue is an important one; after all, mass media have long been used to persuade. Many modern persuasive techniques stem from the use of media as a propaganda tool. The role of propaganda and persuasion in the mass media is a good place to start when considering various types of media effects.

Propaganda and Persuasion

Encyclopedia Britannica defines propaganda simply as the “manipulation of information to influence public opinion (Britannica Concise Encyclopedia).” This definition works well for this discussion because the study and use of propaganda has had an enormous influence on the role of persuasion in modern mass media. In his book The Creation of the Media, Paul Starr argues that the United States, as a liberal democracy, has favored employing an independent press as a public guardian, thus putting the media in an inherently political position (Starr, 2004). The United States—in contrast to other nations where media are held in check—has encouraged an independent commercial press and thus given the powers of propaganda and persuasion to the public (Starr, 2004).

Figure 2.2


Benjamin Franklin used a powerful image of a severed snake to emphasize the importance of the colonies joining together during the American Revolution.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

Like any type of communication, propaganda is not inherently good or bad. Whether propaganda has a positive or negative effect on society and culture depends on the motivations of those who use it. People promoting movements as wide-ranging as Christianity, the American Revolution, and the communist revolutions of the 20th century have all used propaganda to disseminate their messages (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2006). Newspapers and pamphlets that glorified the sacrifices at Lexington and Concord and trumpeted the victories of George Washington’s army greatly aided the American Revolution. For example, Benjamin Franklin’s famous illustration of a severed snake with the caption “Join or Die” serves as an early testament to the power and use of print propaganda (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2006).

As you will learn in Chapter 4 “Newspapers”, the penny press made newspapers accessible to a mass audience and became a force for social cohesion during the 1830s (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2006). Magazines adopted a similar format later in the 19th century, and print media’s political and social power rose. In an infamous example of the new power of print media, some newspapers encouraged the Spanish-American War of 1898 by fabricating stories of Spanish atrocities and sabotage (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2006). For example, after the USS Maine sunk off the coast of Havana, Cuba, some newspapers blamed the Spanish—even though there was no evidence—fueling the public’s desire for war with Spain.

The present-day, pejorative connotation of propaganda stems from the full utilization of mass media by World War I–era governments to motivate the citizenry of many countries to go to war. Some media outlets characterized the war as a global fight between Anglo civilization and Prussian barbarianism. Although some of those fighting the war had little understanding of the political motivations behind it, wartime propaganda convinced them to enlist (Miller, 2005). As you will read in Chapter 12 “Advertising and Public Relations”, World War I legitimized the advertising profession in the minds of government and corporate leaders because its techniques were useful in patriotic propaganda campaigns. Corporations quickly adapted to this development and created an advertising boom in the 1920s by using World War I propaganda techniques to sell products (Miller, 2005).

In modern society, the persuasive power of the mass media is well known. Governments, corporations, nonprofit organizations, and political campaigns rely on both new and old media to create messages and to send them to the general public. The comparatively unregulated nature of U.S. media has made, for better or worse, a society in which the tools of public persuasion are available to everyone.

Media and Behavior

Although the mass media send messages created specifically for public consumption, they also convey messages that are not properly defined as propaganda or persuasion. Some argue that these messages influence behavior, especially the behavior of young people (Beatty, 2006). Violent, sexual, and compulsive behaviors have been linked to media consumption and thus raise important questions about the effects of media on culture.

Violence and the Media

On April 20, 1999, students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered their Denver-area high school, Columbine High School, armed with semiautomatic weapons and explosives. Over the next few hours, the pair killed 12 classmates and one faculty member before committing suicide (Lamb, 2008). The tragedy and its aftermath captured national attention, and in the weeks following the Columbine High School shootings, politicians and pundits worked to assign blame. Their targets ranged from the makers of the first-person shooter video game Doom to the Hollywood studios responsible for The Matrix (Brook, 1999).

However, in the years since the massacre, research has revealed that the perpetrators were actually attempting a terrorist bombing rather than a first-person shooter style rampage (Toppo, 1999). But did violent video games so desensitize the two teenagers to violence that they could contemplate such a plan? Did movies that glorify violent solutions create a culture that would encourage people to consider such methods? Because modern culture is so immersed in media, the issue becomes a particularly complex one, and it can be difficult to understand the types of effects that violent media produce.

Figure 2.3


The 1999 Columbine High School shooting led to greater debate and criticism over violent video games.

A number of studies have verified certain connections between violent video games and violent behavior in young people. For example, studies have found that some young people who play violent video games reported angry thoughts and aggressive feelings immediately after playing. Other studies, such as one conducted by Dr. Chris A. Anderson and others, point to correlations between the amount of time spent playing violent video games and increased incidence of aggression (Anderson, 2003). However, these studies do not prove that video games cause violence. Video game defenders argue that violent people can be drawn to violent games, and they point to lower overall incidence of youth violence in recent years compared to past decades (Adams, 2010). Other researchers admit that individuals prone to violent acts are indeed drawn to violent media; however, they claim that by keeping these individuals in a movie theater or at home, violent media have actually contributed to a reduction in violent social acts (Goodman, 2008).

Whether violent media actually cause violence remains unknown, but unquestionably these forms of media send an emotional message to which individuals respond. Media messages are not limited to overt statements; they can also use emotions, such as fear, love, happiness, and depression. These emotional reactions partially account for the intense power of media in our culture.

Sex and the Media

In many types of media, sexual content—and its strong emotional message—can be prolific. A recent study by researchers at the University of North Carolina entitled “Sexy Media Matter: Exposure to Sexual Content in Music, Movies, Television, and Magazines Predicts Black and White Adolescents’ Sexual Behavior” found that young people with heavy exposure to sexually themed media ranging from music to movies are twice as likely to engage in early sexual behavior as young people with light exposure. Although the study does not prove a conclusive link between sexual behavior and sexually oriented media, researchers concluded that media acted as an influential source of information about sex for these youth groups (Dohney, 2006). Researcher Jane Brown thinks part of the reason children watch sexual content is related to puberty and their desire to learn about sex. While many parents are hesitant to discuss sex with their children, the media can act like a “super peer,” providing information in movies, television, music, and magazines (Dohney, 2006). You will learn more about the impact of sexual content in the media in Chapter 14 “Ethics of Mass Media”.

Cultural Messages and the Media

The media sends messages that reinforce cultural values. These values are perhaps most visible in celebrities and the roles that they adopt. Actors such as John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe came to represent aspects of masculinity and femininity that were adopted into mainstream culture during the mid-20th century. Throughout the 1990s, basketball player Michael Jordan appeared in television, film, magazines, and advertising campaigns as a model of athleticism and willpower. Singers such as Bob Dylan have represented a sense of freedom and rebellion against mainstream culture.

Figure 2.4


Tonto from The Lone Ranger reinforced cultural stereotypes about Native Americans. Do you think this type of characterization would be acceptable in modern television?

Although many consider celebrity culture superficial and a poor reflection of a country’s values, not all celebrities are simply entertainers. Civil rights leaders, social reformers, and other famous public figures have come to represent important cultural accomplishments and advancements through their representations in the media. When images of Abraham Lincoln or Susan B. Anthony appear in the media, they resonate with cultural and historical themes greatly separated from mere fame.

Celebrities can also reinforce cultural stereotypes that marginalize certain groups. Television and magazines from the mid-20th century often portrayed women in a submissive, domestic role, both reflecting and reinforcing the cultural limitations imposed on women at the time. Advertising icons developed during the early 20th century, such as Aunt Jemima and the Cream of Wheat chef, similarly reflected and reinforced a submissive, domestic servant role for African Americans. Other famous stereotypes—such as the Lone Ranger’s Native American sidekick, Tonto, or Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—also reinforced American preconceptions about ethnic predispositions and capabilities.

Whether actual or fictional, celebrities and their assumed roles send a number of different messages about cultural values. They can promote courageous truth telling, hide and prolong social problems, or provide a concrete example of an abstract cultural value.

New Media and Society

New media—the Internet and other digital forms of communication—have had a large effect on society. This communication and information revolution has created a great deal of anguish about digital literacy and other issues that inevitably accompany such a social change. In his book on technology and communication, A Better Pencil, Dennis Baron discusses this issue:

For Plato, only speech, not writing, can produce the kind of back-and-forth—the dialogue—that’s needed to get at the truth…the text, orphaned by its author once it’s on the page, cannot defend itself against misreading…. These are strong arguments, but even in Plato’s day they had been rendered moot by the success of the written word. Although the literacy rate in classical Greece was well below 10 percent, writing had become an important feature of the culture. People had learned to trust and use certain kinds of writing—legal texts, public inscriptions, business documents, personal letters, and even literature—and as they did so, they realized that writing, on closer examination, turned out to be neither more nor less reliable or ambiguous than the spoken word, and it was just as real (Baron, 2009).

Baron makes the point that all communication revolutions have created upheavals and have changed the standards of literacy and communication. This historical perspective gives a positive interpretation to some otherwise ominous developments in communication and culture.


The Internet has made an incredible amount of new information available to the general public. Both this wealth of information and the ways people process it are having an enormous effect on culture. New perceptions of information have emerged as access to it grows. Older-media consumption habits required in-depth processing of information through a particular form of media. For example, consumers read, watched, or viewed a news report in its entirety, typically within the context of a news publication or program. Fiction appeared in book or magazine form.

Today, information is easier to access, thus more likely to traverse several forms of media. An individual may read an article on a news website and then forward part of it to a friend. That person in turn describes it to a coworker without having seen the original context. The ready availability of information through search engines may explain how a clearly satirical Onion article on the Harry Potter phenomenon came to be taken as fact. Increasingly, media outlets cater to this habit of searching for specific bits of information devoid of context. Information that will attract the most attention is often featured at the expense of more important stories. At one point on March 11, 2010, for example, The Washington Post website’s most popular story was “Maintaining a Sex Life (Kakutani, 2010).”

Another important development in the media’s approach to information is its increasing subjectivity. Some analysts have used the term cyberbalkanization to describe the way media consumers filter information. Balkanization is an allusion to the political fragmentation of Eastern Europe’s Balkan states following World War I, when the Ottoman Empire disintegrated into a number of ethnic and political fragments. Customized news feeds allow individuals to receive only the kinds of news and information they want and thus block out sources that report unwanted stories or perspectives. Many cultural critics have pointed to this kind of information filtering as the source of increasing political division and resulting loss of civic discourse. When media consumers hear only the information they want to, the common ground of public discourse that stems from general agreement on certain principles inevitably grows smaller (Kakutani, 2010).


On one hand, the growth of the Internet as the primary information source exposes the public to increased levels of text, thereby increasing overall literacy. Indeed, written text is essential to the Internet: Web content is overwhelmingly text-based, and successful participation in Internet culture through the use of blogs, forums, or a personal website requires a degree of textual literacy that is not necessary for engagement in television, music, or movies.

Critics of Internet literacy, however, describe the majority of forum and blog posts as subliterate, and argue that the Internet has replaced the printed newspapers and books that actually raised the standards of literacy. One nuanced look at the Internet’s effect on the way a culture processes and perceives information states that literacy will not simply increase or decrease, but will change qualitatively (Choney, 2010). Perhaps the standards for literacy will shift to an emphasis on simplicity and directness, for example, rather than on elaborate uses of language.


Figure 2.5


President Barack Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal after a controversial Rolling Stone story in which McChrystal spoke poorly of the Obama administration was leaked on the Internet.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

Certainly, the Internet has affected the way that cultures consume news. The public expects to receive information quickly, and news outlets respond rapidly to breaking stories. On Monday, June 21, 2010, for example, a spokesperson for Rolling Stone magazine first released quotes from a story featuring General Stanley McChrystal publicly criticizing members of the Obama administration on matters of foreign policy. By that evening, the story had become national news despite the fact Rolling Stone didn’t even post it to its website until Tuesday morning—some time after several news outlets had already posted the entire story on their own sites. Later that same day, McChrystal issued a public apology, and on Wednesday flew to Washington where President Barack Obama fired him. The printed Rolling Stone issue featuring the article hit newsstands Friday, 2 days after McChrystal had been replaced (Timpane, 2010).

Convergence Culture

The term convergence can hold several different meanings. In his book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Henry Jenkins offers a useful definition of convergence as it applies to new media:

“By convergence, I mean the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want (Jenkins, 2006).”

A self-produced video on the YouTube website that gains enormous popularity and thus receives the attention of a news outlet is a good example of this migration of both content and audiences. Consider this flow: The video appears and gains notoriety, so a news outlet broadcasts a story about the video, which in turn increases its popularity on YouTube. This migration works in a number of ways. Humorous or poignant excerpts from television or radio broadcasts are often posted on social media sites and blogs, where they gain popularity and are seen by more people than had seen the original broadcast.

Thanks to new media, consumers now view all types of media as participatory. For example, the massively popular talent show American Idol combines an older-media format—television—with modern media consumption patterns by allowing the home audience to vote for a favorite contestant. However, American Idol segments regularly appear on YouTube and other websites, where people who may never have seen the show comment on and dissect them. Phone companies report a regular increase in phone traffic following the show, presumably caused by viewers calling in to cast their votes or simply to discuss the program with friends and family. As a result, more people are exposed to the themes, principles, and culture of American Idol than the number of people who actually watch the show (Jenkins, 2006).

New media have encouraged greater personal participation in media as a whole. Although the long-term cultural consequences of this shift cannot yet be assessed, the development is undeniably a novel one. As audiences become more adept at navigating media, this trend will undoubtedly increase.

Bert Is Evil

Figure 2.6


Jughead – evil bert – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In 2001, high school student Dino Ignacio created a collage of Sesame Street character Bert with terrorist Osama bin Laden as part of a series for his website. Called “Bert Is Evil,” the series featured the puppet engaged in a variety of illicit activities. A Bangladesh-based publisher looking for images of bin Laden found the collage on the Internet and used it in an anti-American protest poster, presumably without knowledge of who Bert was. This ended up in a CNN report on anti-American protests, and public outrage over the use of Bert made Ignacio’s original site a much-imitated cult phenomenon.

The voyage of this collage from a high school student’s website to an anti-American protest poster in the Middle East to a cable television news network and finally back to the Internet provides a good illustration of the ways in which content migrates across media platforms in the modern era. As the collage crossed geographic and cultural boundaries, it grew on both corporate and grassroots media. While this is not the norm for media content, the fact that such a phenomenon is possible illustrates the new directions in which media is headed (Jenkins, 2006).

Key Takeaways

  • Propaganda and persuasion have long been a part of the interactions between media and culture.
  • Most studies on media and behavior do not establish direct links between the two but do reveal important correlations among media, violence, and sexual behavior.
  • Through the media, celebrities have come to signify important cultural values and tendencies, and they transmit specific cultural messages.
  • New digital forms of media have revolutionized the way people access and consume media content. Rather than simply replacing old media, however, new forms of media encourage participatory media consumption and content migration.


  1. Celebrities can represent cultural values and principles when they are portrayed in the media. The same celebrity can represent very different things depending on the form of media and its portrayal of that person. Find a celebrity magazine, such as People or Us Weekly, either online or in print, and choose one of the celebrities mentioned. Then, answer the following questions:
    • How is this celebrity portrayed in the magazine?
    • What kind of roles does the celebrity take in other forms of media, such as television or film?
    • How do these portrayals associate with specific cultural values?
  2. Explain how the media has affected culture. Be sure to discuss the following topics and to provide examples of each.

    • Propaganda and persuasion
    • Behavior
    • Cultural messages
  3. How has new media affected literacy and information consumption? How is this different from older forms of media?


Adams, Jill U. “Effects of Violent Video Games,” Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2010, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/may/03/health/la-he-closer-20100503.

Anderson, Craig A. and others, “The Influence of Media Violence on Youth,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 4, no. 3 (2003): 81–110.

Baron, Dennis. A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 5.

Beatty, Alexandra. “Studying Media Effects on Children and Youth: Improving Methods and Measures, Workshop Summary,” March 2–3, 2006, The National Academies Press, http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11706; “Media Influence on Youth,” Crisis Connection, http://www.crisisconnectioninc.org/teens/media_influence_on_youth.htm.

Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, s.v. “Propaganda.”

Brook, Tom. “Is Hollywood to Blame?” BBC News, April 23, 1999, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/special_report/1999/03/99/tom_brook/326529.stm.

Choney, Suzanne. “Internet Making Our Brains Different, Not Dumb,” MSNBC, Feb. 19, 2010, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35464896/ns/technology_and_science-tech_and_gadgets/.

Doheny, Kathleen “Mass Media May Prompt Kids to Try Sex: Study,” Health Scout, April 3, 2006, http://www.healthscout.com/news/1/531862/main.html.

Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006), 60–61.

Goodman, Peter. “Violent Films May Cut Real Crime, Study Finds,” New York Times, January 7, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/07/technology/07iht-violence.4.9058958.html.

Jenkins, Henry Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 2.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Texts Without Context,” New York Times, March 17, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/21/books/21mash.html.

Lamb, Gina. “Columbine High School,” Times Topics, New York Times, April 17, 2008, http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/organizations/c/columbine_high_school/index.html.

Miller, Mark Crispin. introduction to Propaganda, by Edward Bernays (Brooklyn, NY: IG Publishing, 2005), 11.

Starr, Paul. Creation of the Media (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 394–395.

Timpane, Jim. “New Media Too Speedy to Outflank,” Philly.com, June 24, 2010, http://www.philly.com/philly/entertainment/20100624_New_media_too_speedy_to_outflank.html.

Toppo, Greg. “10 Years Later, the Real Story Behind Columbine,” USA Today, April 13, 2009, http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-04-13-columbine-myths_N.htm.

2.2 Media Effects Theories


Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the basic theories of media effects.
  2. Explain the uses of various media effects theories.

Early media studies focused on the use of mass media in propaganda and persuasion. However, journalists and researchers soon looked to behavioral sciences to help figure out the effect of mass media and communications on society. Scholars have developed many different approaches and theories to figure this out. You can refer to these theories as you research and consider the media’s effect on culture.

Widespread fear that mass-media messages could outweigh other stabilizing cultural influences, such as family and community, led to what is known as the direct effects model of media studies. This model assumed that audiences passively accepted media messages and would exhibit predictable reactions in response to those messages. For example, following the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938 (which was a fictional news report of an alien invasion), some people panicked and believed the story to be true.

Challenges to the Direct Effects Theory

The results of the People’s Choice Study challenged this model. Conducted in 1940, the study attempted to gauge the effects of political campaigns on voter choice. Researchers found that voters who consumed the most media had generally already decided for which candidate to vote, while undecided voters generally turned to family and community members to help them decide. The study thus discredited the direct effects model and influenced a host of other media theories (Hanson, 2009). These theories do not necessarily give an all-encompassing picture of media effects but rather work to illuminate a particular aspect of media influence.

Marshall McLuhan’s Influence on Media Studies

During the early 1960s, English professor Marshall McLuhan wrote two books that had an enormous effect on the history of media studies. Published in 1962 and 1964, respectively, the Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media both traced the history of media technology and illustrated the ways these innovations had changed both individual behavior and the wider culture. Understanding Media introduced a phrase that McLuhan has become known for: “The medium is the message.” This notion represented a novel take on attitudes toward media—that the media themselves are instrumental in shaping human and cultural experience.

His bold statements about media gained McLuhan a great deal of attention as both his supporters and critics responded to his utopian views about the ways media could transform 20th-century life. McLuhan spoke of a media-inspired “global village” at a time when Cold War paranoia was at its peak and the Vietnam War was a hotly debated subject. Although 1960s-era utopians received these statements positively, social realists found them cause for scorn. Despite—or perhaps because of—these controversies, McLuhan became a pop culture icon, mentioned frequently in the television sketch-comedy program Laugh-In and appearing as himself in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall.

The Internet and its accompanying cultural revolution have made McLuhan’s bold utopian visions seem like prophecies. Indeed, his work has received a great deal of attention in recent years. Analysis of McLuhan’s work has, interestingly, not changed very much since his works were published. His supporters point to the hopes and achievements of digital technology and the utopian state that such innovations promise. The current critique of McLuhan, however, is a bit more revealing of the state of modern media studies. Media scholars are much more numerous now than they were during the 1960s, and many of these scholars criticize McLuhan’s lack of methodology and theoretical framework.

Despite his lack of scholarly diligence, McLuhan had a great deal of influence on media studies. Professors at Fordham University have formed an association of McLuhan-influenced scholars. McLuhan’s other great achievement is the popularization of the concept of media studies. His work brought the idea of media effects into the public arena and created a new way for the public to consider the influence of media on culture (Stille, 2000).

Agenda-Setting Theory

In contrast to the extreme views of the direct effects model, the agenda-setting theory of media stated that mass media determine the issues that concern the public rather than the public’s views. Under this theory, the issues that receive the most attention from media become the issues that the public discusses, debates, and demands action on. This means that the media is determining what issues and stories the public thinks about. Therefore, when the media fails to address a particular issue, it becomes marginalized in the minds of the public (Hanson).

When critics claim that a particular media outlet has an agenda, they are drawing on this theory. Agendas can range from a perceived liberal bias in the news media to the propagation of cutthroat capitalist ethics in films. For example, the agenda-setting theory explains such phenomena as the rise of public opinion against smoking. Before the mass media began taking an antismoking stance, smoking was considered a personal health issue. By promoting antismoking sentiments through advertisements, public relations campaigns, and a variety of media outlets, the mass media moved smoking into the public arena, making it a public health issue rather than a personal health issue (Dearing & Rogers, 1996). More recently, coverage of natural disasters has been prominent in the news. However, as news coverage wanes, so does the general public’s interest.

Figure 2.7


Through a variety of antismoking campaigns, the health risks of smoking became a public agenda.

Quinn Dombrowski – Weapons of mass destruction – CC BY-SA 2.0.

Media scholars who specialize in agenda-setting research study the salience, or relative importance, of an issue and then attempt to understand what causes it to be important. The relative salience of an issue determines its place within the public agenda, which in turn influences public policy creation. Agenda-setting research traces public policy from its roots as an agenda through its promotion in the mass media and finally to its final form as a law or policy (Dearing & Rogers, 1996).

Uses and Gratifications Theory

Practitioners of the uses and gratifications theory study the ways the public consumes media. This theory states that consumers use the media to satisfy specific needs or desires. For example, you may enjoy watching a show like Dancing With the Stars while simultaneously tweeting about it on Twitter with your friends. Many people use the Internet to seek out entertainment, to find information, to communicate with like-minded individuals, or to pursue self-expression. Each of these uses gratifies a particular need, and the needs determine the way in which media is used. By examining factors of different groups’ media choices, researchers can determine the motivations behind media use (Papacharissi, 2009).

A typical uses and gratifications study explores the motives for media consumption and the consequences associated with use of that media. In the case of Dancing With the Stars and Twitter, you are using the Internet as a way to be entertained and to connect with your friends. Researchers have identified a number of common motives for media consumption. These include relaxation, social interaction, entertainment, arousal, escape, and a host of interpersonal and social needs. By examining the motives behind the consumption of a particular form of media, researchers can better understand both the reasons for that medium’s popularity and the roles that the medium fills in society. A study of the motives behind a given user’s interaction with Facebook, for example, could explain the role Facebook takes in society and the reasons for its appeal.

Uses and gratifications theories of media are often applied to contemporary media issues. The analysis of the relationship between media and violence that you read about in preceding sections exemplifies this. Researchers employed the uses and gratifications theory in this case to reveal a nuanced set of circumstances surrounding violent media consumption, as individuals with aggressive tendencies were drawn to violent media (Papacharissi, 2009).

Symbolic Interactionism

Another commonly used media theory, symbolic interactionism, states that the self is derived from and develops through human interaction. This means the way you act toward someone or something is based on the meaning you have for a person or thing. To effectively communicate, people use symbols with shared cultural meanings. Symbols can be constructed from just about anything, including material goods, education, or even the way people talk. Consequentially, these symbols are instrumental in the development of the self.

This theory helps media researchers better understand the field because of the important role the media plays in creating and propagating shared symbols. Because of the media’s power, it can construct symbols on its own. By using symbolic interactionist theory, researchers can look at the ways media affects a society’s shared symbols and, in turn, the influence of those symbols on the individual (Jansson-Boyd, 2010).

One of the ways the media creates and uses cultural symbols to affect an individual’s sense of self is advertising. Advertisers work to give certain products a shared cultural meaning to make them desirable. For example, when you see someone driving a BMW, what do you think about that person? You may assume the person is successful or powerful because of the car he or she is driving. Ownership of luxury automobiles signifies membership in a certain socioeconomic class. Equally, technology company Apple has used advertising and public relations to attempt to become a symbol of innovation and nonconformity. Use of an Apple product, therefore, may have a symbolic meaning and may send a particular message about the product’s owner.

Media also propagate other noncommercial symbols. National and state flags, religious images, and celebrities gain shared symbolic meanings through their representation in the media.

Spiral of Silence

The spiral of silence theory, which states that those who hold a minority opinion silence themselves to prevent social isolation, explains the role of mass media in the formation and maintenance of dominant opinions. As minority opinions are silenced, the illusion of consensus grows, and so does social pressure to adopt the dominant position. This creates a self-propagating loop in which minority voices are reduced to a minimum and perceived popular opinion sides wholly with the majority opinion. For example, prior to and during World War II, many Germans opposed Adolf Hitler and his policies; however, they kept their opposition silent out of fear of isolation and stigma.

Because the media is one of the most important gauges of public opinion, this theory is often used to explain the interaction between media and public opinion. According to the spiral of silence theory, if the media propagates a particular opinion, then that opinion will effectively silence opposing opinions through an illusion of consensus. This theory relates especially to public polling and its use in the media (Papacharissi).

Media Logic

The media logic theory states that common media formats and styles serve as a means of perceiving the world. Today, the deep rooting of media in the cultural consciousness means that media consumers need engage for only a few moments with a particular television program to understand that it is a news show, a comedy, or a reality show. The pervasiveness of these formats means that our culture uses the style and content of these shows as ways to interpret reality. For example, think about a TV news program that frequently shows heated debates between opposing sides on public policy issues. This style of debate has become a template for handling disagreement to those who consistently watch this type of program.

Media logic affects institutions as well as individuals. The modern televangelist has evolved from the adoption of television-style promotion by religious figures, while the utilization of television in political campaigns has led candidates to consider their physical image as an important part of a campaign (Altheide & Snow, 1991).

Cultivation Analysis

The cultivation analysis theory states that heavy exposure to media causes individuals to develop an illusory perception of reality based on the most repetitive and consistent messages of a particular medium. This theory most commonly applies to analyses of television because of that medium’s uniquely pervasive, repetitive nature. Under this theory, someone who watches a great deal of television may form a picture of reality that does not correspond to actual life. Televised violent acts, whether those reported on news programs or portrayed on television dramas, for example, greatly outnumber violent acts that most people encounter in their daily lives. Thus, an individual who watches a great deal of television may come to view the world as more violent and dangerous than it actually is.

Cultivation analysis projects involve a number of different areas for research, such as the differences in perception between heavy and light users of media. To apply this theory, the media content that an individual normally watches must be analyzed for various types of messages. Then, researchers must consider the given media consumer’s cultural background of individuals to correctly determine other factors that are involved in his or her perception of reality. For example, the socially stabilizing influences of family and peer groups influence children’s television viewing and the way they process media messages. If an individual’s family or social life plays a major part in her life, the social messages that she receives from these groups may compete with the messages she receives from television.

Key Takeaways

  • The now largely discredited direct effects model of media studies assumes that media audiences passively accept media messages and exhibit predictable reactions in response to those messages.
  • Credible media theories generally do not give as much power to the media, such as the agenda-setting theory, or give a more active role to the media consumer, such as the uses and gratifications theory.
  • Other theories focus on specific aspects of media influence, such as the spiral of silence theory’s focus on the power of the majority opinion or the symbolic interactionism theory’s exploration of shared cultural symbolism.
  • Media logic and cultivation analysis theories deal with how media consumers’ perceptions of reality can be influenced by media messages.


  1. Media theories have a variety of uses and applications. Research one of the following topics and its effect on culture. Examine the topic using at least two of the approaches discussed in this section. Then, write a one-page essay about the topic you’ve selected.

    • Media bias
    • Internet habits
    • Television’s effect on attention span
    • Advertising and self-image
    • Racial stereotyping in film
  2. Many of the theories discussed in this section were developed decades ago. Identify how each of these theories can be used today? Do you think these theories are still relevant for modern mass media? Why?


David Altheide and Robert Snow, Media Worlds in the Postjournalism Era (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1991), 9–11.

Dearing, James and Everett Rogers, Agenda-Setting (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996), 4.

Hanson, Ralph. Mass Communication: Living in a Media World (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2009), 80–81.

Hanson, Ralph. Mass Communication, 92.

Jansson-Boyd, Catherine. Consumer Psychology (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 59–62.

Papacharissi, Zizi. “Uses and Gratifications,” 153–154.

Papacharissi, Zizi. “Uses and Gratifications,” in An Integrated Approach to Communication Theory and Research, ed. Don Stacks and Michael Salwen (New York: Routledge, 2009), 137.

Stille, Alexander. “Marshall McLuhan Is Back From the Dustbin of History; With the Internet, His Ideas Again Seem Ahead of Their Time,” New York Times, October 14, 2000, http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/14/arts/marshall-mcluhan-back-dustbin-history-with-internet-his-ideas-again-seem-ahead.html.

2.3 Methods of Researching Media Effects


Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the prominent media research methods.
  2. Explain the uses of media research methods in a research project.

Media theories provide the framework for approaching questions about media effects ranging from as simple as how 10-year-old boys react to cereal advertisements to as broad as how Internet use affects literacy. Once researchers visualize a project and determine a theoretical framework, they must choose actual research methods. Contemporary research methods are greatly varied and can range from analyzing old newspapers to performing controlled experiments.

Content Analysis

Content analysis is a research technique that involves analyzing the content of various forms of media. Through content analysis, researchers hope to understand both the people who created the content and the people who consumed it. A typical content analysis project does not require elaborate experiments. Instead, it simply requires access to the appropriate media to analyze, making this type of research an easier and inexpensive alternative to other forms of research involving complex surveys or human subjects.

Content analysis studies require researchers to define what types of media to study. For example, researchers studying violence in the media would need to decide which types of media to analyze, such as television, and the types of formats to examine, such as children’s cartoons. The researchers would then need to define the terms used in the study; media violence can be classified according to the characters involved in the violence (strangers, family members, or racial groups), the type of violence (self-inflicted, slapstick, or against others), or the context of the violence (revenge, random, or duty-related). These are just a few of the ways that media violence could be studied with content-analysis techniques (Berger, 1998).

Archival Research

Any study that analyzes older media must employ archival research, which is a type of research that focuses on reviewing historical documents such as old newspapers and past publications. Old local newspapers are often available on microfilm at local libraries or at the newspaper offices. University libraries generally provide access to archives of national publications such as The New York Times or Time; publications can also increasingly be found in online databases or on websites.

Older radio programs are available for free or by paid download through a number of online sources. Many television programs and films have also been made available for free download, or for rent or sale through online distributors. Performing an online search for a particular title will reveal the options available.

Resources such as the Internet Archive (www.archive.org) work to archive a number of media sources. One important role of the Internet Archive is website archiving. Internet archives are invaluable for a study of online media because they store websites that have been deleted or changed. These archives have made it possible for Internet content analyses that would have otherwise been impossible.


Surveys are ubiquitous in modern life. Questionaires record data on anything from political preferences to personal hygiene habits. Media surveys generally take one of the following two forms.

A descriptive survey aims to find the current state of things, such as public opinion or consumer preferences. In media, descriptive surveys establish television and radio ratings by finding the number of people who watch or listen to particular programs. An analytical survey, however, does more than simply document a current situation. Instead, it attempts to find out why a particular situation exists. Researchers pose questions or hypotheses about media, and then conduct analytical surveys to answer these questions. Analytical surveys can determine the relationship between different forms of media consumption and the lifestyles and habits of media consumers.

Surveys can employ either open-ended or closed-ended questions. Open-ended questions require the participant to generate answers in their own words, while closed-ended questions force the participant to select an answer from a list. Although open-ended questions allow for a greater variety of answers, the results of closed-ended questions are easier to tabulate. Although surveys are useful in media studies, effective use requires keeping their limitations in mind.

Social Role Analysis

As part of child rearing, parents teach their children about social roles. When parents prepare children to attend school for example, they explain the basics of school rules and what is expected of a student to help the youngsters understand the role of students. Like the role of a character in a play, this role carries specific expectations that differentiate school from home. Adults often play a number of different roles as they navigate between their responsibilities as parents, employees, friends, and citizens. Any individual may play a number of roles depending on his or her specific life choices.

Social role analysis of the media involves examining various individuals in the media and analyzing the type of role that each plays. Role analysis research can consider the roles of men, women, children, members of a racial minority, or members of any other social group in specific types of media. For example, if the role children play in cartoons is consistently different from the role they play in sitcoms, then certain conclusions might be drawn about both of these formats. Analyzing roles used in media allows researchers to gain a better understanding of the messages that the mass media sends (Berger, 1998).

Depth Interviews

The depth interview is an anthropological research tool that is also useful in media studies. Depth interviews take surveys one step further by allowing researchers to directly ask a study participant specific questions to gain a fuller understanding of the participant’s perceptions and experiences. Depth interviews have been used in research projects that follow newspaper reporters to find out their reasons for reporting certain stories and in projects that attempt to understand the motivations for reading romance novels. Depth interviews can provide a deeper understanding of the media consumption habits of particular groups of people (Priest, 2010).

Rhetorical Analysis

Rhetorical analysis involves examining the styles used in media and attempting to understand the kinds of messages those styles convey. Media styles include form, presentation, composition, use of metaphors, and reasoning structure. Rhetorical analysis reveals the messages not apparent in a strict reading of content. Studies involving rhetorical analysis have focused on media such as advertising to better understand the roles of style and rhetorical devices in media messages (Gunter, 2000).

Focus Groups

Like depth interviews, focus groups allow researchers to better understand public responses to media. Unlike a depth interview, however, a focus group allows the participants to establish a group dynamic that more closely resembles that of normal media consumption. In media studies, researchers can employ focus groups to judge the reactions of a group to specific media styles and to content. This can be a valuable means of understanding the reasons for consuming specific types of media.

Figure 2.8


Focus groups are effective ways to obtain a group opinion on media.

Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0.


Media research studies also sometimes use controlled experiments that expose a test group to an experience involving media and measure the effects of that experience. Researchers then compare these measurements to those of a control group that had key elements of the experience removed. For example, researchers may show one group of children a program with three incidents of cartoon violence and another control group of similar children the same program without the violent incidents. Researchers then ask the children from both groups the same sets of questions, and the results are compared.

Participant Observation

In participant observation, researchers try to become part of the group they are studying. Although this technique is typically associated with anthropological studies in which a researcher lives with members of a particular culture to gain a deeper understanding of their values and lives, it is also used in media research.

Media consumption often takes place in groups. Families or friends gather to watch favorite programs, children may watch Saturday morning cartoons with a group of their peers, and adults may host viewing parties for televised sporting events or awards shows. These groups reveal insights into the role of media in the lives of the public. A researcher might join a group that watches football together and stay with the group for an entire season. By becoming a part of the group, the researcher becomes part of the experiment and can reveal important influences of media on culture (Priest).

Researchers have studied online role-playing games, such as World of Warcraft, in this manner. These games reveal an interesting aspect of group dynamics: Although participants are not in physical proximity, they function as a group within the game. Researchers are able to study these games by playing them. In the book Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, a group of researchers discussed the results of their participant observation studies. The studies reveal the surprising depth of culture and unwritten rules that exist in the World of Warcraft universe and give important interpretations of why players pursue the game with such dedication (Corneliussen & Rettberg, 2008).

Key Takeaways

  • Media research methods are the practical procedures for carrying out a research project. These methods include content analysis, surveys, focus groups, experiments, and participant observation.
  • Research methods generally involve either test subjects or analysis of media. Methods involving test subjects include surveys, depth interviews, focus groups, and experiments. Analysis of media can include content, style, format, social roles, and archival analysis.


Media research methods offer a variety of procedures for performing a media study. Each of these methods varies in cost; thus, a project with a lower budget would be prohibited from using some of the more costly methods. Consider a project on teen violence and video game use. Then answer the following short-response questions. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  1. Which methods would a research organization with a low budget favor for this project? Why?
  2. How might the results of the project differ from those of one with a higher budget?


Berger, Arthur Asa. Media Research Techniques (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998), 23–24.

Corneliussen, Hilde and Jill Walker Rettberg, “Introduction: ‘Orc ProfessorLFG,’ or Researching in Azeroth,” in Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, ed. Hilde Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2008), 6–7.

Gunter, Barrie. Media Research Methods: Measuring Audiences, Reactions and Impact (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000), 89.

Priest, Susanna Hornig Doing Media Research: An Introduction (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2010), 16–22.

Priest, Susanna Hornig Doing Media Research, 96–98.

2.4 Media Studies Controversies


Learning Objectives

  1. Explain some of the major objections to specific media theories.
  2. Identify ways media studies are used to support political opinions.
  3. Differentiate between proper and improper use of media studies.

Important debates over media theory have questioned the foundations and hence the results of media research. Within academia, theories and research can represent an individual’s lifework and livelihood. As a result, issues of tenure and position, rather than issues of truth and objectivity, can sometimes fuel discussion over theories and research.

Problems With Methodology and Theory

Although the use of advanced methodologies can resolve many of the questions raised about various theories, the fact remains that the use of these theories in public debate generally follows a broader understanding. For example, if a hypothetical study found that convicted violent offenders had aggressive feelings after playing the video game Doom, many would take this as proof that video games cause violent acts without considering other possible explanations. Often, the nuances of these studies are lost when they enter the public arena.

Active versus Passive Audience

A significant division among media studies theorists is the belief that audiences are passive or active. A passive audience, in the most extreme statement of this position, passively accepts the messages that media send it. An active audience, on the other hand, is fully aware of media messages and makes informed decisions about how to process and interact with media. Newer trends in media studies have attempted to develop a more complex view of media audiences than the active versus passive debate affords, but in the public sphere, this opposition frames many of the debates about media influence (Heath & Bryant, 2000).

Arguments against Agenda-Setting Theory

A number of criticisms have dogged agenda-setting theory. Chief among these is that agenda-setting studies are unable to prove cause and effect; essentially, no one has truly shown that the media agenda sets the public agenda and not the other way around. An agenda-setting study could connect the prevalence of a topic in the media with later changes in public policy and may conclude that the media set this agenda. However, policy makers and lobbyists often conduct public relations efforts to encourage the creation of certain policies. In addition, public concern over issues generates media coverage as well, making it difficult to tell if the media is responding to public desire for coverage of an issue or if it is pushing an issue on its own agenda (Kwansah-Aidoo, 2005).

Arguments Against Uses and Gratifications Theory

The general presuppositions of the uses and gratifications theory have drawn criticism. By assuming that media fulfill a functional purpose in an individual’s life, the uses and gratifications theory implicitly justifies and reaffirms the place of media in the public sphere. Furthermore, because it focuses on personal, psychological aspects of media, the theory cannot question whether media is artificially imposed on an individual. Studies involving the uses and gratifications theory are often sound methodologically, but the overall assumptions of the studies are left unquestioned (Grossberg, et. al., 2006).

Arguments Against Spiral of Silence Theory

Although many regard the spiral of silence theory as useful when applying its broadest principles, it is weak when dealing with specifics. For example, the phenomenon of the spiral of silence is most visible in individuals who are fearful of social isolation. Those who are less fearful are less likely to be silent if public opinion turns against them. Nonconformists contradict the claims of the spiral of silence theory.

Critics have also pointed out that the spiral of silence theory relies heavily on the values of various cultural groups. A public opinion trend in favor of gun control may not silence the consensus within National Rifle Association meetings. Every individual is a part of a larger social group with specific values. Although these values may differ from widespread public opinion, individuals need not fear social isolation within their particular social group (Gastil, 2008).

Arguments Against Cultivation Analysis Theory

Critics have faulted cultivation analysis theory for relying too heavily on a broad definition of violence. Detractors argue that because violence means different things to different subgroups and individuals, any claim that a clear message of violence could be understood in the same way by an entire culture is false. This critique would necessarily extend to other studies involving cultivation analysis. Different people understand media messages in varying ways, so broad claims can be problematic. Cultivation analysis is still an important part of media studies, but critics have questioned its unqualified validity as a theory (Shanahan & Morgan, 1999).

Politics and Media Studies

Media theories and studies afford a variety of perspectives. When proponents of a particular view employ those theories and studies, however, they are often oversimplified and can result in contradictory claims. In fact, when politicians and others employ media studies to validate a political perspective, this is a common result.

Media Bias

A good example of the ways that media can bolster political opinion is through coverage, which leads to the debate over media bias. One 1985 study found that journalists were more likely to hold liberal views than were members of the public. Over the years, many have cited this study to support the opinion that the media holds a liberal bias. However, another study found that between the years of 1948 and 1990, 78 percent of newspaper presidential endorsements were for Republicans (Hanson).

Media favoritism again became a source of contention during the 2008 presidential race. A random sampling of campaign coverage in the run-up to the election found that 82 percent of stories featured Barack Obama, while only 52 percent discussed John McCain (Raasch, 2008). Allegations that the media favored Obama seemed to bolster the idea of a liberal bias. But other studies belied this belief. Research conducted during the election showed that favorable media coverage of Obama occurred only after his poll numbers rose, hinting that the media were reacting to public opinion rather than attempting to influence it (Reuters, 2008).

Figure 2.9


Allegations of media bias are a recurring theme in political debates.

The Weekly Bull – BBC – Report the Truth on Gaza protest – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Media Decency

Decency standards in media have long been an issue, and they continue to change in ways that are not necessarily predictable. Once banned in the United States for obscenity, James Joyce’s Ulysses is now considered a classic of modern literature, while many schools have banned children’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its use of ethnic slurs. Because of the regulatory powers that government possesses over the media, decency is also an inherently political issue. As media studies have progressed, they have increasingly appeared in the debates over decency standards. Although media studies cannot prove a word or image is indecent, they can help discern the impact of that word or image and, thus, greatly influence the debate.

Organizations or figures with stated goals often use media studies to support those aims. For example, the Parents Television Council reported on a study that compared the ratio of comments about nonmarital sex to comments about marital sex during the hours of 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. The study employed content analysis to come up with specific figures; however, the Parents Television Council then used those findings to make broad statements, such as “the institution of marriage is regularly mocked and denigrated (Rayworth, 2008).” Because content analysis does not analyze the effect on audiences or analyze how material is presented, it does not offer a scientific way to judge whether a comment is mocking and denigrating marriage, so such interpretations are arguably unsupported by the research. For example, researchers performing a content analysis by documenting the amount of sex or violence on television are not analyzing how this content is interpreted by the audience. They are simply noting the number of instances. Equally, partisan groups can use a number of different linguistic turns to make media studies fit their agenda.

Media studies involving violence, pornography, and profanity are inherently politically charged, and politicians have also conducted their own media studies. In 2001, for example, a Senate bill aimed at Internet decency that had little support in Congress came to the floor. One of the sponsoring senators attempted to increase interest by bringing a file full of some of the most egregious pornographic images he could find to the Senate floor. The bill passed 84 to 16 (Elmer-Dewitt, 2001).

Jack Thompson versus Violent Video Games

One of the most outspoken critics of violent video games is the now-disbarred lawyer Jack Thompson. Despite questionable use of media research, Thompson has made many claims referencing research. In an interview with CBS News, Thompson stated that “hundreds of studies” existed that proved the link between violent video games and real violence. Later in the interview, he listed increasing school murder statistics as proof of the effects of violent video games (Vitka, 2005). In light of the media effects theories elucidated in this chapter, Thompson was obviously not being honest about the findings of video game–violence research and was making claims that no media effects scholar could confidently make.

Thompson initiated several lawsuits against Grand Theft Auto video game developer Take 2 Interactive, claiming that the company should be held liable for encouraging violent actions by minors. His lawsuits were thrown out of court, and he eventually came to a settlement with Take 2 Interactive—who had countersued—to drop all litigation (Jones, 2007). Thompson’s frivolous use of the legal system caused the state of Alabama to revoke his license to practice law in 2005, and, in 2008, the Florida Supreme Court disbarred him for life (Hefflinger, 2008).

Jack Thompson’s actions may seem extreme, but he represents a common pattern of media study misrepresentation. Pundits, social reformers, and politicians frequently use the results of media studies to support their agenda without regard for accuracy. The use of media research to lend credence to a political opinion is widespread even as the public struggles to understand the effects of new media on culture.

Media Consolidation

Although media consolidation will be discussed in more depth in later chapters, the topic’s intersection with media studies results deserves a place here. Media consolidation occurs when large media companies buy up smaller media outlets. Although government regulation has historically stymied this trend by prohibiting ownership of a large number of media outlets, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has loosened many of the restrictions on large media companies in recent years.

Media studies often prove vital to decisions regarding media consolidation. These studies measure the impact that consolidation has had on the media’s public role and on the content of local media outlets to compare it with that of conglomerate-owned outlets. The findings often vary depending on the group conducting the test. Other times tests are ignored entirely.

In 2003, the FCC loosened restrictions on owning multiple media outlets in the same city, citing studies that the agency had developed to weigh the influence of particular media outlets such as newspapers and television stations (Ahrens, 2003). In 2006, however, reports surfaced that a key study had been discarded during the 2003 decision. The study showed an increase in time allocated for news when TV stations were owned locally, thus raising questions about whether media consolidation was a good thing for local news (MSNBC, 2006).

Key Takeaways

  • Audience interpretation is vital to media studies. Media theories generally fall between the active and passive audience interpretations. Agenda-setting theory favors the passive audience interpretation, and consequently must prove that the public is affected by media agendas. The uses and gratifications theory favors the active audience, and consequently justifies the place of media in the public sphere.
  • In politics, media studies are often used to support various opinions. Among the more prominent media studies employed are those that deal with media bias, violence in the media, and indecency.
  • The use of media studies in public debate has led to subjective studies that have a predetermined outcome. Many studies conducted by special interest groups use definitions that favor their perspectives. Politicians often copy the style, rather than the substance, of a media study in an attempt to give authority to their points of view.


Media studies are often used to support specific opinions, regardless of whether their results justify such a use. Studies are also conducted with predetermined outcomes that support a specific view. With this in mind, answer the following short-response questions. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  1. How are media studies used to support political opinions? Give two examples.
  2. What kind of guidelines should be used to ensure clear and objective use of media studies?
  3. Identify weaknesses of popular media theories discussed in this section.

End-of-Chapter Assessment

Review Questions

  1. Section 1

    1. List three historical events that have relied on propaganda.
    2. Provide three examples of cultural messages that the media sends.
    3. How have new media affected older forms of media?
  2. Section 2

    1. How does agenda-setting theory differ from direct effects theory?
    2. Use the spiral of silence to explain an actual lapse in media coverage.
    3. Why would uses and gratifications theory be an appropriate theory for a study of Internet purchasing habits?
  3. Section 3

    1. Name the different types of media analysis techniques and explain their uses.
    2. Explain the differences among a survey, a depth interview, and a focus group.
    3. What resources would be important for a project analyzing the historical representation of women in advertising?
  4. Section 4

    1. Explain the opposition between theories of passive and active media audiences.
    2. How are media studies commonly misused to support political opinions?
    3. How might media studies be used in a study on indecency?

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. The media has become an ever-increasing part of modern life. How do you think the media and its messages have affected you personally?
  2. Media studies attempt to understand the role that the media plays in culture and in individual lives. Given the criticisms of particular media theories, what do you think the limitations of media studies are? Consider the media theories discussed in this chapter. Which ones do you find the most convincing and why? Which ones do you find least convincing?
  3. Among the methods used to analyze audiences, which do you think would guarantee the most accurate results? How does this affect your opinion of studies that use other results?

Career Connection

Media studies are used in a variety of professions and capacities. These range from university researchers to small-time music groups that want to assess their online presence. A number of online research tools exist that can help organizations and individuals learn more about the effect of media on important issues and topics.

List two or three prospective careers and think of one way that media studies could be beneficial in each. Search for online media research tools that would assist you in a media research project involving your chosen careers. Answer the following questions:

  • What kind of project would be beneficial to you in this field?
  • How would you set up the project to ensure usable and accurate results?
  • How would you present the results of your studies to clients, employees, and investors?


Ahrens, Frank “FCC Eases Media Ownership Rules,” Washington Post, June 3, 2003, http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A5555-2003Jun2.

Elmer-Dewitt, Philip “On a Screen Near You,” Time, June 24, 2001, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101950703-134361,00.html.

Gastil, John. Political Communication and Deliberation (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 61–62.

Grossberg, Lawrence and others, Mediamaking: Mass Media in a Popular Culture (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006), 266–267.

Hanson. Mass Communication, 101–102.

Heath, Robert and Jennings Bryant, Human Communication Theory and Research: Concepts, Contexts, and Challenges (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000), 385–386.

Hefflinger, Mark “Controversial Game Lawsuit Attorney Jack Thompson Disbarred,” Digital Media Wire, September 26, 2008, http://www.dmwmedia.com/news/2008/09/26/controversial-game-lawsuit-attorney-jack-thompson-disbarred.

Jones, K. C. “Grand Theft Auto Company Settles With Jack Thompson,” InformationWeek, April 20, 2007, http://www.informationweek.com/news/global-cio/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=199200271.

Kwansah-Aidoo, Kwamena “Prospects for Agenda-Setting Research in the 21st Century,” in Topical Issues in Communications and Media Research, ed. Kwamena Kwansah-Aidoo (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2005), 40–41.

MSNBC, Associated Press, “Powell Denies Seeing Media Ownership Study,” MSNBC, September 15, 2006, http://msnbc.msn.com/id/14850729/.

Raasch, Chuck. “Media Bias Aside, Obama’s Trip an Important Test,” USA Today, July 24, 2008, http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/columnist/raasch/2008-07-24-newpolitics_N.htm.

Rayworth, Melissa. “TV Decency Standards Challenge Parents,” Cape Cod Times, August 10, 2008, http://www.capecodonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080810/LIFE/808100317.

Reuters. “Despite Republican Complaints, Media Bias Largely Missing From US Campaign: Study,” Canada.com, November 6, 2008, http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/story.html?id=97db2fe0-4b4f-4524-b265-57a0e0c3a38f.

Shanahan, James and Michael Morgan, Television and its Viewers: Cultivation Theory and Research (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 59–60.

Vitka, William “Gamespeak: Jack Thompson,” GameCore, CBS News, February 25, 2005, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/02/24/tech/gamecore/main676446.shtml.

Chapter 3: Books


3.1 Books
3.2 History of Books
3.3 Books and the Development of U.S. Popular Culture
3.4 Major Book Formats
3.5 Current Publishing Trends
3.6 The Influence of New Technology

3.1 Books


A Lost Generation of Readers?

Figure 3.1


Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0.

In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released a report that it said represented “a national crisis.” What was under such dire peril that it threatened to “impoverish both cultural and civic life,” as NEA Chairman Dana Gioia put it? Reading—or, more aptly put, not reading. According to the report, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, less than half the population engaged in any literary reading in 2002, a record low since the survey’s beginnings in 1982 (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004).

The report, which asked respondents whether they had read any literary fiction (novels, short stories, plays, or poetry) over the past year showed especially stark numbers among the youngest adults. Those aged 18–24 saw a rate of decline 55 percent greater than the total adult population. (Books read for school or work weren’t counted in the survey, which was examining Americans’ leisure reading habits.) According to the NEA, the overall 10 percent drop in literary readers represented a loss of 20 million potential readers, most of them young. In 1982, young adults (people aged 18–34) were most likely to engage in literary reading; by 2002, they were the least likely group. Based on this, the report asks, “Are we losing a generation of readers (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004)?”

Despite these facts, the publishing industry’s releasing more books than ever before. In 2003, just 1 year after the NEA issued its gloomy warning about the state of reading, 175,000 new titles were published in the United States—a 19 percent jump from the year before (Bowker, 2004). Since the early part of the 21st century, the U.S. publishing industry has had an average annual monetary growth rate of 1.1 percent; however, net sales have dropped from $26 billion to $23 billion in the past year (Association of American Publishers, 2009). Meanwhile, as the NEA report notes, 24 percent of Americans’ recreational spending went to electronics, while books accounted for only 5.6 percent in 2002. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the households that watched television more read less. The report warned that “at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century (National Endowment for the Arts).”

As a response to the alarming statistics, in 2006 the NEA launched its Big Read program, essentially a city-wide book club in which community members are encouraged to read the same book at the same time. The NEA provided publicity, funding for kickoff parties, and readers’ guides. The residents of Tampa, Florida, read The Joy Luck Club and were accorded a visit by author Amy Tan, and the residents of Washington, DC, chose Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying with hopes that it would spur conversations about race, justice, and violence. The Big Read’s DC program director said that he hoped the book got young people talking, noting that the book raises all sorts of relevant questions, such as “Do we offer second chances for people after making mistakes, especially youth in DC? What about youth in the justice system? So many people who have been through the juvenile justice system will testify a book set them free,” he claimed (Brown, 2010).

When the NEA’s 2008 numbers were released, many people were again surprised. The statistics showed that the decline in reading had reversed, the first such increase in 26 years. Once again, the change was most significant among young adults, who had a 21 percent increase from 2002 (Rich, 2009). The NEA credited the “millions of parents, teachers, librarians, and civic leaders [who] took action… [to ensure that] reading became a higher priority in families, schools, and communities (Rich, 2009).” Another factor may have been in play, however; the 2008 study was the first to include online reading. To understand what books mean in the present world of e-readers and digital libraries, it helps to examine how they functioned in the past and to consider how they might change in the future.


Association of American Publishers, “Industry Statistics 2009: AAP Reports Book Sales Estimated at $23.9 Billion in 2009,” http://www.publishers.org/main/IndustryStats/indStats_02.htm.

Bowker. “U.S. Book Production Soars to 175,000 New Titles in 2003; Trade Up, University Presses Down,” news release, May 27, 2004, http://www.bowker.com/press/bowker/2004_0527_bowker.htm.

Brown, DeNeen. “Ernest J. Gaines’s ‘Lesson’ Prompts Teens to Grapple With Stark Realities,” Washington Post, May 10, 2010, Arts section.

National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (New York: Author, 2004).

National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk.

Rich, Mokoto “Fiction Reading Increases for Adults,” New York Times, January 11, 2009, Arts section.

3.2 History of Books


Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the material and cultural origins of the book in ancient and medieval times.
  2. Indicate the influence of mechanical movable type on modern society.
  3. Explain the evolution of contemporary copyright law and of the contemporary publishing industry.

Ancient Books

Most historians trace the origins of the book back to the ancient Egyptians, whose papyrus scrolls looked very different from the books we’re accustomed to today. From the time they first developed a written script, around 3000 BCE, Egyptians wrote on many different surfaces, including metal, leather, clay, stone, and bone. Most prominent, though, was the practice of using reed pens to write on papyrus scrolls. In many ways, papyrus was an ideal material for the Egyptians. It was made using the tall reeds that grew plentifully in the Nile Valley. Individual sheets of papyrus were glued or sewn together to make scrolls. A standard scroll was around 30 feet long and 7 to 10 inches wide, while the longest Egyptian scroll ever found stretched over 133 feet, making it almost as long as the Statue of Liberty when it was rolled all the way out (Harry Ransom Center).

By the 6th century BCE, papyrus was the most common writing surface throughout the Mediterranean and was used by the Greeks and Romans. Because papyrus grew in Egypt, the Egyptians had a virtual monopoly over the papyrus trade. Many ancient civilizations housed their scrolls in large libraries, which acted as both repositories of knowledge and displays of political and economic power. The Royal Library of Alexandria boasted around half a million scrolls in its collection; some scholars claim that this was between 30 and 70 percent of all books in existence at the time (Kelly, 2006). But other powerful entities in the ancient world were growing tired of the Egyptians’ monopoly over the papyrus trade.

Parchment was made from treated animal skins that were scraped thin to create a flexible, even surface. Parchment had several advantages over papyrus: It was more durable, both sides could be written on, and its trade wasn’t monopolized by the Egyptians. Its spread coincided with another crucial development in the history of the book. Between the 2nd and 4th centuries, the Romans began sewing folded sheets of papyrus or parchment together, and binding them between wooden covers. This form, called the codex, has essentially the same structure as today’s books. The codex was much more user-friendly than was the papyrus scroll: more portable, easier to store and handle, and less expensive to produce. It also allowed readers to quickly flip between sections. While reading a scroll was a two-handed activity, a codex could be propped open in front of a reader, allowing for note taking. Traditions changed slowly in the ancient world, however, and the scroll remained the dominant form for secular works for several centuries. The codex was the preferred form for early Christian texts, and the spread of Christianity eventually brought about the dominance of the codex; by the 6th century CE, it had almost entirely replaced the scroll.

Figure 3.2


The earliest known printed books were created using woodblock printing.

vlasta2 – Korean Wood Block – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The next major innovation in the history of books, the use of block printing on paper, began in Tang Dynasty China around 700 CE, though it wouldn’t arrive in Europe for nearly 800 years. The first known examples of text printed on paper are tiny, 2.5-inch-wide scrolls of Buddhist prayers commissioned by Japan’s Empress Shōtoku in 764 CE. The earliest example of a dated, printed book is a Buddhist text called the Diamond Sutra (868 CE). Woodblock printing was a meticulous process that involved carving an entire page of text onto a wooden block, then inking and pressing the block to print a page.

In medieval Europe, however, scribes were still laboriously copying texts by hand. Book culture in the Middle Ages was dominated by monasteries, which became centers of intellectual life. The largest monasteries had rooms called scriptoria where monks copied, decorated, and preserved both religious and secular volumes. Many of the classical texts we have today owe their preservation to diligent medieval monks, who thought of scholarship, even the study of secular and pre–Christian writers, as a way to become closer to God. The hand-copied books produced in the Middle Ages were much more ornate than the mass-produced books of today. These were illuminated manuscripts that included painted embellishments that were added on to the handwritten books. The word illuminate comes from the Latin illuminare, which means to light up, and some medieval books were literally made to shine through applications of gold or silver decorations. Other ornate additions included illustrations, decorative capital letters, and intricately drawn borders. The degree of embellishment depended on the book’s intended use and the wealth of its owner. Medieval manuscripts were so highly valued that some scribes placed so-called book curses at the front of their manuscripts, warning that anyone who stole or defaced the copy would be cursed. Written in a copy of the Vulgate Bible, for example, is this warning: “Whoever steals this book let him die the death; let be him be frizzled in a pan; may the falling sickness rage within him; may he be broken on the wheel and be hanged (Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries).”

Though illuminated books were highly prized, they were also expensive and labor-intensive to create. By the end of the Middle Ages, the papal library in Avignon, France, held only a few thousand manuscripts compared to the nearly half-million texts found at the Library of Alexandria in ancient times (Fischer, 2004). Bookmaking in the Western world became somewhat less expensive when paper emerged as the primary writing surface. Making paper from rags and other fibers, a technique that originated in 2nd-century China, reached the Islamic world in the 8th century and led to a flowering of book culture there. By the 12th century, Marrakesh, in modern-day Morocco, was said to have had a street lined with a hundred booksellers. But it wasn’t until the 14th century that paper manufacturing began in earnest in Europe.

Gutenberg’s Industry-Changing Invention

Papermaking coincided with another crucial step forward in the history of books: Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of mechanical movable type in 1448. Though the simple act of crafting small, movable letters may seem mundane in the contemporary world of digital devices and microchips, it is difficult to overstate the importance of Gutenberg’s invention and the effect it had on the world. The Biography Channel and A&E both named Gutenberg as the single most influential person of the second millennium, ahead of Shakespeare, Galileo, and Columbus, and Time magazine cited movable type as the single most important invention of the past 1,000 years. Through his invention, Gutenberg indisputably changed the world.

Much of Gutenberg’s life is shrouded in mystery. It is known that he was a German goldsmith and book printer and that he spent the 1440s collecting investors for a mysterious project. That invention turned out to be the printing press, which combined existing technologies—such as the screw press, which was already used for papermaking—with his own innovation—individual metal letters and punctuation marks that could be independently rearranged—to revolutionize how books were made. Though Gutenberg probably printed other, earlier materials, it was the Bible he printed in 1455 that brought him renown. In his small print shop in his hometown of Mainz, Germany, Gutenberg used his movable type press to print 180 copies of the Bible, 135 on paper and 45 on vellum (Harry Ransom Center). This book, commonly called the Gutenberg Bible, ushered in Europe’s so-called Gutenberg Revolution and paved the way for the commercial mass printing of books. In 1978, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin purchased a complete copy of the Gutenberg Bible for $2.4 million.

Over the next few centuries, the printing press changed nearly everything about how books were made, distributed, and read. Printing books was a vastly swifter system than handwriting books was, and paper was much less expensive to produce than parchment. Before the printing press, books were generally commissioned and then copied. The printing press meant that multiple identical editions of the same book could be printed in a relatively short time, while it probably would’ve taken a scribe at least a year to handwrite the Bible. As Gutenberg’s invention led to more and more printing shops springing up all over Europe, the very idea of what a book looked like began to change. In medieval times, books were the valuable, rare product of hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of work, and no two were the same. After Gutenberg, books could be standardized, plentiful, and relatively cheap to produce and disseminate. Early printed books were made to look like illuminated manuscripts, complete with hand-drawn decorations. However, printers soon realized the economic potential of producing multiple identical copies of one text, and book printing soon became a speculative business, with printers trying to guess how many copies a particular book could sell. By the end of the 15th century, 50 years after Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, printing shops had sprung up throughout Europe, with an estimated 300 in Germany alone. Gutenberg’s invention was a resounding success, and the printing and selling of books boomed. The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center estimates that before the invention of the printing press, the total number of books in all of Europe was around 30,000. By 1500 CE, the book was thriving as an industrial object, and the number of books in Europe had grown to as many as 10 to 12 million (Jones, 2000).

Effects of the Mass Production of Books

The post–Gutenberg world was revolutionized by the advent of the printed book. One thing that did not substantially change, however, was the form of the book itself. Despite minor tweaks and alterations, the ancient form of the codex remained relatively intact. What did rapidly evolve was the way books were produced and distributed and the way information circulated through the world.

Simply put, the mechanical reproduction of books meant that there were more books available at a lower cost, and the growth of international trade allowed these books to have a wider reach. The desire for knowledge among the growing middle class and the new availability of classical texts from ancient Greece and Rome helped fuel the Renaissance, a period of celebration of the individual and of a turn toward humanism. For the first time, texts could be widely dispersed, allowing political, intellectual, religious, and cultural ideas to spread widely. Also for the first time, many people could read the same books and be exposed to the same ideas at the same time, giving rise to mass media and mass culture. Science was revolutionized as well. For example, standardized, widely dispersed texts meant that scientists in Italy were exposed to the theories and discoveries of scientists in England. Because of improved communication, technological and intellectual ideas spread more quickly, enabling scientists from disparate areas to more easily build on the breakthroughs and successes of others.

As the Renaissance progressed, the size of the middle class grew, as did literacy rates. Rather than a few hundred precious volumes housed in monastery or university libraries, books were available to people outside monastic or university settings, which meant that more books were available to women. In effect, the mass production of books helped knowledge become democratized. However, this spread of information didn’t proceed without resistance. Thanks in part to the spread of dissenting ideas, the Roman Catholic Church, the dominant institution of medieval Europe, found its control slipping. In 1487, only a few decades after Gutenberg first printed his Bible, Pope Innocent VIII insisted that all books be prescreened by church authorities before they were allowed to be printed (Green & Karolides, 2005). One book the church banned was the Bible printed in any language other than Latin—a language that few people outside of clerical or scholarly circles understood. In 1517, Martin Luther instigated the Protestant Reformation. He challenged the church’s authority by insisting that people had the right to read the Bible in their own language. The church rightly feared the spread of vernacular Bibles; the more people who had access to the text, the less control the church was able to exert over how it was interpreted. Since the church’s interpretation of the Bible dictated in no small part the way many people lived their lives, the church’s sway over the hearts and minds of the faithful was severely undermined by accessible printed Bibles and the wave of Protestantism they encouraged. The Catholic Church’s attempt to control the printing industry proved impossible to maintain, and over the next few centuries, the church would see its power decline significantly, as it was no longer the sole keeper of religious knowledge as it had been throughout the Middle Ages.

The Bible wasn’t the only text that was beginning to be published in languages other than Latin. The Renaissance saw a growing interest in texts published in the vernacular, the speech of the “common people.” As books became more available to the middle class, people wanted to read books written in their native tongue. Early well-known works in the vernacular included Dante’s Divine Comedy (first printed in Italian in 1472) and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (published in Middle English in the 15th century). Genres with popular appeal, such as plays and poetry, became increasingly widespread. In the 16th and 17th centuries, inexpensive chapbooks (the name derives, appropriately enough, from cheap books) became popular. Chapbooks were small and cheaply printed, and they often included popular ballads, humorous stories, or religious tracts. The proliferation of chapbooks showed just how much the Gutenberg Revolution had transformed the written word. In just a few hundred years, many people had access to reading material, and books would no longer be considered sacred objects.

Because of the high value placed on human knowledge during the Renaissance, libraries flourished during this time period. As they had been in ancient Egypt, libraries were once again a way of displaying national power and wealth. The German State Library in Berlin was founded in 1661, and other European centers soon followed, such as the National Library of Spain in Madrid in 1711 and the British Library (the world’s largest) in London in 1759. Libraries were also associated with universities, clubs, and museums; however, these were often only for subscribers. The United Kingdom’s Public Libraries Act of 1850 fostered the development of free, public lending libraries. After the American Civil War, public libraries flourished in the newly reunified United States, helped by fundraising and lobbying by women’s clubs. Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie helped bring the Renaissance ideals of artistic patronage and democratized knowledge into the 20th century when he helped found more than 1,700 public libraries between 1881 and 1919 (Krasner-Khait, 2001).

History of Document Control

While Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press ushered in an age of democratized knowledge and incipient mass culture, it also transformed the act of authorship, making writing a potentially profitable enterprise. Before the mass production of books, authorship had few financial rewards (unless a generous patron got involved). As a consequence, pre-Renaissance texts were often collaborative, and many books didn’t even list an author. The earliest concept of the copyright, from the time of the scriptoria, was who had the right to copy a book by hand. The printed book, however, was a speculative commercial enterprise, in that large numbers of identical copies could be sold. The explosive growth of the European printing industry meant that authors could potentially profit from the books they made and then wrote if their legal rights were recognized. In contemporary terms, copyright allows a person the right to exclude others from copying, distributing, and selling a work. This is a right usually given to the creator, although that right can be sold or otherwise transferred. Works not covered by copyright or for which the copyright has expired are part of the public domain, which means that they are essentially public property and can be used freely by anyone without permission or royalty payments.

The origins of contemporary copyright law are usually traced back to the Statute of Queen Anne. This law, enacted in England in 1710, was the first to recognize the legal rights of authors, though in an incomplete manner. It granted a book’s publisher 14 years of exclusive rights and legal protection, renewable for another 14-year term if the author was still living. Anyone who infringed on a copyrighted work paid a fine, half of which went to the author and half to the government. Early copyright was intended to limit monopoly and censorship, to provide a sense of stability to authors, and to promote learning by ensuring that documents would be widely accessible.

The United States established its first copyright law not long after the Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Constitution granted Congress the power “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries” in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8. The first federal copyright law, the Copyright Law of 1790, was modeled on the Statute of Queen Anne and it similarly granted exclusive rights for 14 years, renewable for 14 more if the author was living at the end of the first term.

The “limited times” mentioned in the Constitution have steadily lengthened since the 18th century. The Copyright Act of 1909 allowed for an initial 28-year term of copyright, which was renewable for one additional 28-year term. The Copyright Act of 1976, which preempted the 1909 act, extended copyright protection to “a term consisting of the life of the author and 50 years after the author’s death,” was substantially longer than the original law’s potential 56-year term. In 1998, copyright was extended even further, to 70 years after the author’s death. The 1998 law, called the Copyright Term Extension Act, also added a 20-year extension to all currently copyrighted works. This automatic extension meant that no new works would enter the public domain until 2019 at the earliest. Critics of the Copyright Term Extension Act called it the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” because the Walt Disney Company lobbied for the law (Krasniewicz, 2010). Because of the 20-year copyright extension, Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters remained out of the public domain, which meant that they were still the exclusive property of Disney.

The 1976 law also codified the terms of fair use for the first time. Fair-use law specifies the ways in which a work (or parts of a work) under copyright could legally be used by someone other than the copyright holder for “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.” That is, a book review quoting snippets of a book, or a researcher citing someone else’s work is not infringing on copyright. Given an Internet culture that thrives on remixes, linking, and other creative uses of source material, the boundaries of the legal definition of fair use have met with many challenges in recent years.

History of the Book-Publishing Industry

With the exception of self-published works, the author isn’t the person in charge of producing the book or sending it out into the world. These days, the tasks of editing, designing, printing, promoting, and distributing a book generally fall to the book’s publisher. Although authors are usually the ones with their names prominently displayed on the spine, a published book is actually the product of many different kinds of labor by many different people.

Early book printers acted as publishers, because they produced pages and sold them commercially. In England, the Stationer’s Company, which was essentially a printer’s guild, had a monopoly over the printing industry and was also allowed to censor texts. The Statute of Queen Anne, the 1710 copyright law, came about partially as a result of some of these early publishers overstepping their bounds.

In the 19th-century United States, publishers fulfilled many roles, and it was not uncommon for one company to print, wholesale, and even retail their own books. Although bookstores and printers existed in the United States, the Northeast emerged as the nation’s publishing epicenter, with hotspots in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. During the 1800s, the U.S. book industry swiftly expanded. In 1820, the books manufactured and sold in the United States totaled about $2.5 million; by 1850, even though the price of books had dropped substantially, sales figures had quintupled (Howe, 2007). Technological advances in the 19th century, including machine-made paper and the Linotype typesetting machine, made book publishing simpler and more profitable. Many of today’s large publishing companies were created in the 19th century; for example, Houghton Mifflin originated in 1832; Little, Brown & Company formed in 1837; and Macmillan was founded in Scotland in 1843 and opened its U.S. branch in 1869. By the turn of the century, New York was the center of publishing in the United States.

The rapid growth of the publishing industry and evolving intellectual property laws meant that authors could make money from their writing during this period. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, to learn that the first literary agents also emerged in the late 19th century. Literary agents act as intermediaries between the author and the publisher, negotiating contracts and parsing difficult legal language. The world’s first literary agent, A. P. Watt, worked in London in 1881 and essentially defined the role of the contemporary literary agent—he got paid to negotiate on behalf of the author. A former advertising agent, Watt decided to charge based on commission, meaning that he would take in a set percentage of his clients’ earnings. Watt set the fee as 10 percent, which is still considered standard today.

The biggest change to hit publishing in the first half of the 20th century was the increasing popularity of the paperback book. Books covered in less expensive, less durable paper existed since Renaissance chapbooks were invented, but they were usually crudely printed works that were meant only as passing entertainment. In 1935, the publishing industry was changed forever when Penguin Books Ltd., a paperback publisher, launched in England, ushered in the so-called paperback revolution. Instead of being crude and cheaply made, Penguin titles were simple but well designed. Though Penguin sold paperbacks for only 25¢, it concentrated on providing works of literary merit, thus fundamentally changing the idea of what quality books should look like. Some early Penguin titles included Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. In the decades that followed, more and more paperback publishing companies were launched by people hoping to capitalize on Penguin’s success. The first U.S.-based paperback company was Pocket Books, founded in 1939. By 1960, paperbacks were outselling hardbacks in the United States (Ogle, 2003).

The second half of the 20th century was marked by the consolidation of the U.S. book-publishing industry and by a larger trend toward media consolidation. Between 1960 and 1989, about 578 mergers and acquisitions occurred in the U.S. book industry; between 1990 and 1995, 300 occurred; and between 1996 and 2000, nearly 380 occurred (Greco, 2005). This was just a part of the larger international trend toward mass media consolidation, where large international media empires acquired smaller companies in many different industries. For example, the German media company Bertelsmann AG had acquired Bantam Books, Doubleday, and Random House; London-based Pearson owned Viking, Penguin, Putnam, and the Dutton Group; and AOL Time Warner owned Little, Brown and Company and Warner Books. Because publicly traded companies have obligations to their shareholders, the publishing industry found itself pressured to turn increasingly high profits. By 2010, roughly 60 percent of all books sold in the United States were published by six large publishing houses, often referred to as the Big Six (see Figure 3.3) (Hyatt, 2010). In the first years of the third millennium, book publishing was an increasingly centralized, profit-driven industry.

Figure 3.3


The Big Six control more than 60 percent of the book market (Hyatt, 2010).

Key Takeaways

  • Papyrus scrolls were the earliest forms of books, superseded in the 6th century by the codex. The codex was more portable, sturdier, and easier to store, which made it a more popular format. During the Middle Ages, books were handwritten on parchment and then painstakingly decorated. At this time, monasteries were the centers of intellectual life, and most book copying happened in their scriptoria. Until the invention of mechanical movable type, books were expensive and not widely available.
  • The Gutenberg Revolution changed how information circulated around the globe. The invention of mechanical movable type made books much cheaper and quicker to produce, which led to the swifter spread of ideas. Access to classical texts spurred the European Renaissance and led to higher literacy rates among women. With millions of books circulating in the world, popular literature soon emerged, sometimes in the form of inexpensive chapbooks.
  • Copyright law was originally meant to protect authors from censorship and to allow them to profit from their work. The first copyright law was England’s Statute of Queen Anne in 1710. In the 20th century, American copyright law steadily increased the terms of protection for works under copyright.
  • The publishing industry arose to help authors produce and distribute copies of their work. Early printers acted as wholesale booksellers. In the 20th century, paperback books revived the publishing industry by making high literature available in an inexpensive, portable format. By the turn of the century, book publishing was dominated by six publishing companies, themselves part of large media conglomerations.


Questions about the exact extent of fair use of copyrighted materials have been especially relevant in recent years because of the popularity of using and manipulating copyrighted materials on the Internet. Go on a website with user-uploaded content (such as YouTube or Wikipedia) and find examples of works that use copyrighted content in a way that you think is justified under fair use. Then, find examples of works that you think do not use copyrighted content in a way permitted by fair use. Answer the following questions when you have completed your research:

  • What is the difference between the two examples you found?
  • What criteria did you use to make your decision?
  • What objections might be made by someone who could classify the works differently than you did?
  • How does current fair-use law differ from ancient, medieval, and modern copyright laws?


Fischer, Steven Roger A History of Reading (New York: Reaktion Books, 2004).

Greco, Albert N. The Book Publishing Industry (New York: Routledge, 2005).

Green, Jonathan and Nicholas J. Karolides, The Encyclopedia of Censorship (Facts on File, 2005), 111.

Harry Ransom Center, “The Gutenberg Bible at the Ransom Center,” University of Texas at Austin, http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/educator/modules/gutenberg/books/early/.

Harry Ransom Center, “The Gutenberg Bible.”

Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Hyatt, Michael. “Top Ten U.S. Book Publishers for 2009,” January 15, 2010, http://michaelhyatt.com/2010/01/top-ten-u-s-book-publishers-for-2009.html.

Jones, Bruce. “Manuscripts, Books, and Maps: The Printing Press and a Changing World,” September 5, 2000, http://communication.ucsd.edu/bjones/Books/booktext.html.

Kelly, Kevin. “Scan This Book!” New York Times Magazine, May 14, 2006.

Krasner-Khait, Barbara. “Survivor: The History of the Library,” History Magazine, October/November 2001.

Krasniewicz, Louise. Walt Disney: A Biography (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2010), 43.

Ogle, Matthew. “The Paperback Revolution,” CRC Studio, 2003, http://www.crcstudio.org/paperbacks/revolution.php.

Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries, “Book Curses,” http://www.library.vcu.edu/preservation/curse.html.

3.4 Major Book Formats


Learning Objectives

  1. Determine the role of hardcover books in the publishing industry.
  2. Identify the differences in the two major formats of paperback books.
  3. Recognize the changes that e-books bring to the publishing industry.

From ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls to scrollable 21st-century e-books, a book can come in many different formats. However, in some ways, it seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the same way that early printed books were painstakingly illuminated to look more like medieval books, today’s e-books use e-paper technology to mimic the look of a printed page. Even the hardcover books we’re familiar with today are direct descendants of the ancient codex.


While the first codices enclosed bound papers between wooden covers (the word codex means block of wood in Latin), contemporary hardcover book covers are usually made of cardboard sheathed in cloth, paper, or leather. The printed pages of the book are either sewn or glued to the cover. Until the early 1800s, most books were sold unbound. A buyer would purchase a sheath of printed papers that would be bound either by the bookseller or by a commissioned bindery. British publisher William Pickering is considered the first publisher to issue books in uniform cloth bindings in 1820. About a decade later, dust jackets, the detachable outer covers that sheathe most hardback books today, arrived on the scene. Dust jackets were initially meant only as a protective covering for the binding, but soon they became a place where designers could create a colorful and distinctive cover for a book.

Figure 3.9


Original dust jackets are especially important for book collectors—a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby without the dust jacket sells for around $3000; with the dust jacket intact, it can go for more than $30,000.

yoppy – The Great Gatsby – CC BY 2.0.

The durability of hardcover books makes them attractive to both authors and book purchasers. However, the competitive economics of today’s publishing industry means that some books are never issued in hardcover. Because hardcover books are more expensive to produce and almost always cost more than their paperback equivalents, publishers tend to reserve the format for books that they expect will sell well.

Based on projected sales, publishers must decide how big of a print run to order for a new hardcover book. A book’s print run refers to all the copies made in one setup of the printing apparatus. A failed book may only have one, while a successful book may have 50 or more printings. Figuring out how many copies of a book to print is an inexact science, as publishers must essentially guess how well a book will sell. There is no standard size for a print run. The U.K. edition of the first Harry Potter book had an initial print run of only 500 copies; the U.S. print run of the seventh and final book in the series was a record-breaking 12 million. When an initial print run is sold out, the book is either reprinted (these copies are considered a second printing) or is considered out of print. The contemporary publishing industry will often issue a first-run hardcover printing, followed by subsequent paperback editions.


Inexpensive paper-bound books have been around for centuries in formats like the chapbook, the British penny dreadful, and the American dime novel. However, the hardcover book, whether as an ancient codex or its contemporary equivalent, was the dominant format in the book world for thousands of years. The introduction of a new format in the 1930s, the paperback, was considered revolutionary. The so-called paperback revolution began during the Great Depression, when paperbacks were marketed as inexpensive alternatives to hardcover editions. Penguin Books, Ltd., the first majorly successful paperback publishing company, kept prices low by ordering large print runs and selling books in nontraditional retailers, such as Woolworth’s drugstores. Penguin also broke the traditional paperback mold by avoiding pulp fiction entertainment novels and instead printing books that were both cheap and intellectually stimulating. Donald Porter Geddes, the editor of Pocket Books, the first paperback publishing house in the United States, spelled out this new approach to bookselling in 1944: “The best books apparently have the greatest appeal to the greatest number of people…the larger American public need no longer suffer from the delusion that it is intellectually inferior, or, from a literary point of view, lacking in any aspect in good taste, judgment, and appetite (Ogle, 1960).” By 1960, when paperback books first outsold hardcovers, these early paperback innovators were proved right.

While paperback publishing first issued only reprints of books that had already been issued in hardcover, paperback originals, books that had their initial print run as a paperback edition, emerged in the 1950s. Paperback originals were another step in helping to remove the stigma from the paperback book. In 1999, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies was the first paperback original to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Today’s books published in paperback are traditionally divided into two broad categories: mass-market paperbacks and trade paperbacks. Mass-market paperbacks are small, inexpensive editions that are sometimes issued after a hardcover edition, although many genre novels are printed only in mass-market paperback editions. Trade paperbacks are larger and generally of better quality. They’re often printed on higher-quality paper (sometimes acid-free paper). If the trade paperback follows a hardcover release, the paperback will be the same size as the hardcover and will have the same pagination and page layout as the hardcover edition.

Traditionally, hardcover books have been seen as more prestigious than paperbacks, though that stereotype may be beginning to change. In recent years, some publishers of literary fiction were seeing 50 to 75 percent of the hardcover books they shipped to bookstores returned to them unsold. As a response, certain publishers opted to release books with uncertain sales potential as trade paperbacks, bypassing the hardcover format entirely. “Getting somebody to spend $22 on a book by an author who they’ve never heard of is hard, but getting them to spend $13.95 on a paperback is much easier,” Random House’s Jane von Mehren told The New York Times in 2006 (Wyatt, 2006). Some publishers are concerned that book reviewers don’t take trade paperback editions as seriously, but that too may be slowly changing. Another publishing strategy is to release hardcover and trade paperback editions simultaneously rather than delaying the paperback edition for several months (or even years, in the case of exceptionally popular books). Such a technique is intended to drive up sales, taking advantage of initial publicity to capture readers who may be unwilling to pay the full hardcover price for a book.

Whatever the concerns that publishers may have about issuing paperbacks, the format is still dominant in the U.S. publishing industry. According to the American Association of Publishers (AAP), 35 percent of the books sold in 2009 were trade paperbacks; 35 percent hardcovers; 21 percent mass market paperbacks; 2 percent audio books; 2 percent e-books; and 5 percent “other (Eco-Libris).”


The hardcover book’s expensive, durable binding seemed to say that it was an object intended for posterity. If paperback books disrupted the traditional concept of books by making them cheaper and more portable, then the e-book is poised to cause an even greater change in how readers interact with a text. E-books, also known as electronic or digital books, are the digital media equivalent of printed books. That is, they are books read on the screen of an electronic device, whether a cell phone, personal computer, or dedicated e-book reader.

E-books differ from their print equivalents in many significant ways. For one, there’s no physical production cost, which means that e-books are generally less expensive than traditional books. There’s also no cost to store or transport e-books. Because an e-book’s publisher doesn’t need to order a set print run, a text issued as an e-book doesn’t ever have to go out of print. E-books also appeal to readers who want instant gratification. Instead of having to travel to a brick-and-mortar bookstore or wait for a delivery, a reader can download an e-book in a matter of minutes.

Early e-books were mostly technical manuals or digitized versions of works in the public domain. As the Internet took off and as electronic devices became increasingly mobile, book publishers began to issue digital editions of their works. In the first decade of the 21st century, various companies began issuing software and hardware platforms for electronic books, each competing for dominance in this emerging market.

Although e-books make up only a small percentage of total book sales, that number is growing. Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, the follow up to his massively popular novel The Da Vinci Code, sold more copies as a Kindle e-book than as a hardcover in the first few days after its September 2009 release. However, e-book successes have led to a threat that faces many kinds of digital content: online piracy. Only a few days after its initial release, Brown’s novel had been illegally downloaded more than 100,000 times. Some authors and publishers are concerned that Internet users expect free content and will find a way around spending money on e-books. American novelist Sherman Alexie recently voiced some of these anxieties, “With the open-source culture on the Internet, the idea of ownership—of artistic ownership—goes away (Frisch, 2010).” Other prominent authors have reacted to the e-book in various ways. In 2000, Stephen King published his novella Riding the Bullet as a digital file that could only be read on a computer; in contrast, J. K. Rowling has stated that the Harry Potter novels won’t ever be released as e-books (McHugh, 2005). However, piracy has struck Rowling’s novels as well. Every Harry Potter novel is available in pirated form, either as a scanned copy or one that was manually typed out by fans.

Another concern with e-books is the possibility of digital decay. All an e-book is, after all, is a collection of data saved to a disk. It turns out that digital formats tend to decay much faster than their physical counterparts (Bollacker, 2010). The swift turnover of digital devices is another concern; the possibility exists that a book bought on a Kindle device in 2010 will be not be compatible with an equivalent device in 2035 or even 2015.

E-book sales still make up a small part of the overall book market, 3 to 5 percent by most estimates, but their sales increased by 177 percent in 2009. The New Yorker cites a projection that e-books will someday account for between 25 and 50 percent of all book sales (Auletta, 2010). And with newer models of e-book readers, such as the iPad, boasting full color screens and the ability to embed web links and video in a book’s text, e-books may fundamentally reshape how people read in the future.

Key Takeaways

  • Hardcover books are a direct descendant of the ancient codex. Because they are more durable and more expensive, they are considered more prestigious than paperback books. Traditionally, publishers order an initial print run in hardcover, followed by a paperback release.
  • Paperback books are popular because they are more portable and less expensive than their hardcover equivalents are. Books issued in paperback can be either mass market paperbacks or trade paperbacks, which are pricier and higher quality. To stay competitive and to attract customers, publishers are releasing some novels simultaneously in hardcover and paperback; other books skip hardcover and are released as paperback originals.
  • Although they make up only 3 to 5 percent of current sales, e-books have the potential to transform the book market. Gaining currency with customers only in recent years, the e-book has the advantage of being cheaper and more portable than even most paperbacks. Some concerns with e-books include the prevalence of piracy and the potential for digital decay.


Create a list of the three book formats mentioned in this section, and then answer the following questions:

  • What are the features, advantages, and drawbacks of each format?
  • How do they differ? How are they the same?
  • What type of person might each format appeal to?
  • Which format do you prefer the most, and why?


Auletta, Ken. “Publish or Perish,” Annals of Communication, New Yorker, April 26, 2010.

Bollacker, Kurt D. “Avoiding a Digital Dark Age,” American Scientist 98, no. 3 (2010): 106.

Eco-Libris, “Some Facts About the Book Publishing Industry,” Eco-Libris, http://www.ecolibris.net/bookpublish.asp.

Frisch, Matt. “Digital Piracy Hits the E-book Industry,” CNN, January 1, 2010, http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/01/01/ebook.piracy/index.html.

McHugh, John B. “J. K. Rowling Refuses E-books for Potter,” USA Today, June 14, 2005, http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2005-06-14-rowling-refuses-ebooks_x.htm.

Ogle, “The Paperback Revolution.”

Wyatt, Edward. “Literary Novels Going Straight to Paperback,” New York Times, March 22, 2006, Books section.

3.6 The Influence of New Technology


Learning Objectives

  1. Determine the benefits and drawbacks of digital libraries.
  2. Define print-on-demand and self-publishing.

The book industry has changed enormously since its creation. From the invention of the papyrus scroll to the introduction of the e-book, new technologies continuously affect how people view and experience literature. With the advent of digital media, old-media industries, such as the book industry, must find ways to adapt. Some fear that this new technology will destroy the industry, while others maintain that it works to the industry’s advantage. However, one thing is clear—digital technology promises to reshape the publishing industry as we know it.


The first e-book readers were related to the personal digital assistant (PDA) devices, pocket-sized electronics that could store and display large amounts of text, that became popular in the 1990s. However, early e-book readers lingered on the market, popular in certain techy niches but unable to gain traction with the wider population. Early e-readers had minimal battery life and text that was difficult to read. Through the 2000s, technological advances allowed for smaller and sleeker models, the Apple iPhone and the iPad helped make readers more comfortable with reading on a small screen. The second half of the decade saw the release of many e-readers. The technology got a boost when Oprah Winfrey praised the Kindle on her show in October 2008. By that holiday season, e-book reader sales were booming, and it wasn’t just the technologically savvy individuals who were interested anymore. Despite being criticized by some as providing an inferior reading experience to dedicated e-readers, the Apple iPad has been a powerful driving force behind e-book sales—more than 1.5 million books were downloaded on the Apple iPad during its first month of release in 2010 (Maneker, 2010).

E-books make up less than 5 percent of the current book market, but that number is growing. At the beginning of 2010, Amazon had about 400,000 titles available for the Kindle device. Some devices offer wireless accessibility, meaning that an e-reader doesn’t have to be connected to a computer to access titles; an open Wi-Fi connection is all it needs. With access to a dazzling array of books available with just a few clicks, it’s no wonder the contemporary consumer seems enamored with the e-book. An e-book reader has the space to store thousands of titles in an object smaller and lighter than the average hardcover novel. And though the devices themselves can be expensive, e-books are usually cheaper than their hardcopy equivalents; sometimes they’re even free. Thanks to efforts like the Gutenberg Project and Google Books (see the following section), more than a million public domain titles are available as free e-books.

Anything that gets people excited about books and reading should be good for the publishing industry, right? Unfortunately for U.S. publishers, it’s not that simple. Some publishers worry that e-book sales may actually end up hurting their bottom lines. During the Kindle’s first year, Amazon essentially set the standard price for bestselling or new release e-books at $9.99. Since Amazon was acting as a wholesaler and buying these books for half the publisher’s list price—generally around $25 for a new hardcover—the company was selling these titles at a loss. However, for Amazon, a short-term loss might have had long-term payoffs. At the start of 2010, the company controlled a 90 percent share of the e-book market. Faced with e-books that cost less than $10, traditional publishers worried that consumers would avoid purchasing a new hardcover priced at $25 (or even a $13 trade paperback).

Figure 3.13


Most e-readers are the size and shape of one hardcover book.

ndh – Kobo eReader – CC BY-NC 2.0.

In January 2010, the conflict between Amazon and the publishing establishment came to a head. Macmillan, one of the six major publishing companies in the United States, suggested a new business model to Amazon, one that resembled the deal that the Big Six publishers had worked out with Apple for e-book sales on the Apple iPad. Essentially, Amazon had been able to buy books from publishers at wholesale rates—half the hardcover list price—and then set whatever retail price it wanted. This allowed Amazon to choose to sell books at a loss in the hope of convincing more people to buy Kindles. Macmillan proposed a system in which Amazon would act more as a commission-earning agent than a wholesaler. In Macmillan’s proposed model, the publisher would set the retail price and take 70 percent of each sale, leaving 30 percent for the retailer. Macmillan couldn’t force Amazon to agree to this deal, but the publisher could strike a hard bargain: If Amazon refused Macmillan’s offer, it could still sell Macmillan titles under the wholesale model, but the publisher would delay e-book editions for 7 months after hardcover releases. What followed was a standoff. Amazon didn’t just reject Macmillan’s proposal; it removed the “buy” button from all Macmillan books listed on its website (including print books), essentially refusing to sell Macmillan titles. However, after a few days, Amazon capitulated and agreed to Macmillan’s terms, but not before issuing a strongly worded press release claiming that they agreed to sell Macmillan’s titles “at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books,” because “Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles (Rich & Stone, 2010).” Still, Macmillan and the other publishers seem to have won this battle: Amazon agreed that e-books for most new fiction and nonfiction books for adults will be priced at $12.99 to $14.99, though best sellers will still be $9.99 (Rich & Stone, 2010).

But the $10 book may be the least of the publishing industry’s worries. At the start of 2010, more than half of the bestselling titles on Kindle were free. Some of these were public domain novels such as Pride and Prejudice, but many others were books by living authors being promoted by publishers by giving away the book. The industry hasn’t yet come to a consensus about the utility of free e-books. Some publishers consider it a practice that devalues books in the eyes of customers. “At a time when we are resisting the $9.99 price of e-books,” David Young of the Hachette Book Group told The New York Times, “it is illogical to give books away for free (Rich, 2010).” Other publishers consider free e-books a promotional tool to build word-of-mouth and to introduce readers to new authors.

Other e-books emerge from outside the traditional publishing system. Four of the five bestselling novels in Japan in 2007 were cell phone novels, books that were both written and intended to be read on cell phones. Cell-phone novels are traditionally written by amateurs who post them on free websites. Readers can download copies at no cost, which means no one is making much of a profit from this new genre. Although the phenomenon has not caught on in the United States yet, the cell phone novel is feared by some publishers as a further sign of the devaluation of books in a world where browsers expect content to be free.

With e-book sales expected to triple by 2015, it’s hard to say what such a quickly growing industry will look like in the future (McQuivy, 2010). Some people have theorized that e-readers will lead to an increasing popularity of the short story, which can be bought and read in short increments. Others have claimed that they’ll destroy the book industry as we know it. Whatever the future of books looks like, everything—from the way books are produced to the way we read them—continues to change rapidly because of new technologies.

Digitizing Libraries

The idea of a digitized library has been around since the early years of the Internet. A digital library stores its materials in a digital format, accessible by computers. Some digital libraries can be accessed locally; others can be accessed remotely through a computer network. Michael Hart founded Project Gutenberg, the oldest digital library, in 1971, 3 years before the Internet went live. Hart’s initial goal was to make 10,000 of the most-consulted books publicly available and free by the end of the century. The forward-thinking Hart named his project after the inventor of the movable type printing press, perhaps realizing that book digitization had the potential to revolutionize the way humans produce and read books as much as Gutenberg’s invention had centuries earlier. At first, the process was slow for Hart and his fellow book-digitizing volunteers because they were forced to copy text manually until 1989. In the early 1990s, scanners and text-recognition software allowed them to somewhat automate the process.

Fast-forward to 2010. Project Gutenberg’s free online library boasts more than 30,000 public domain works available for free download. Stanford University uses a robotic page-turning scanner machine to digitize 1,000 book pages an hour. Stanford’s partner in digital library production is Google Books, which has scanned over 10 million books since it began Google Books in 2004. A Chinese company claims to have digitized more than half of all books that have been published in Chinese since 1949. In 2006, The New York Times estimated that humans have published at least 32 million books throughout history; the huge push for book digitization makes it seem entirely possible that nearly all known books could be digitized within 50 years (Kelly).

Some liken the prospect of these widely accessible, easily searchable, free libraries to the proliferation of free libraries in the 19th century, which led to a surge in literacy rates. One of Project Gutenberg’s stated goals is “to break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy” through its library of digitized books (Hart & Newby, 2004). Digital libraries make a huge selection of texts available to people with Internet access, giving them the amazing potential to democratize knowledge. As Bill McCoy, the general manager of Adobe’s e-publishing business, told The New York Times in 2006, “Some of us have thousands of books at home, can walk to wonderful big-box bookstores and well-stocked libraries and can get Amazon.com to deliver next day. The most dramatic effect of digital libraries will be not on us, the well-booked, but on the billions of people worldwide who are underserved by ordinary paper books (Hart & Newby, 2004).” Digitized libraries can make fragile materials available to browsers without damaging originals; academic libraries are also able to share important texts without shipping books across the country.

Google Books, the largest online library, is not run by an academic institution, though it does claim several as partners. The bulk of free digital books available from Google Books or elsewhere come from the public domain, which constitutes approximately 15 percent of all books. Google Books has made over a million of these titles fully and freely searchable and downloadable. Other works in the Google Books digital library include in-print texts whose publishers have worked out a deal with Google. Some of these titles have their full text available online; others allow only a limited number of page previews. As part of its partnership with publishers, a Google Books search result will often provide links to the publisher’s website and to booksellers.

Google Books ran into trouble, however, when it began to digitize the millions of books with unclear legal status, such as out-of-print works that weren’t yet in the public domain. Many of these are considered orphan works, meaning that no one is exactly sure who owns their copyright. In 2004, the site announced plans to scan these texts and to make them searchable, but it would only show sentence-long snippets to searchers. Copyright holders could ask Google to remove these snippets at any time. Google claimed that this digitization plan would benefit authors, whose books would no longer linger in out-of-print limbo; it would also help researchers and readers, who would be able to locate (and perhaps purchase) previously unavailable works.

Publishers and authors did not agree with Google. Many objected to Google’s plan to scan first and look into copyright ownership later; others saw Google’s profiting from works still under copyright as a clear violation of intellectual property law. In 2005, the Authors Guild of America and the American Association of Publishers (AAP) sued Google for “massive copyright infringement.” Google argued that it was essentially creating a massive online card catalog; the Authors Guild and AAP alleged that Google was attempting to monopolize information and profit from it. In 2008, Google agreed to a $125 million settlement with the publishers and the Authors Guild. Some of that money would go directly to copyright holders; some would pay for legal fees; and some would go to found the Book Rights Registry, an independent nonprofit association that would ensure content users (like Google) are paying copyright owners. Copyright owners would get money from Google and from potential book sales; Google would get money from advertisers, book sales, and institutional subscriptions by libraries.

Still, not everyone agreed with the decision. The Open Book Alliance was formed by a diverse partnership of organizations, including Amazon, Internet Archive, and the National Writers Union, who fear that Google’s proprietary control of so much copyrighted material was an antitrust violation. As the group states on its website:

We will assert that any mass book digitization and publishing effort be open and competitive. The process of achieving this promise must be undertaken in the open, grounded in sound public policy and mindful of the need to promote long-term benefits for consumers rather than isolated commercial interests. The Open Book Alliance will counter Google, the Association of American Publishers and the Authors’ [sic] Guild’s scheme to monopolize the access, distribution and pricing of the largest digital database of books in the world.

Another concern, which was mentioned earlier, in the digital library world is digital decay. One librarian at Harvard University told The New York Times that “we don’t really have any methodology [to preserve digital material] as of yet…. We just store the disks in our climate-controlled stacks, and we’re hoping for some kind of universal Harvard guidelines (Cohen, 2010).”

Print-on-Demand and Self-Publishing

Part of what made Gutenberg’s printing press so revolutionary was that it allowed books to be mass produced. In medieval times, readers often commissioned a scribe to copy a text by hand, a process that could take months or even years. But despite their many conveniences, printed books carry their own risks for authors and publishers. Producing books in bulk means that publishers are taking a gamble, attempting to publish enough books to satisfy demand, but not so many that unwanted copies linger in warehouses. When a book doesn’t sell as much as expected, the publisher may end up taking a loss if the costs of publishing the book exceed the revenue from its sale. Interestingly, modern technology has made it feasible for some authors and publishers to turn to an updated version of the medieval model of producing books on demand for specific customers, allowing them to avoid the risk of carrying a large inventory of books that may or may not sell. Print-on-demand, a system in which a book is printed only after an order is received, and the increasing trend of self-publishing may reshape the industry in the 21st century.

Self-publishing—a system that involves an author, not a third-party company, being in charge of producing and publishing a work—is not a new concept. Many authors self-published works in their lifetimes, including Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde. More recently, popular books like The Joy of Cooking and the Chicken Soup for the Soul series had their origins in self-publishing. Many authors also self-publish when they’re unable to get support from the traditional publishing world. Daniel Suarez’s techno-thriller Daemon was rejected by 48 agents before he opted for self-publishing. After creating interest on blogs, Suarez eventually got a two-book deal with Dutton, an imprint of Random House (McHugh, 2008). Additionally, self-publishing can be an attractive option for authors who want control over their own content. Instead of leaving decisions up to the publisher, authors can control their own editing, designing, and marketing.

One major challenge for authors who choose to strike out on their own is the stigma that’s sometimes attached to self-published books. Until recent years, most self-published authors went through the so-called vanity presses, which charge writers a premium for published copies of their books. As the name implies, these types of self-publishing ventures were often seen as preying on writers’ need to see their own work in print. To justify the cost of printing, a minimum order of a thousand copies was standard, and unless authors were able to find an audience, they had little hope of selling them all. Because there was no quality control and vanity presses would usually publish anyone with money, some readers were skeptical of self-published books. Major retailers and distributors generally refused to carry them, meaning that authors had to rely on their own marketing efforts to sell the books. Before the advent of the Internet, this usually meant either selling copies in person or relying on mail-order catalogs, neither of which is a very reliable way to sell enough copies to recoup costs.

However, beginning in the early 2000s, self-publishing has changed dramatically. Advances made in publishing technology have made it easier for self-published books to more closely resemble traditionally published ones. Free professional typesetting software has allowed writers to format their text for the page; Adobe Photoshop and similar programs have made image editing and graphic design feasible for amateurs and professionals. The Internet has revolutionized marketing and distribution, allowing authors of books about niche subjects to reach a worldwide audience. As a result, many new Internet-based self-publishing companies have sprung up, offering a variety of services. Some companies, such as Lulu Enterprises and CreateSpace, feature a low-cost service without many bells and whistles; others offer a package of services that may include professional editing, cover design, and marketing. The process has become streamlined as well. For example, to publish a book with Lulu, an author just has to upload a PDF of a properly formatted text file; decide what size, paper, and binding options to use; and make a cover using a premade template. Self-published books are generally quicker to produce and allow an author a higher share of the royalties, though it usually costs more on a per-book basis. As a result, self-published books often have a higher list price.

Whereas vanity publishers were stigmatized for charging authors sometimes thousands of dollars to publish their books, creating a book using the services of Lulu or CreateSpace doesn’t cost the author anything. That’s because users who upload their content aren’t creating an actual, physical copy of a book; instead, they’re essentially making a potential volume. With print-on-demand technology, books aren’t printed until an order is placed, which significantly lowers the financial risk for self-publishers. Print-on-demand is especially useful for books with a limited or niche audience. Print-on-demand isn’t only being used by self-publishers; both small presses and academic publishers are using the technology for older books without much of an audience. With print-on-demand, books that may only sell a few dozen copies a year can stay in print without the publisher having to worry about printing a full run of copies and being stuck with unsold inventory.

Although some self-published authors manage to find a huge audience, most don’t. Bob Young, the founder of Lulu, told the London Times that his goal is to publish 1 million books that each sell 100 copies, rather than 100 books that sell 1 million copies each (Whitworth, 2006). Lulu and other enterprising self-publishers disrupt the traditional notion of the publishing house, which acted as a sort of gatekeeper for the book industry—ushering a few talented, lucky writers in and keeping others out. In the world of self-publishing, there are no barriers—anyone with a book in a PDF file can whip up a nice-looking paperback in under 1 hour. This has democratized the industry, allowing writers who had been rejected by the traditional publishers to find their own audience. But it has also meant that a lot of writing with little literary merit has been published as well. Additionally, if a best seller in the Lulu world is a book that sells 500 copies, as Bob Young told the London Times, then few authors are going to be able to make a living through self-publishing. Indeed, most of the self-publishing success stories involve writers whose self-published efforts sold well enough to get them a book deal with one of the traditional publishing houses, a sign that for better or for worse, the traditional publishing model still has the social cachet and sales to dominate the industry.

Key Takeaways

  • E-books have been increasing in popularity with customers since the 1990s. However, the publishing industry is worried that setting the price for e-books at $9.99, as Amazon initially did for most titles, would turn consumers away from buying more expensive physical books. Amazon lost money on every $9.99 e-book but hoped that the low prices would act as an incentive to buy its e-book reader, the Kindle device. In 2010, Macmillan and other publishers forced Amazon to change its pricing model to give publishers more control over e-book prices.
  • Digital libraries began with Project Gutenberg in 1971. Digitized books allow anyone with an Internet connection access to millions of volumes, and some advocates hope that digital libraries will lead to a rise in global literacy rates. Millions of books in the public domain are available for free download. Google Books, the largest digital library, has run into trouble with its plan to digitize as many books as possible, even books under current copyright. The Open Book Alliance accuses Google of monopolizing copyrighted content to make a profit.
  • Self-publishing used to carry a social stigma as well as a high cost. Thanks to print-on-demand services, self-publishing is an increasingly popular option for amateur and professional writers. It appeals to authors who may have a niche audience or who want more control over their work. Print-on-demand makes it possible for books to never go out of print.


Go to the website of a company that specializes in print-on-demand or self-publishing services and examine some of the books featured there. Then, answer the following questions:

  • How do these books look similar in form and content to books you’d expect to find in your local bookstore? How do they look different?
  • How do prices differ from some of the major retail chains? Are the prices more similar to e-book, paperback, or hardcover prices?
  • Would you be willing to purchase a book on one of these sites? Why or why not?

End-of-Chapter Assessment

Review Questions

  1. Section 1

    1. What ancient book form did the codex replace, and why was the codex an improvement on that form?
    2. What is mechanical movable type, and how did it lead to the Gutenberg Revolution?
    3. What is copyright, and how has its legal interpretation changed over time?
    4. How has the publishing industry evolved since the invention of the printing press?
  2. Section 2

    1. How was 18th-century literature affected by the changing role of women during this period?
    2. What are some of the ways that authors tried to create a distinctive American style in the 19th century?
    3. What changes in American society were reflected by 20th-century literature?
  3. Section 3

    1. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of hardcover books?
    2. What are the two kinds of paperback books, and how do they differ?
    3. What is an e-book, and how is it different from hardcopy books?
  4. Section 4

    1. What is blockbuster syndrome, and how does it affect the publishing industry?
    2. What factors led to the rise and decline of book superstores?
    3. How do price wars affect the publishing industry?
  5. Section 5

    1. What are some ways that e-books are changing the publishing industry?
    2. What are the benefits and drawbacks of digital libraries?
    3. What is print-on-demand, and how does it influence the book industry?

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. One of the initial intentions of copyright law was to protect artists while also allowing a free market of ideas. Is copyright a good way to protect authors and their control over their work? Do you think copyright law means the same now as it did in the past? What are some concerns that are changing the meaning of copyright protection?
  2. If the Gutenberg Revolution was a time when advances in technology led to rapid changes in culture and society, will e-books and digital libraries lead to a similarly revolutionary change in the way we live our lives? Why or why not?
  3. The publishing industry is facing a time of rapid change. What are some factors threatening the traditional publishing mode, and what are some ways the industry could respond to these potential dangers?
  4. What impact do blockbuster books have on the book industry? And on readers?
  5. Some people argue that e-books will destroy the publishing industry, while others think that they’ll be its savior. How have e-books begun to transform the publishing industry, and what impact do you think they will have in the future?

Career Connection

Publishing a book is no longer a simple thing. Authors have to contend with questions about copyright, movie rights, e-books, and blog publicity. In confusing times, literary agents act as writers’ sidekicks. They discover new writers and then help those writers negotiate an increasingly complex market.

Read the article “A Book in You” from The New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/05/31/040531ta_talk_radosh), which discusses a literary agent who specializes in signing book deals with bloggers. Now, explore literary agent Betsy Lerner’s blog at http://betsylerner.wordpress.com. After exploring for a bit, read the “About Me” section (the link is at the top). These two sites will help you answer the following questions:

  1. Why does Kate Lee think that blogs are a good place to look for new authors to represent?
  2. What can you tell about Betsy Lerner’s attitude about the publishing industry from her blog? What about her attitude toward the writers she works with? What does she appear to find rewarding about her job?
  3. Based on Betsy Lerner’s blog, identify the daily work required to be an agent. What aspects of the job appear challenging and engaging? What seems to take up the most time?


Cohen, Patricia. “Fending Off Digital Decay, Bit by Bit,” New York Times, March 15, 2010, Arts section.

Hart, Michael S. and Gregory B. Newby, “Project Gutenberg Principle of Minimal Regulation,” Project Gutenberg, 2004, http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Gutenberg:Project_Gutenberg_Principle_of_Minimal_Regulation_

Kelly, “Scan This Book!”

Maneker, Marion. “Parsing the iPad’s Book Sale Numbers,” The Big Money, May 4, 2010, http://www.thebigmoney.com/blogs/goodnight-gutenberg/2010/05/04/ibooks-vs-app-books-ipad.

McHugh, Josh. “How the Self-Published Debut Daemon Earned Serious Geek Cred,” Wired, April 21, 2008.

McQuivy, James L. “eBook Buying Is About to Spiral Upward,” Forrester Research: Making Leaders Successful Every Day, 2010, http://www.forrester.com/rb/Research/ebook_buying_is_about_to_spiral_upward/q/id/57664/t/2.

Rich, Mokoto. “With Kindle, the Best Sellers Don’t Need to Sell,” New York Times, January 23, 2010, Books section.

Rich, Mokoto. and Brad Stone, “Publisher Wins Fight With Amazon Over E-books,” New York Times, January 31, 2010, Technology section.

Whitworth, Damian. “Publish and Be Downloaded,” Times (London), March 8, 2006, Life and Style section.

Chapter 4: Newspapers


4.1 Newspapers
4.2 History of Newspapers
4.3 Different Styles and Models of Journalism
4.4 How Newspapers Control the Public’s Access to Information and Impact American Pop Culture
4.5 Current Popular Trends in the Newspaper Industry
4.6 Online Journalism Redefines News

4.1 Newspapers


Newspaper Wars

Figure 4.1

4.1 collage 0

The two major newspapers, the The Wall Street Journal and the The New York Times, battle for their place in the print world.

dennis crowley – Wall Street Journal – CC BY 2.0; Aaron Edwards – no-more-war – CC BY-NC 2.0.

On April 26, 2010, Wired magazine proclaimed that a “clash of the titans” between two major newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, was about to take place in the midst of an unprecedented downward spiral for the print medium (Burskirk, 2010). Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Wall Street Journal, had announced that his paper was launching a new section, one covering local stories north of Wall Street, something that had been part of The New York Times’ focus since it first began over a century before. New York Times Chairman Arthur Sultzberger Jr. and CEO Janet Robinson pertly responded to the move, welcoming the new section and acknowledging the difficulties a startup can face when competing with the well-established New York Times (Burskirk, 2010).

Despite The New York Times’ droll response, Murdoch’s decision to cover local news indeed presented a threat to the newspaper, particularly as the two publications continue their respective moves from the print to the online market. In fact, some believe that The Wall Street Journal’s decision to launch the new section has very little to do with local coverage and everything to do with the Internet. Newspapers are in a perilous position: Traditional readership is declining even as papers are struggling to create a profitable online business model. Both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are striving to remain relevant as competition is increasing and the print medium is becoming unprofitable.

In light of the challenges facing the newspaper industry, The Wall Street Journal’s new section may have a potentially catastrophic effect on The New York Times. Wired magazine described the decision, calling it “two-pronged” to “starve the enemy and capture territory (Burskirk, 2010).” By offering advertising space at a discount in the new Metro section, The Journal would make money while partially cutting The Times off from some of its primary support. Wired magazine also noted that the additional material would be available to subscribers through the Internet, on smartphones, and on the iPad (Burskirk, 2010).

Attracting advertising revenue from The New York Times may give The Wall Street Journal the financial edge it needs to lead in the online news industry. As newspapers move away from print publications to online publications, a strong online presence may secure more readers and, in turn, more advertisers—and thus more revenue—in a challenging economic climate.

This emerging front in the ongoing battle between two of the country’s largest newspapers reveals a problem the newspaper industry has been facing for some time. New York has long been a battleground for other newspapers, but before Murdoch’s decision, these two papers coexisted peacefully for over 100 years, serving divergent readers by focusing on different stories. However, since the invention of radio, newspapers have worried about their future. Even though readership has been declining since the 1950s, the explosion of the Internet and the resulting accessibility of online news has led to an unprecedented drop in subscriptions since the beginning of the 21st century. Also hit hard by the struggling economy’s reluctant advertisers, most newspapers have had to cut costs. Some have reinvented their style to appeal to new audiences. Some, however, have simply closed. As this struggle for profit continues, it’s no surprise that The Wall Street Journal is trying to outperform The New York Times. But how did newspapers get to this point? This chapter provides historical context of the newspaper medium and offers an in-depth examination of journalistic styles and trends to illuminate the mounting challenges for today’s industry.


Burskirk, Eliot Van “Print War Between NYT and WSJ Is Really About Digital,” Wired, April 26, 2010, http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/04/print-war-between-nyt-and-wsj-is-really-about-digital.

4.2 History of Newspapers


Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the historical roots of the modern newspaper industry.
  2. Explain the effect of the penny press on modern journalism.
  3. Define sensationalism and yellow journalism as they relate to the newspaper industry.

Over the course of its long and complex history, the newspaper has undergone many transformations. Examining newspapers’ historical roots can help shed some light on how and why the newspaper has evolved into the multifaceted medium that it is today. Scholars commonly credit the ancient Romans with publishing the first newspaper, Acta Diurna, or daily doings, in 59 BCE. Although no copies of this paper have survived, it is widely believed to have published chronicles of events, assemblies, births, deaths, and daily gossip.

In 1566, another ancestor of the modern newspaper appeared in Venice, Italy. These avisi, or gazettes, were handwritten and focused on politics and military conflicts. However, the absence of printing-press technology greatly limited the circulation for both the Acta Diurna and the Venetian papers.

The Birth of the Printing Press

Figure 4.2


Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press exponentially increased the rate at which printed materials could be reproduced.

Milestoned – Printing press – CC BY 2.0.

Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press drastically changed the face of publishing. In 1440, Gutenberg invented a movable-type press that permitted the high-quality reproduction of printed materials at a rate of nearly 4,000 pages per day, or 1,000 times more than could be done by a scribe by hand. This innovation drove down the price of printed materials and, for the first time, made them accessible to a mass market. Overnight, the new printing press transformed the scope and reach of the newspaper, paving the way for modern-day journalism.

European Roots

The first weekly newspapers to employ Gutenberg’s press emerged in 1609. Although the papers—Relations: Aller Furnemmen, printed by Johann Carolus, and Aviso Relations over Zeitung, printed by Lucas Schulte—did not name the cities in which they were printed to avoid government persecution, their approximate location can be identified because of their use of the German language. Despite these concerns over persecution, the papers were a success, and newspapers quickly spread throughout Central Europe. Over the next 5 years, weeklies popped up in Basel, Frankfurt, Vienna, Hamburg, Berlin, and Amsterdam. In 1621, England printed its first paper under the title Corante, or weekely newes from Italy, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Bohemia, France and the Low Countreys. By 1641, a newspaper was printed in almost every country in Europe as publication spread to France, Italy, and Spain.

Figure 4.3


Newspapers are the descendants of the Dutch corantos and the German pamphlets of the 1600s.

POP – Ms. foliation? and pamphlet number – CC BY 2.0.

These early newspapers followed one of two major formats. The first was the Dutch-style corantos, a densely packed two- to four-page paper, while the second was the German-style pamphlet, a more expansive 8- to 24-page paper. Many publishers began printing in the Dutch format, but as their popularity grew, they changed to the larger German style.

Government Control and Freedom of the Press

Because many of these early publications were regulated by the government, they did not report on local news or events. However, when civil war broke out in England in 1641, as Oliver Cromwell and Parliament threatened and eventually overthrew King Charles I, citizens turned to local papers for coverage of these major events. In November 1641, a weekly paper titled The Heads of Severall Proceedings in This Present Parliament began focusing on domestic news (Goff, 2007). The paper fueled a discussion about the freedom of the press that was later articulated in 1644 by John Milton in his famous treatise Areopagitica.

Figure 4.4


John Milton’s 1644 Areopagitica, which criticized the British Parliament’s role in regulating texts and helped pave the way for the freedom of the press.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

Although the Areopagitica focused primarily on Parliament’s ban on certain books, it also addressed newspapers. Milton criticized the tight regulations on their content by stating, “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye (Milton, 1644).” Despite Milton’s emphasis on texts rather than on newspapers, the treatise had a major effect on printing regulations. In England, newspapers were freed from government control, and people began to understand the power of free press.

Papers took advantage of this newfound freedom and began publishing more frequently. With biweekly publications, papers had additional space to run advertisements and market reports. This changed the role of journalists from simple observers to active players in commerce, as business owners and investors grew to rely on the papers to market their products and to help them predict business developments. Once publishers noticed the growing popularity and profit potential of newspapers, they founded daily publications. In 1650, a German publisher began printing the world’s oldest surviving daily paper, Einkommende Zeitung, and an English publisher followed suit in 1702 with London’s Daily Courant. Such daily publications, which employed the relatively new format of headlines and the embellishment of illustrations, turned papers into vital fixtures in the everyday lives of citizens.

Colonial American Newspapers

Newspapers did not come to the American colonies until September 25, 1690, when Benjamin Harris printed Public Occurrences, Both FORREIGN and DOMESTICK. Before fleeing to America for publishing an article about a purported Catholic plot against England, Harris had been a newspaper editor in England. The first article printed in his new colonial paper stated, “The Christianized Indians in some parts of Plimouth, have newly appointed a day of thanksgiving to God for his Mercy (Harris, 1690).” The other articles in Public Occurrences, however, were in line with Harris’s previously more controversial style, and the publication folded after just one issue.

Fourteen years passed before the next American newspaper, The Boston News-Letter, launched. Fifteen years after that, The Boston Gazette began publication, followed immediately by the American Weekly Mercury in Philadelphia. Trying to avoid following in Harris’s footsteps, these early papers carefully eschewed political discussion to avoid offending colonial authorities. After a lengthy absence, politics reentered American papers in 1721, when James Franklin published a criticism of smallpox inoculations in the New England Courant. The following year, the paper accused the colonial government of failing to protect its citizens from pirates, which landed Franklin in jail.

After Franklin offended authorities once again for mocking religion, a court dictated that he was forbidden “to print or publish The New England Courant, or any other Pamphlet or Paper of the like Nature, except it be first Supervised by the Secretary of this Province (Massachusetts Historical Society).” Immediately following this order, Franklin turned over the paper to his younger brother, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin, who went on to become a famous statesman and who played a major role in the American Revolution, also had a substantial impact on the printing industry as publisher of The Pennsylvania Gazette and the conceiver of subscription libraries.

The Trial of John Peter Zenger

Figure 4.5


The New York Weekly Journal founder John Peter Zenger brought controversial political discussion to the New York press.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

Boston was not the only city in which a newspaper discussed politics. In 1733, John Peter Zenger founded The New York Weekly Journal. Zenger’s paper soon began criticizing the newly appointed colonial governor, William Cosby, who had replaced members of the New York Supreme Court when he could not control them. In late 1734, Cosby had Zenger arrested, claiming that his paper contained “divers scandalous, virulent, false and seditious reflections (Archiving Early America).” Eight months later, prominent Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton defended Zenger in an important trial. Hamilton compelled the jury to consider the truth and whether or not what was printed was a fact. Ignoring the wishes of the judge, who disapproved of Zenger and his actions, the jury returned a not guilty verdict to the courtroom after only a short deliberation. Zenger’s trial resulted in two significant movements in the march toward freedom of the press. First, the trial demonstrated to the papers that they could potentially print honest criticism of the government without fear of retribution. Second, the British became afraid that an American jury would never convict an American journalist.

With Zenger’s verdict providing more freedom to the press and as some began to call for emancipation from England, newspapers became a conduit for political discussion. More conflicts between the British and the colonists forced papers to pick a side to support. While a majority of American papers challenged governmental authorities, a small number of Loyalist papers, such as James Rivington’s New York Gazetteer, gave voice to the pro-British side. Throughout the war, newspapers continued to publish information representing opposing viewpoints, and the partisan press was born. After the revolution, two opposing political parties—the Federalists and the Republicans—emerged, giving rise to partisan newspapers for each side.

Freedom of the Press in the Early United States

In 1791, the nascent United States of America adopted the First Amendment as part of the Bill of Rights. This act states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceable to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances (Cornell University Law School).” In this one sentence, U.S. law formally guaranteed freedom of press.

However, as a reaction to harsh partisan writing, in 1798, Congress passed the Sedition Act, which declared that “writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States” was punishable by fine and imprisonment (Constitution Society, 1798). When Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800, he allowed the Sedition Act to lapse, claiming that he was lending himself to “a great experiment…to demonstrate the falsehood of the pretext that freedom of the press is incompatible with orderly government (University of Virginia).” This free-press experiment has continued to modern times.

Newspapers as a Form of Mass Media

As late as the early 1800s, newspapers were still quite expensive to print. Although daily papers had become more common and gave merchants up-to-date, vital trading information, most were priced at about 6 cents a copy—well above what artisans and other working-class citizens could afford. As such, newspaper readership was limited to the elite.

The Penny Press

All that changed in September 1833 when Benjamin Day created The Sun. Printed on small, letter-sized pages, The Sun sold for just a penny. With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, Day employed the new steam-driven, two-cylinder press to print The Sun. While the old printing press was capable of printing approximately 125 papers per hour, this technologically improved version printed approximately 18,000 copies per hour. As he reached out to new readers, Day knew that he wanted to alter the way news was presented. He printed the paper’s motto at the top of every front page of The Sun: “The object of this paper is to lay before the public, at a price within the means of every one, all the news of the day, and at the same time offer an advantageous medium for advertisements (Starr, 2004).”

The Sun sought out stories that would appeal to the new mainstream consumer. As such, the paper primarily published human-interest stories and police reports. Additionally, Day left ample room for advertisements. Day’s adoption of this new format and industrialized method of printing was a huge success. The Sun became the first paper to be printed by what became known as the penny press. Prior to the emergence of the penny press, the most popular paper, New York City’s Courier and Enquirer, had sold 4,500 copies per day. By 1835, The Sun sold 15,000 copies per day.


Figure 4.6

Benjamin Day’s Sun, the first penny paper. The emergence of the penny press helped turn newspapers into a truly mass medium.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

Another early successful penny paper was James Gordon Bennett’s New York Morning Herald, which was first published in 1835. Bennett made his mark on the publishing industry by offering nonpartisan political reporting. He also introduced more aggressive methods for gathering news, hiring both interviewers and foreign correspondents. His paper was the first to send a reporter to a crime scene to witness an investigation. In the 1860s, Bennett hired 63 war reporters to cover the U.S. Civil War. Although the Herald initially emphasized sensational news, it later became one of the country’s most respected papers for its accurate reporting.

Growth of Wire Services

Another major historical technological breakthrough for newspapers came when Samuel Morse invented the telegraph. Newspapers turned to emerging telegraph companies to receive up-to-date news briefs from cities across the globe. The significant expense of this service led to the formation of the Associated Press (AP) in 1846 as a cooperative arrangement of five major New York papers: the New York Sun, the Journal of Commerce, the Courier and Enquirer, the New York Herald, and the Express. The success of the Associated Press led to the development of wire services between major cities. According to the AP, this meant that editors were able to “actively collect news as it [broke], rather than gather already published news (Associated Press).” This collaboration between papers allowed for more reliable reporting, and the increased breadth of subject matter lent subscribing newspapers mass appeal for not only upper- but also middle- and working-class readers.

Yellow Journalism

In the late 1800s, New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer developed a new journalistic style that relied on an intensified use of sensationalism—stories focused on crime, violence, emotion, and sex. Although he made major strides in the newspaper industry by creating an expanded section focusing on women and by pioneering the use of advertisements as news, Pulitzer relied largely on violence and sex in his headlines to sell more copies. Ironically, journalism’s most prestigious award is named for him. His New York World became famous for such headlines as “Baptized in Blood” and “Little Lotta’s Lovers (Fang, 1997).” This sensationalist style served as the forerunner for today’s tabloids. Editors relied on shocking headlines to sell their papers, and although investigative journalism was predominant, editors often took liberties with how the story was told. Newspapers often printed an editor’s interpretation of the story without maintaining objectivity.

At the same time Pulitzer was establishing the New York World, William Randolph Hearst—an admirer and principal competitor of Pulitzer—took over the New York Journal. Hearst’s life partially inspired the 1941 classic film Citizen Kane. The battle between these two major New York newspapers escalated as Pulitzer and Hearst attempted to outsell one another. The papers slashed their prices back down to a penny, stole editors and reporters from each other, and filled their papers with outrageous, sensationalist headlines. One conflict that inspired particularly sensationalized headlines was the Spanish-American War. Both Hearst and Pulitzer filled their papers with huge front-page headlines and gave bloody—if sometimes inaccurate—accounts of the war. As historian Richard K. Hines writes, “The American Press, especially ‘yellow presses’ such as William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal [and] Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World … sensationalized the brutality of the reconcentrado and the threat to American business interests. Journalists frequently embellished Spanish atrocities and invented others (Hines, 2002).”

Comics and Stunt Journalism

As the publishers vied for readership, an entertaining new element was introduced to newspapers: the comic strip. In 1896, Hearst’s New York Journal published R. F. Outcault’s the Yellow Kid in an attempt to “attract immigrant readers who otherwise might not have bought an English-language paper (Yaszek, 1994).” Readers rushed to buy papers featuring the successful yellow-nightshirt-wearing character. The cartoon “provoked a wave of ‘gentle hysteria,’ and was soon appearing on buttons, cracker tins, cigarette packs, and ladies’ fans—and even as a character in a Broadway play (Yaszek, 1994).” Another effect of the cartoon’s popularity was the creation of the term yellow journalism to describe the types of papers in which it appeared.

Figure 4.7


R. F. Outcault’s the Yellow Kid, first published in William Randolf Hearst’s New York Journal in 1896.

Pulitzer responded to the success of the Yellow Kid by introducing stunt journalism. The publisher hired journalist Elizabeth Cochrane, who wrote under the name Nellie Bly, to report on aspects of life that had previously been ignored by the publishing industry. Her first article focused on the New York City Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. Bly feigned insanity and had herself committed to the infamous asylum. She recounted her experience in her first article, “Ten Days in a Madhouse.” “It was a brilliant move. Her madhouse performance inaugurated the performative tactic that would become her trademark reporting style (Lutes, 2002).” Such articles brought Bly much notoriety and fame, and she became known as the first stunt journalist. Although stunts such as these were considered lowbrow entertainment and female stunt reporters were often criticized by more traditional journalists, Pulitzer’s decision to hire Bly was a huge step for women in the newspaper business. Bly and her fellow stunt reporters “were the first newspaperwomen to move, as a group, from the women’s pages to the front page, from society news into political and criminal news (Lutes, 2002).”

Despite the sometimes questionable tactics of both Hearst and Pulitzer, each man made significant contributions to the growing journalism industry. By 1922, Hearst, a ruthless publisher, had created the country’s largest media-holding company. At that time, he owned 20 daily papers, 11 Sunday papers, 2 wire services, 6 magazines, and a newsreel company. Likewise, toward the end of his life, Pulitzer turned his focus to establishing a school of journalism. In 1912, a year after his death and 10 years after Pulitzer had begun his educational campaign, classes opened at the Columbia University School of Journalism. At the time of its opening, the school had approximately 100 students from 21 countries. Additionally, in 1917, the first Pulitzer Prize was awarded for excellence in journalism.

Key Takeaways

  • Although newspapers have existed in some form since ancient Roman times, the modern newspaper primarily stems from German papers printed in the early 1600s with Gutenberg’s printing press. Early European papers were based on two distinct models: the small, dense Dutch corantos and the larger, more expansive German weeklies. As papers began growing in popularity, many publishers started following the German style.
  • The Sun, first published by Benjamin Day in 1833, was the first penny paper. Day minimized paper size, used a new two-cylinder steam-engine printing press, and slashed the price of the paper to a penny so more citizens could afford a newspaper. By targeting his paper to a larger, more mainstream audience, Day transformed the newspaper industry and its readers.
  • Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were major competitors in the U.S. newspaper industry in the late 1800s. To compete with one another, the two employed sensationalism—the use of crime, sex, and scandal—to attract readers. This type of journalism became known as yellow journalism. Yellow journalism is known for misleading stories, inaccurate information, and exaggerated detail.


Please respond to the following writing prompts. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  1. Examine one copy of a major daily newspaper and one copy of a popular tabloid. Carefully examine each publication’s writing style. In what ways do the journals employ similar techniques, and in what ways do they differ?
  2. Do you see any links back to the early newspaper trends that were discussed in this section? Describe them.
  3. How do the publications use their styles to reach out to their respective audiences?


Archiving Early America, “Peter Zenger and Freedom of the Press,” http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/bookmarks/zenger/.

Associated Press, “AP History,” http://www.ap.org/pages/about/history/history_first.html.

Constitution Society, “Sedition Act, (July 14, 1798),” http://www.constitution.org/rf/sedition_1798.htm.

Cornell University Law School, “Bill of Rights,” http://topics.law.cornell.edu/constitution/billofrights.

Fang, Irving E. A History of Mass Communication: Six Information Revolutions (Boston: Focal PressUSA, 1997), 103.

Goff, Moira. “Early History of the English Newspaper,” 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers, Gale, 2007, http://find.galegroup.com/bncn/topicguide/bbcn_03.htm.

Harris, Benjamin. Public Occurrences, Both FORREIGN and DOMESTICK, September 25, 1690.

Hines, Richard K. “‘First to Respond to Their Country’s Call’: The First Montana Infantry and the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection, 1898–1899,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 52, no. 3 (Autumn 2002): 46.

Lutes, Jean Marie “Into the Madhouse with Nellie Bly: Girl Stunt Reporting in Late Nineteenth-Century America,” American Quarterly 54, no. 2 (2002): 217.

Massachusetts Historical Society, “Silence DoGood: Benjamin Franklin in the New England Courant,” http://www.masshist.org/online/silence_dogood/essay.php?entry_id=204.

Milton, John. Areopagitica, 1644, http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=23&Itemid=275.

Starr, Paul. The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 131.

University of Virginia, “Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government,” http://etext.virginia.edu/jefferson/quotations/jeff1600.htm.

Yaszek, Lisa. “‘Them Damn Pictures’: Americanization and the Comic Strip in the Progressive Era,” Journal of American Studies 28, no. 1 (1994): 24.

4.3 Different Styles and Models of Journalism


Learning Objectives

  1. Explain how objective journalism differs from story-driven journalism.
  2. Describe the effect of objectivity on modern journalism.
  3. Describe the unique nature of literary journalism.

Location, readership, political climate, and competition all contribute to rapid transformations in journalistic models and writing styles. Over time, however, certain styles—such as sensationalism—have faded or become linked with less serious publications, like tabloids, while others have developed to become prevalent in modern-day reporting. This section explores the nuanced differences among the most commonly used models of journalism.

Objective versus Story-Driven Journalism

In the late 1800s, a majority of publishers believed that they would sell more papers by reaching out to specific groups. As such, most major newspapers employed a partisan approach to writing, churning out political stories and using news to sway popular opinion. This all changed in 1896 when a then-failing paper, The New York Times, took a radical new approach to reporting: employing objectivity, or impartiality, to satisfy a wide range of readers.

The Rise of Objective Journalism

At the end of the 19th century, The New York Times found itself competing with the papers of Pulitzer and Hearst. The paper’s publishers discovered that it was nearly impossible to stay afloat without using the sensationalist headlines popularized by its competitors. Although The New York Times publishers raised prices to pay the bills, the higher charge led to declining readership, and soon the paper went bankrupt. Adolph Ochs, owner of the once-failing Chattanooga Times, took a gamble and bought The New York Times in 1896. On August 18 of that year, Ochs made a bold move and announced that the paper would no longer follow the sensationalist style that made Pulitzer and Hearst famous, but instead would be “clean, dignified, trustworthy and impartial (New York Times, 1935).”

This drastic change proved to be a success. The New York Times became the first of many papers to demonstrate that the press could be “economically as well as ethically successful (New York Times, 1935).” With the help of managing editor Carr Van Anda, the new motto “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” and lowered prices, The New York Times quickly turned into one of the most profitable impartial papers of all time. Since the newspaper’s successful turnaround, publications around the world have followed The New York Times’ objective journalistic style, demanding that reporters maintain a neutral voice in their writing.

The Inverted Pyramid Style

One commonly employed technique in modern journalism is the inverted pyramid style. This style requires objectivity and involves structuring a story so that the most important details are listed first for ease of reading. In the inverted pyramid format, the most fundamental facts of a story—typically the who, what, when, where, and why—appear at the top in the lead paragraph, with nonessential information in subsequent paragraphs. The style arose as a product of the telegraph. The inverted pyramid proved useful when telegraph connections failed in the middle of transmission; the editor still had the most important information at the beginning. Similarly, editors could quickly delete content from the bottom up to meet time and space requirements (Scanlan, 2003).

The reason for such writing is threefold. First, the style is helpful for writers, as this type of reporting is somewhat easier to complete in the short deadlines imposed on journalists, particularly in today’s fast-paced news business. Second, the style benefits editors who can, if necessary, quickly cut the story from the bottom without losing vital information. Finally, the style keeps in mind traditional readers, most of who skim articles or only read a few paragraphs, but they can still learn most of the important information from this quick read.

Figure 4.8


Interpretive Journalism

During the 1920s, objective journalism fell under critique as the world became more complex. Even though The New York Times continued to thrive, readers craved more than dry, objective stories. In 1923, Time magazine launched as the first major publication to step away from simple objectivity to try to provide readers with a more analytical interpretation of the news. As Time grew, people at some other publications took notice, and slowly editors began rethinking how they might reach out to readers in an increasingly interrelated world.

During the 1930s, two major events increased the desire for a new style of journalism: the Great Depression and the Nazi threat to global stability. Readers were no longer content with the who, what, where, when, and why of objective journalism. Instead, they craved analysis and a deeper explanation of the chaos surrounding them. Many papers responded with a new type of reporting that became known as interpretive journalism.

Interpretive journalism, following Time’s example, has grown in popularity since its inception in the 1920s and 1930s, and journalists use it to explain issues and to provide readers with a broader context for the stories that they encounter. According to Brant Houston, the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., an interpretive journalist “goes beyond the basic facts of an event or topic to provide context, analysis, and possible consequences (Houston, 2008).” When this new style was first used, readers responded with great interest to the new editorial perspectives that newspapers were offering on events. But interpretive journalism posed a new problem for editors: the need to separate straight objective news from opinions and analysis. In response, many papers in the 1930s and 1940s “introduced weekend interpretations of the past week’s events…and interpretive columnists with bylines (Ward, 2008).” As explained by Stephen J. A. Ward in his article, “Journalism Ethics,” the goal of these weekend features was to “supplement objective reporting with an informed interpretation of world events (Ward, 2008).”

Competition From Broadcasting

The 1930s also saw the rise of broadcasting as radios became common in most U.S. households and as sound–picture recordings for newsreels became increasingly common. This broadcasting revolution introduced new dimensions to journalism. Scholar Michael Schudson has noted that broadcast news “reflect[ed]…a new journalistic reality. The journalist, no longer merely the relayer of documents and messages, ha[d] become the interpreter of the news (Schudson, 1982).” However, just as radio furthered the interpretive journalistic style, it also created a new problem for print journalism, particularly newspapers.

Suddenly, free news from the radio offered competition to the pay news of newspapers. Scholar Robert W. McChesney has observed that, in the 1930s, “many elements of the newspaper industry opposed commercial broadcasting, often out of fear of losing ad revenues and circulation to the broadcasters (McChesney, 1992).” This fear led to a media war as papers claimed that radio was stealing their print stories. Radio outlets, however, believed they had equal right to news stories. According to Robert W. McChesney, “commercial broadcasters located their industry next to the newspaper industry as an icon of American freedom and culture (McChesney, 1992).” The debate had a major effect on interpretive journalism as radio and newspapers had to make decisions about whether to use an objective or interpretive format to remain competitive with each other.

The emergence of television during the 1950s created even more competition for newspapers. In response, paper publishers increased opinion-based articles, and many added what became known as op-ed pages. An op-ed page—short for opposite the editorial page—features opinion-based columns typically produced by a writer or writers unaffiliated with the paper’s editorial board. As op-ed pages grew, so did interpretive journalism. Distinct from news stories, editors and columnists presented opinions on a regular basis. By the 1960s, the interpretive style of reporting had begun to replace the older descriptive style (Patterson, 2002).

Literary Journalism

Stemming from the development of interpretive journalism, literary journalism began to emerge during the 1960s. This style, made popular by journalists Tom Wolfe (formerly a strictly nonfiction writer) and Truman Capote, is often referred to as new journalism and combines factual reporting with sometimes fictional narration. Literary journalism follows neither the formulaic style of reporting of objective journalism nor the opinion-based analytical style of interpretive journalism. Instead, this art form—as it is often termed—brings voice and character to historical events, focusing on the construction of the scene rather than on the retelling of the facts.

Important Literary Journalists

Figure 4.9


The works of Tom Wolfe are some of the best examples of literary journalism of the 1960s.

erin williamson – tom wolfe – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Tom Wolfe was the first reporter to write in the literary journalistic style. In 1963, while his newspaper, New York’s Herald Tribune, was on strike, Esquire magazine hired Wolfe to write an article on customized cars. Wolfe gathered the facts but struggled to turn his collected information into a written piece. His managing editor, Byron Dobell, suggested that he type up his notes so that Esquire could hire another writer to complete the article. Wolfe typed up a 49-page document that described his research and what he wanted to include in the story and sent it to Dobell. Dobell was so impressed by this piece that he simply deleted the “Dear Byron” at the top of the letter and published the rest of Wolfe’s letter in its entirety under the headline “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” The article was a great success, and Wolfe, in time, became known as the father of new journalism. When he later returned to work at the Herald Tribune, Wolfe brought with him this new style, “fusing the stylistic features of fiction and the reportorial obligations of journalism (Kallan, 1992).”

Truman Capote responded to Wolfe’s new style by writing In Cold Blood, which Capote termed a “nonfiction novel,” in 1966 (Plimpton, 1966). The tale of an actual murder that had taken place on a Kansas farm some years earlier, the novel was based on numerous interviews and painstaking research. Capote claimed that he wrote the book because he wanted to exchange his “self-creative world…for the everyday objective world we all inhabit (Plimpton, 1966).” The book was praised for its straightforward, journalistic style. New York Times writer George Plimpton claimed that the book “is remarkable for its objectivity—nowhere, despite his involvement, does the author intrude (Plimpton, 1966).” After In Cold Blood was finished, Capote criticized Wolfe’s style in an interview, commenting that Wolfe “[has] nothing to do with creative journalism,” by claiming that Wolfe did not have the appropriate fiction-writing expertise (Plimpton, 1966). Despite the tension between these two writers, today they are remembered for giving rise to a similar style in varying genres.

The Effects of Literary Journalism

Although literary journalism certainly affected newspaper reporting styles, it had a much greater impact on the magazine industry. Because they were bound by fewer restrictions on length and deadlines, magazines were more likely to publish this new writing style than were newspapers. Indeed, during the 1960s and 1970s, authors simulating the styles of both Wolfe and Capote flooded magazines such as Esquire and The New Yorker with articles.

Literary journalism also significantly influenced objective journalism. Many literary journalists believed that objectivity limited their ability to critique a story or a writer. Some claimed that objectivity in writing is impossible, as all journalists are somehow swayed by their own personal histories. Still others, including Wolfe, argued that objective journalism conveyed a “limited conception of the ‘facts,’” which “often effected an inaccurate, incomplete story that precluded readers from exercising informed judgment (Kallan).”

Advocacy Journalism and Precision Journalism

The reactions of literary journalists to objective journalism encouraged the growth of two more types of journalism: advocacy journalism and precision journalism. Advocacy journalists promote a particular cause and intentionally adopt a biased, nonobjective viewpoint to do so effectively. However, serious advocate journalists adhere to strict guidelines, as “an advocate journalist is not the same as being an activist” according to journalist Sue Careless (Careless, 2000). In an article discussing advocacy journalism, Careless contrasted the role of an advocate journalist with the role of an activist. She encourages future advocate journalists by saying the following:

A journalist writing for the advocacy press should practice the same skills as any journalist. You don’t fabricate or falsify. If you do you will destroy the credibility of both yourself as a working journalist and the cause you care so much about. News should never be propaganda. You don’t fudge or suppress vital facts or present half-truths (Careless, 2000).

Despite the challenges and potential pitfalls inherent to advocacy journalism, this type of journalism has increased in popularity over the past several years. In 2007, USA Today reporter Peter Johnson stated, “Increasingly, journalists and talk-show hosts want to ‘own’ a niche issue or problem, find ways to solve it, and be associated with making this world a better place (Johnson, 2007).” In this manner, journalists across the world are employing the advocacy style to highlight issues they care about.

Oprah Winfrey: Advocacy Journalist

Television talk-show host and owner of production company Harpo Inc., Oprah Winfrey is one of the most successful, recognizable entrepreneurs of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Winfrey has long been a news reporter, beginning in the late 1970s as a coanchor of an evening television program. She began hosting her own show in 1984, and in 2010, the Oprah Winfrey Show was one of the most popular TV programs on the air. Winfrey had long used her show as a platform for issues and concerns, making her one of the most famous advocacy journalists. While many praise Winfrey for using her celebrity to draw attention to causes she cares about, others criticize her techniques, claiming that she uses the advocacy style for self-promotion. As one critic writes, “I’m not sure how Oprah’s endless self-promotion of how she spent millions on a school in South Africa suddenly makes her ‘own’ the ‘education niche.’ She does own the trumpet-my-own-horn niche. But that’s not ‘journalism (Schlussel, 2007).’”

Yet despite this somewhat harsh critique, many view Winfrey as the leading example of positive advocacy journalism. Sara Grumbles claims in her blog “Breaking and Fitting the Mold”: “Oprah Winfrey obviously practices advocacy journalism…. Winfrey does not fit the mold of a ‘typical’ journalist by today’s standards. She has an agenda and she voices her opinions. She ha[d] her own op-ed page in the form of a million dollar television studio. Objectivity is not her strong point. Still, in my opinion she is a journalist (Grumbles, 2007).”

Regardless of the arguments about the value and reasoning underlying her technique, Winfrey unquestionably practices a form of advocacy journalism. In fact, thanks to her vast popularity, she may be the most compelling example of an advocacy journalist working today.

Precision journalism emerged in the 1970s. In this form, journalists turn to polls and studies to strengthen the accuracy of their articles. Philip Meyer, commonly acknowledged as the father of precision journalism, says that his intent is to “encourage my colleagues in journalism to apply the principles of scientific method to their tasks of gathering and presenting the news (Meyer, 2002).” This type of journalism adds a new layer to objectivity in reporting, as articles no longer need to rely solely on anecdotal evidence; journalists can employ hard facts and figures to support their assertions. An example of precision journalism would be an article on voting patterns in a presidential election that cites data from exit polls. Precision journalism has become more popular as computers have become more prevalent. Many journalists currently use this type of writing.

Consensus versus Conflict Newspapers

Another important distinction within the field of journalism must be made between consensus journalism and conflict journalism. Consensus journalism typically takes place in smaller communities, where local newspapers generally serve as a forum for many different voices. Newspapers that use consensus-style journalism provide community calendars and meeting notices and run articles on local schools, events, government, property crimes, and zoning. These newspapers can help build civic awareness and a sense of shared experience and responsibility among readers in a community. Often, business or political leaders in the community own consensus papers.

Conversely, conflict journalism, like that which is presented in national and international news articles in The New York Times, typically occurs in national or metropolitan dailies. Conflict journalists define news in terms of societal discord, covering events and issues that contravene perceived social norms. In this style of journalism, reporters act as watchdogs who monitor the government and its activities. Conflict journalists often present both sides of a story and pit ideas against one another to generate conflict and, therefore, attract a larger readership. Both conflict and consensus papers are widespread. However, because they serve different purposes and reach out to differing audiences, they largely do not compete with each other.

Niche Newspapers

Niche newspapers represent one more model of newspapers. These publications, which reach out to a specific target group, are rising in popularity in the era of Internet. As Robert Courtemanche, a certified journalism educator, writes, “In the past, newspapers tried to be everything to every reader to gain circulation. That outdated concept does not work on the Internet where readers expect expert, niche content (Courtemanche, 2008).” Ethnic and minority papers are some of the most common forms of niche newspapers. In the United States—particularly in large cities such as New York—niche papers for numerous ethnic communities flourish. Some common types of U.S. niche papers are papers that cater to a specific ethnic or cultural group or to a group that speaks a particular language. Papers that cover issues affecting lesbians, gay men, and bisexual individuals—like the Advocate—and religion-oriented publications—like The Christian Science Monitor—are also niche papers.

The Underground Press

Some niche papers are part of the underground press. Popularized in the 1960s and 1970s as individuals sought to publish articles documenting their perception of social tensions and inequalities, the underground press typically caters to alternative and countercultural groups. Most of these papers are published on small budgets. Perhaps the most famous underground paper is New York’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Village Voice. This newspaper was founded in 1955 and declares its role in the publishing industry by saying:

The Village Voice introduced free-form, high-spirited and passionate journalism into the public discourse. As the nation’s first and largest alternative newsweekly, the Voice maintains the same tradition of no-holds-barred reporting and criticism it first embraced when it began publishing fifty years ago (Village Voice).

Despite their at-times shoestring budgets, underground papers serve an important role in the media. By offering an alternative perspective to stories and by reaching out to niche groups through their writing, underground-press newspapers fill a unique need within the larger media marketplace. As journalism has evolved over the years, newspapers have adapted to serve the changing demands of readers.

Key Takeaways

  • Objective journalism began as a response to sensationalism and has continued in some form to this day. However, some media observers have argued that it is nearly impossible to remain entirely objective while reporting a story. One argument against objectivity is that journalists are human and are, therefore, biased to some degree. Many newspapers that promote objectivity put in place systems to help their journalists remain as objective as possible.
  • Literary journalism combines the research and reporting of typical newspaper journalism with the writing style of fiction. While most newspaper journalists focus on facts, literary journalists tend to focus on the scene by evoking voices and characters inhabiting historical events. Famous early literary journalists include Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote.
  • Other journalistic styles allow reporters and publications to narrow their editorial voice. Advocacy journalists encourage readers to support a particular cause. Consensus journalism encourages social and economic harmony, while conflict journalists present information in a way that focuses on views outside of the social norm.
  • Niche newspapers—such as members of the underground press and those serving specific ethnic groups, racial groups, or speakers of a specific language—serve as important media outlets for distinct voices. The rise of the Internet and online journalism has brought niche newspapers more into the mainstream.


Please respond to the following writing prompts. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  1. Find an objective newspaper article that includes several factual details. Rewrite the story in a literary journalistic style. How does the story differ from one genre to the other?
  2. Was it difficult to transform an objective story into a piece of literary journalism? Explain.
  3. Do you prefer reading an objective journalism piece or a literary journalism piece? Explain.


Careless, Sue. “Advocacy Journalism,” Interim, May 2000, http://www.theinterim.com/2000/may/10advocacy.html.

Courtemanche, Robert. “Newspapers Must Find Their Niche to Survive,” Suite101.com, December 20, 2008, http://newspaperindustry.suite101.com/article.cfm/newspapers_must_find_their_niche_to_survive.

Grumbles, Sara. “Breaking and Fitting the Mold,” Media Chatter (blog), October 3, 2007, http://www.commajor.com/?p=1244.

Houston, Brant. “Interpretive Journalism,” The International Encyclopedia of Communication, 2008, http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9781405131995_chunk_g978140513199514_ss82-1.

Johnson, Peter. “More Reporters Embrace an Advocacy Role,” USA Today, March 5, 2007, http://www.usatoday.com/life/television/news/2007-03-05-social-journalism_N.htm.

Kallan, Richard A. “Tom Wolfe.”

Kallan, Richard K. “Tom Wolfe,” in A Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism: Representative Writers in an Emerging Genre, ed. Thomas B. Connery (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 1992).

McChesney, Robert W. “Media and Democracy: The Emergence of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States, 1927–1935,” in “Communication in History: The Key to Understanding” OAH Magazine of History 6, no. 4 (1992): 37.

Meyer, Phillip. Precision Journalism: A Reporter’s Introduction to Social Science Methods, 4th ed. (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002), vii.

New York Times, “Adolph S. Ochs Dead at 77; Publisher of Times Since 1896,” New York Times, April 9, 1935, http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0312.html.

Patterson, Thomas. “Why Is News So Negative These Days?” History News Network, 2002, http://hnn.us/articles/1134.html.

Plimpton, George. “The Story Behind a Nonfiction Novel,” New York Times, January 16, 1966, http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/28/home/capote-interview.html.

Scanlan, Chip. “Writing from the Top Down: Pros and Cons of the Inverted Pyramid,” Poynter, June 20, 2003, http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/newsgathering-storytelling/chip-on-your-shoulder/12754/writing-from-the-top-down-pros-and-cons-of-the-inverted-pyramid/.

Schlussel, Debbie. “USA Today Heralds ‘Oprah Journalism,’” Debbie Schlussel (blog), March 6, 2007, http://www.debbieschlussel.com/497/usa-today-heralds-oprah-journalism/.

Schudson, Michael. “The Politics of Narrative Form: The Emergence of News Conventions in Print and Television,” in “Print Culture and Video Culture,” Daedalus 111, no. 4 (1982): 104.

Village Voice, “About Us,” http://www.villagevoice.com/about/index.

Ward, Stephen J. A. “Journalism Ethics,” in The Handbook of Journalism Studies, ed. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen and Thomas Hanitzsch (New York: Routledge, 2008): 298.

4.4 How Newspapers Control the Public’s Access to Information and Impact American Pop Culture


Learning Objectives

  1. Describe two ways that newspapers control stories.
  2. Define watchdog journalism.
  3. Describe how television has impacted journalistic styles.

Since 1896, The New York Times has printed the phrase “All the News That’s Fit to Print” as its masthead motto. The phrase itself seems innocent enough, and it has been published for such a long time now that many probably skim over it without giving it a second thought. Yet, the phrase represents an interesting phenomenon in the newspaper industry: control. Papers have long been criticized for the way stories are presented, yet newspapers continue to print—and readers continue to buy them.

“All the News That’s Fit to Print”

In 1997, The New York Times publicly claimed that it was “an independent newspaper, entirely fearless, free of ulterior influence and unselfishly devoted to the public welfare (Herman, 1998).” Despite this public proclamation of objectivity, the paper’s publishers have been criticized for choosing which articles to print based on personal financial gain. In reaction to that statement, scholar Edward S. Herman wrote that the issue is that The New York Times “defin[es] public welfare in a manner acceptable to their elite audience and advertisers (Herman, 1998).” The New York Times has continually been accused of determining what stories are told. For example, during the 1993 debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), The New York Times clearly supported the agreement. In doing so, the newspaper exercised editorial control over its publication and the information that went out to readers.

However, The New York Times is not the only newspaper to face accusations of controlling which stories are told. In his review of Read All About It: The Corporate Takeover of America’s Newspapers, Steve Hoenisch, editor of Criticism.com, offers these harsh words about what drives the stories printed in today’s newspapers:

I’ve always thought of daily newspapers as the guardians of our—meaning the public’s—right to know. The guardians of truth, justice, and public welfare and all that. But who am I fooling? America’s daily newspapers don’t belong to us. Nor, for that matter, do they even seek to serve us any longer. They have more important concerns now: appeasing advertisers and enriching stockholders (Hoenisch).

More and more, as readership declines, newspapers must answer to advertisers and shareholders as they choose which stories to report on.

However, editorial control does not end there. Journalists determine not only what stories are told but also how those stories are presented. This issue is perhaps even more delicate than that of selection. Most newspaper readers still expect news to be reported objectively and demand that journalists present their stories in this manner. However, careful public scrutiny can burden journalists, while accusations of controlling information affect their affiliated newspapers. However, this scrutiny takes on importance as the public turns to journalists and newspapers to learn about the world.

Journalists are also expected to hold themselves to high standards of truth and originality. Fabrication and plagiarism are prohibited. If a journalist is caught using these tactics, then his or her career is likely to end for betraying the public’s trust and for damaging the publication’s reputation. For example, The New York Times reporter Jayson Blair lost his job in 2003 when his plagiary and fabrication were discovered, and The New Republic journalist Stephen Glass was fired in 1998 for inventing stories, quotes, and sources.

Despite the critiques of the newspaper industry and its control over information, the majority of newspapers and journalists take their roles seriously. Editors work with journalists to verify sources and to double-check facts so readers are provided accurate information. In this way, the control that journalists and newspapers exert serves to benefit their readers, who can then be assured that articles printed are correct.

The New York Times Revisits Old Stories

Despite the criticism of The New York Times, the famous newspaper has been known to revisit their old stories to provide a new, more balanced view. One such example occurred in 2004 when, in response to criticism on their handling of the Iraq War, The New York Times offered a statement of apology. The apology read:

We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged—or failed to emerge (New York Times, 2004).

Although the apology was risky—it essentially admitted guilt in controlling a controversial story—The New York Times demonstrated a commitment to ethical journalism.

Watchdog Journalism

One way that journalists control stories for the benefit of the public is by engaging in watchdog journalism. This form of journalism provides the public with information about government officials or business owners while holding those officials to high standards of operation. Watchdog journalism is defined as:

(1) independent scrutiny by the press of the activities of government, business and other public institutions, with an aim toward (2) documenting, questioning, and investigating those activities, to (3) provide publics and officials with timely information on issues of public concern (Bennett & Serrin, 2005).

One of the most famous examples of watchdog journalism is the role that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post played in uncovering information about the Watergate break-in and scandal that ultimately resulted in President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Newspapers and journalists often laud watchdog journalism, one of the most important functions of newspapers, yet it is difficult to practice because it requires rigorous investigation, which in turn demands more time. Many journalists often try to keep up with news as it breaks, so journalists are not afforded the time to research the information—nor to hone the skills—required to write a watchdog story. “Surviving in the newsroom—doing watchdog stories—takes a great deal of personal and political skill. Reporters must have a sense of guerilla warfare tactics to do well in the newsroom (Bennett & Serrin, 2005).”

To be successful, watchdog journalists must investigate stories, ask tough questions, and face the possibility of unpopularity to alert the public to corruption or mismanagement while elevating the public’s expectations of the government. At the same time, readers can support newspapers that employ this style of journalism to encourage the press to engage in the challenging watchdog form of journalism. As scholars have observed, “Not surprisingly, watchdog journalism functions best when reporters understand it and news organizations and their audiences support it (Bennett & Serrin, 2005).”

Impact of Television and the Internet on Print

Newspapers have control over which stories are told and how those stories are presented. Just as the newspaper industry has changed dramatically over the years, journalistic writing styles have been transformed. Many times, such changes mirrored a trend shift in readership; since the 1950s, however, newspapers have had to compete with television journalism and, more recently, the Internet. Both television and the Internet have profoundly affected newspaper audiences and journalistic styles.

Case Study: USA Today

USA Today, founded in 1982 and known for its easy-to-read stories, is but one example of a paper that has altered its style to remain competitive with television and the Internet. In the past, newspapers placed their primary focus on the written word. Although some newspapers still maintain the use of written narration, many papers have shifted their techniques to attract a more television-savvy audience. In the case of USA Today, the emphasis lies on the second track—the visual story—dominated by large images accompanied by short written stories. This emphasis mimics the television presentation format, allowing the paper to cater to readers with short attention spans.

A perhaps unexpected shift in journalistic writing styles that derives from television is the more frequent use of present tense, rather than past tense, in articles. This shift likely comes from television journalism’s tendency to allow a story to develop as it is being told. This subtle but noticeable shift from past to present tense in narration sometimes brings a more dramatic element to news articles, which may attract readers who otherwise turn to television news programs for information.

Like many papers, USA Today has redesigned its image and style to keep up with the sharp immediacy of the Internet and with the entertainment value of television. In fact, the paper’s management was so serious about their desire to compete with television that from 1988 to 1990 they mounted a syndicated television series titled USA Today: The Television Show (later retitled USA Today on TV) (Internet Movie Database). Despite its short run, the show demonstrated the paper’s focus on reaching out to a visual audience, a core value that it has maintained to this day. Today, USA Today has established itself as a credible and reliable news source, despite its unorthodox approach to journalism.

Key Takeaways

  • Newspapers control which stories are told by selecting which articles make it to print. They also control how stories are told by determining the way in which information is presented to their readers.
  • Watchdog journalism is an investigative approach to reporting that aims to inform citizens of occurrences in government and businesses.
  • Television has not only contributed to the decline of readership for newspapers but has also impacted visual and journalistic styles. Newspapers, such as USA Today, have been profoundly affected by the television industry. USA Today caters to television watchers by incorporating large images and short stories, while primarily employing the present tense to make it seem as though the story is unfolding before the reader.


Please respond to the following writing prompts. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  1. Compare the journalistic styles of USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. Examine differences in the visual nature of the newspapers as well as in the journalistic style.
  2. How has television affected these particular newspapers?
  3. What noticeable differences do you observe? Can you find any similarities?
  4. How did each newspaper cover events differently? How did each newspaper’s coverage change the focus and information told? Did you find any watchdog stories, and, if so, what were they?


Bennett, W. Lance and William Serrin, “The Watchdog Role,” in The Institutions of American Democracy: The Press, ed. Geneva Overholser and Kathleen Hall Jamieson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 169.

Herman, Edward S. “All the News Fit to Print: Structure and Background of the New York Times,” Z Magazine, April 1998, http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Herman%20/AllNewsFit_Herman.html.

Hoenisch, Steven. “Corporate Journalism,” review of Read All About It: The Corporate Takeover of America’s Newspapers, by James D. Squires, http://www.criticism.com/md/crit1.html#section-Read-All-About-It.

Internet Movie Database, “U.S.A Today: The Television Series,” Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094572/.

New York Times, Editorial, “The Times and Iraq,” New York Times, May 26, 2004, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/26/international/middleeast/26FTE_NOTE.html.

4.6 Online Journalism Redefines News


Learning Objectives

  1. Describe two ways in which online reporting may outperform traditional print reporting.
  2. Explain the greatest challenges newspapers face as they transition to online journalism.

The proliferation of online communication has had a profound effect on the newspaper industry. As individuals turn to the Internet to receive news for free, traditional newspapers struggle to remain competitive and hold onto their traditional readers. However, the Internet’s appeal goes beyond free content. This section delves further into the Internet and its influence on the print industry. The Internet and its role in media are explored in greater detail in Chapter 11 “The Internet and Social Media” of this textbook.

Competition From Blogs

Weblogs, or blogs, have offered a new take on the traditional world of journalism. Blogs feature news and commentary entries from one or more authors. However, journalists differ on whether the act of writing a blog, commonly known as blogging, is, in fact, a form of journalism.

Indeed, many old-school reporters do not believe blogging ranks as formal journalism. Unlike journalists, bloggers are not required to support their work with credible sources. This means that stories published on blogs are often neither verified nor verifiable. As Jay Rosen, New York University journalism professor, writes, “Bloggers are speakers and writers of their own invention, at large in the public square. They’re participating in the great game of influence called public opinion (Rosen, 2004).” Despite the blurry lines of what constitutes “true” journalism—and despite the fact that bloggers are not held to the same standards as journalists—many people still seek out blogs to learn about news. Thus, blogs have affected the news journalism industry. According to longtime print journalist and blogger Gina Chen, “Blogging has changed journalism, but it is not journalism (Chen, 2009).”

Advantages Over Print Media

Beyond the lack of accountability in blogging, blogs are free from the constraints of journalism in other ways that make them increasingly competitive with traditional print publications. Significantly, Internet publication allows writers to break news as soon as it occurs. Unlike a paper that publishes only once a day, the Internet is constantly accessible, and information is ready at the click of a mouse.

In 1998, the Internet flexed its rising journalistic muscle by breaking a story before any major print publication: the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. The Drudge Report, an online news website that primarily consists of links to stories, first made the story public, claiming to have learned of the scandal only after Newsweek magazine failed to publish it. On January 18, 1998, the story broke online with the title “Newsweek Kills Story on White House Intern. Blockbuster Report: 23-year-old, Former White House Intern, Sex Relationship with President.” The report gave some details on the scandal, concluding the article with the phrase “The White House was busy checking the Drudge Report for details (Australian Politics, 1998).” This act revealed the power of the Internet because of its superiority in timeliness, threatening the relevancy of slower newspapers and news magazines.

Print media also continuously struggle with space constraints, another limit that the Internet is spared. As newspapers contemplate making the transition from print to online editions, several editors see the positive effect of this particular issue. N. Ram, editor in chief of The Hindu, claims, “One clear benefit online editions can provide is the scope this gives for accommodating more and longer articles…. There need be no space constraints, as in the print edition (Viswanathan, 2010).” With the endless writing space of the Internet, online writers have the freedom to explore topics more fully, to provide more detail, and to print interviews or other texts in their entirety—opportunities that many print journalists have longed for since newspapers first began publishing.

Online writing also provides a forum for amateurs to enter the professional realm of writing. With cost-cutting forcing newspapers to lay off writers, more and more would-be journalists are turning to the Internet to find ways to enter the field. Interestingly, the blogosphere has launched the careers of journalists who otherwise may never have pursued a career in journalism. For example, blogger Molly Wizenberg founded the blog Orangette because she didn’t know what to do with herself: “The only thing I knew was that, whatever I did, it had to involve food and writing (Wyke, 2009).” After Orangette became a successful food blog, Wizenberg transitioned into writing for a traditional media outlet: food magazine Bon Appetit.

Online Newspapers

With declining readership and increasing competition from blogs, most newspapers have embraced the culture shift and have moved to online journalism. For many papers, this has meant creating an online version of their printed paper that readers will have access to from any location, at all times of the day. By 2010, over 10,000 newspapers had gone online. But some smaller papers—particularly those in two-paper communities—have not only started websites, but have also ceased publication of their printed papers entirely.

One such example is Seattle’s Post-Intelligencer. In 2009, the newspaper stopped printing, “leaving the rival Seattle Times as the only big daily in town (Folkenflik, 2009).” As Steve Swartz, president of Hearst Newspapers and owner of the Post-Intelligencer, commented about the move to online-only printing, “Being the second newspaper in Seattle didn’t work. We are very enthusiastic, however, about this experiment to create a digital-only business in Seattle with a robust community website at its core (Folkenflik, 2009).” For the Post-Intelligencer, the move meant a dramatic decrease in its number of staff journalists. The printed version of the paper employed 135 journalists, but the online version, Seattlepi.com, employs only two dozen. For Seattlepi.com, this shift has been doubly unusual because the online-only newspaper is not really like a traditional newspaper at all. As Swartz articulated, “Very few people come to our website and try to re-create the experience of reading a newspaper—in other words, spending a half-hour to 45 minutes and really reading most of the articles. We don’t find people do that on the Web (Folkenflik, 2009).” The online newspaper is, in reality, still trying to figure out what it is. Indeed, this is an uncomfortable position familiar to many online-only papers: trapped between the printed news world and the online world of blogs and unofficial websites.

During this transitional time for newspapers, many professional journalists are taking the opportunity to enter the blogosphere, the realm of bloggers on the Internet. Journalist bloggers, also known as beatbloggers, have begun to utilize blogs as “tool[s] to engage their readers, interact with them, use them as sources, crowdsource their ideas and invite them to contribute to the reporting process,” says beatblogger Alana Taylor (Taylor, 2009). As beatblogging grows, online newspapers are harnessing the popularity of this new phenomenon and taking advantage of the resources provided by the vast Internet audience through crowdsourcing (outsourcing problem solving to a large group of people, usually volunteers). Blogs are becoming an increasingly prominent feature on news websites, and nearly every major newspaper website displays a link to the paper’s official blogs on its homepage. This subtle addition to the web pages reflects the print industry’s desire to remain relevant in an increasingly online world.

Even as print newspapers are making the transformation to the digital world with greater or less success, Internet news sites that were never print papers have begun to make waves. Sites such as The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and the Drudge Report are growing in popularity. For example, The Huffington Post displays the phrase “The Internet Newspaper: News, Blogs, Video, Community” as its masthead, reiterating its role and focus in today’s media-savvy world (Huffington Post). In 2008, former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown cofounded and began serving as editor in chief of The Daily Beast. On The Daily Beast’s website, Brown has noted its success: “I revel in the immediacy, the responsiveness, the real-time-ness. I used to be the impatient type. Now I’m the serene type. Because how can you be impatient when everything happens right now, instantly (Brown, 2009)?”

Some newspapers are also making even more dramatic transformations to keep up with the changing online world. In 2006, large newspaper conglomerate GateHouse Media began publishing under a Creative Commons license, giving noncommercial users access to content according to the license’s specifications. The company made the change to draw in additional online viewers and, eventually, revenue for the newspapers. Writer at the Center for Citizen Media, Lisa Williams, explains in her article published by PressThink.org:

GateHouse’s decision to CC license its content may be a response to the cut-and-paste world of weblogs, which frequently quote and point to newspaper stories. Making it easier—and legal—for bloggers to quote stories at length means that bloggers are pointing their audience at that newspaper. Getting a boost in traffic from weblogs may have an impact on online advertising revenue, and links from weblogs also have an impact on how high a site’s pages appear in search results from search engines such as Google. Higher traffic, and higher search engine rankings build a site’s ability to make money on online ads (Williams, 2006).

GateHouse Media’s decision to alter its newspapers’ licensing agreement to boost advertising online reflects the biggest challenge facing the modern online newspaper industry: profit. Despite shrinking print-newspaper readership and rising online readership, print revenue remains much greater than digital revenue because the online industry is still determining how to make online newspapers profitable. As one article notes:

The positive news is that good newspapers like The New York Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal now provide better, richer, and more diverse content in their Internet editions…. The bad news is that the print media are yet to find a viable, let alone profitable, revenue model for their Internet journalism (Viswanathan, 2010).

The issue is not only that information on the Internet is free but also that advertising is far less expensive online. As National Public Radio (NPR) reports, “The online-only plan for newspapers remains an unproven financial model; there are great savings by scrapping printing and delivery costs, but even greater lost revenues, since advertisers pay far more money for print ads than online ads (Folkenflik).”

Figure 4.11


Sources of Newspaper Revenue

Despite these challenges, newspapers both in print and online continue to seek new ways to provide the public with accurate, timely information. Newspapers have long been adapting to cultural paradigm shifts, and in the face of losing print newspapers altogether, the newspaper industry continues to reinvent itself to keep up with the digital world.

Key Takeaways

  • Print newspapers face increasing challenges from online media, particularly amateur blogs and professional online news operations.
  • Internet reporting outperforms traditional print journalism both with its ability to break news as it happens and through its lack of space limitations. Still, nonprofessional Internet news is not subject to checks for credibility, so some readers and journalists remain skeptical.
  • As newspapers move to online journalism, they must determine how to make that model profitable. Most online newspapers do not require subscriptions, and advertising is significantly less expensive online than it is in print.


Please respond to the following writing prompts. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  1. Choose a topic on which to conduct research. Locate a blog, a print newspaper, and an online-only newspaper that have information about the topic.
  2. What differences do you notice in style and in formatting?
  3. Does one appeal to you over the others? Explain.
  4. What advantages does each source have over the others? What disadvantages?
  5. Consider the changes the print newspaper would need to make to become an online-only paper. What challenges would the print newspaper face in transitioning to an online medium?

End-of-Chapter Assessment

Review Questions

  1. Section 1

    1. Which European technological advancement of the 1400s forever changed the print industry?
    2. Which country’s “weeklies” provided a stylistic format that many other papers followed?
    3. In what ways did the penny paper transform the newspaper industry?
    4. What is sensationalism and how did it become a prominent style in the journalism industry?
  2. Section 2

    1. What are some challenges of objective journalism?
    2. What are the unique features of the inverted pyramid style of journalistic writing?
    3. How does literary journalism differ from traditional journalism?
    4. What are the differences between consensus journalism and conflict journalism?
  3. Section 3

    1. In what two ways do newspapers control information?
    2. What are some of the defining features of watchdog journalism?
    3. Using USA Today as a model, in what tangible ways has television affected the newspaper industry and styles of journalism?
  4. Section 4

    1. What are a few of the country’s most prominent newspapers, and what distinguishes them from one another?
    2. Name and briefly describe three technological advances that have affected newspaper readership.
  5. Section 5

    1. In what ways might online reporting benefit readers’ access to information?
    2. Why are print newspapers struggling as they transition to the online market?

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. Have sensationalism or yellow journalism retained any role in modern journalism? How might these styles impact current trends in reporting?
  2. Do a majority of today’s newspapers use objective journalism or interpretive journalism? Why might papers tend to favor one style of journalism over another?
  3. In what ways has watchdog journalism transformed the newspaper industry? What are the potential benefits and pitfalls of watchdog journalism?
  4. Explore the challenges that have arisen due to the growing number of newspaper chains in the United States.
  5. How has the Internet altered the way in which newspapers present news? How are print newspapers responding to the decline of subscribers and the rise of online readers?

Career Connection

Although modern print newspapers increasingly face economic challenges and have reduced the number of journalists they have on staff, career opportunities still exist in newspaper journalism. Those desiring to enter the field may need to explore new ways of approaching journalism in a transforming industry.

Read the articles “Every Newspaper Journalist Should Start a Blog,” written by Scott Karp, found at http://publishing2.com/2007/05/22/every-newspaper-journalist-should-start-a-blog/, and “Writing the Freelance Newspaper Article,” by Cliff Hightower, at http://www.fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue32/Writefreenewspaper.htm.

Think about these two articles as you answer the following questions.

  1. What does Scott Karp mean when he says that a blog entails “embracing the power and accepting the responsibility of being a publisher”? What should you do on your blog to do just that?
  2. According to Karp, what is “the fundamental law of the web”?
  3. Karp lists two journalists who have shown opposition to his article. What are the criticisms or caveats to Karp’s main article that are discussed?
  4. Describe the three suggestions that Cliff Hightower provides when thinking about a career as a freelance writer. How might you be able to begin incorporating those suggestions into your own writing?
  5. What two texts does Hightower recommend as you embark on a career as a freelance writer?


Australian Politics, “Original Drudge Reports of Monica Lewinsky Scandal (January 17, 1998),” AustralianPolitics.com, http://australianpolitics.com/usa/clinton/impeachment/drudge.shtml.

Brown, Tina. “The Daily Beast Turns One,” Daily Beast, October 5, 2009, http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-10-05/the-daily-beast-turns-one/full/.

Chen, Gina. “Is Blogging Journalism?” Save the Media, March 28, 2009, http://savethemedia.com/2009/03/28/is-blogging-journalism/.

Folkenflik, “Newspapers Wade Into an Online-Only Future.”

Folkenflik, David. “Newspapers Wade Into an Online-Only Future,” NPR, March 20, 2009, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102162128.

Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/.

Rosen, Jay. “Brain Food for BloggerCon,” PressThink (blog), April 16, 2004, http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2004/04/16/con_prelude.html.

Taylor, Alana. “What It Takes to Be a Beatblogger,” BeatBlogging.org (blog), March 5, 2009, http://beatblogging.org/2009/03/05/what-it-takes-to-be-a-beatblogger/.

Viswanathan, S. “Internet Media: Sky’s the Limit,” Hindu, March 28, 2010, http://beta.thehindu.com/opinion/Readers-Editor/article318231.ece.

Viswanathan, S. “Internet Media: Sky’s the Limit,” Hindu, March 28, 2010, http://beta.thehindu.com/opinion/Readers-Editor/article318231.ece.

Williams, Lisa. “Newspaper Chain Goes Creative Commons: GateHouse Media Rolls CC Over 96 Newspaper Sites,” PressThink (blog), December 15, 2006, http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2006/12/15/newspaper_chain.html.

Wyke, Nick. “Meet the Food Bloggers: Orangette,” Times (London), May 26, 2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/food_and_drink/real_food/article6364590.ece.

Chapter 5: Magazines


5.1 Magazines
5.2 History of Magazine Publishing
5.3 The Role of Magazines in the Development of American Popular Culture
5.4 Major Publications in the Magazine Industry
5.5 How Magazines Control the Public’s Access to Information
5.6 Specialization of Magazines
5.7 Influence of the Internet on the Magazine Industry

5.1 Magazines


Changing Times, Changing Tastes

Figure 5.1


Jessica Spengler – 365.26: Magazines – CC BY 2.0.

On October 5, 2009, publisher Condé Nast announced that the November 2009 issue of respected food magazine Gourmet would be its last. The decision came as a shock to many readers who, since 1941, had believed that “Gourmet was to food what Vogue is to fashion, a magazine with a rich history and a perch high in the publishing firmament (Clifford, 2009).” Although Condé Nast folded three other publications—parenting magazine Cookie and bridal magazines Elegant Bride and Modern Bride—the elimination of Gourmet received the most attention because of the publication’s long history and popularity. Although some readers were angry about the sudden print halt, some understood that the closure was simply a reflection of a changing market.

Magazine publishers have been struggling with competition for advertising dollars for years. The magazine industry took a dramatic hit from the financial crisis that began in the fall of 2007, with many publications folding altogether, several moving to online-only models, and nearly all implementing mass layoffs to cut costs (Vocus Research). The crisis forced the high-end retailers that support Condé Nast magazines to slash their advertising budgets, and the subsequent decline in advertising revenue put the Condé Nast publications in jeopardy (Gross, 2009).

Although this appears to be grim news for an industry that has survived since the 17th century, magazines may not be truly obsolete. Many analysts are hopeful that the magazine industry, with its long, complex past, is simply in a slump. According to the Magazine Publishers of America, some 7,383 magazines appeared in publication in 2008 (Association of Magazine Media). The following year, media private-equity firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson predicted that magazine ad revenues would stabilize in 2013 (Clifford, 2009). Former Newsweek financial writer Daniel Gross—though admittedly biased—believes that the industry will strengthen. He describes the panic of some who refer to the demise of print media as symptoms of an “irrational depression surrounding print (Gross).” Yet even he admits that he may be mistaken in his belief that the current downward trend is just a bump in the road. As Gross stated, “If I’m wrong, I may have to eat my words. And I’ll be doubly sad because I won’t have Gourmet to tell me what wine goes best with them (Gross).” So, many have begun to wonder, what will the future of the magazine business hold?

If Gourmet’s closure is any indication, the magazines of the future will be a product of cross-media integration, particularly between print and television. “Advertising support for luxurious magazines like Gourmet has dwindled, while grocery store advertisers have continued to buy pages at more accessible, celebrity-driven magazines like Every Day with Rachel Ray, which specializes in 30-minute meals, and Food Network Magazine (Clifford).” This trend suggests that the best—and perhaps only—way for magazines to remain viable is to gain an audience via another medium and then use that celebrity-driven status to sell the print product.

The magazine industry may change drastically over the next several years. This evolution may be affected by a number of variables, such as the Internet, a new generation of readers, the fluctuation of advertising costs, and the recovery from the 2008 recession. What remains to be seen is whether the magazine industry can continue to be a dominant force in American culture in the midst of these changes.


Association of Magazine Media, “Clearing up Misperceptions about Magazine Closings,” white paper, August 2009, http://www.magazine.org/ASSETS/ACC5AFCF184843B9B8A4CE13080DB232/misperceptions-about-magazine-closings-082009.pdf.

Clifford, “Condé Nast Closes Gourmet.”

Clifford, Stephanie. “A Look Ahead at the Money in the Communications Industry,” New York Times, August 3, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/04/business/media/04adco.html.

Clifford, Stephanie. “Condé Nast Closes Gourmet and 3 Other Magazines,” New York Times, October 6, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/business/media/06gourmet.html.

Gross, “Don’t Make Me Eat My Words.”

Gross, Daniel. “Don’t Make Me Eat My Words,” Newsweek, October 7, 2009, http://www.newsweek.com/2009/10/06/don-t-make-me-eat-my-words.html.

Vocus Research, State of the Media Report 2011: Adapting, Surviving, and Reviving, http://www.vocus.com/resources/state-of-media/2011-report-adapting-surviving-reviving.pdf.

5.2 History of Magazine Publishing


Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the European roots of the modern magazine.
  2. Identify the changes that took place in magazine printing in the 1830s United States.
  3. Describe the trends in journalism that arose during the 20th century.

Like the newspaper, the magazine has a complex history shaped by the cultures in which it developed. Examining the industry’s roots and its transformation over time can contribute to a better understanding of the modern industry.

Early Magazines

After the printing press became prevalent in Europe, early publishers began to conceptualize the magazine. Forerunners of the familiar modern magazine first appeared during the 17th century in the form of brochures, pamphlets, and almanacs. Soon, publishers realized that irregular publication schedules required too much time and energy. A gradual shift then occurred as publishers sought regular readers with specific interests. But the early magazine was unlike any other previous publication. It was not enough of a news source to be a newspaper, but it could not be considered pleasure reading either. Instead, early magazines occupied the middle ground between the two (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Germany, France, and the Netherlands Lead the Way

German theologian and poet Johann Rist published the first true magazine between 1663 and 1668. Titled Erbauliche Monaths-Unterredungen, or Edifying Monthly Discussions, Rist’s publication inspired a number of others to begin printing literary journals across Europe: Denis de Sallo’s French Journal des Sçavans (1665), the Royal Society’s English Philosophical Transactions (1665), and Francesco Nazzari’s Italian Giomale de’letterati (1668). In 1684, exiled Frenchman Pierre Bayle published Novelles de la République des Lettres in the Netherlands to escape French censorship. Profoundly affected by a general revival of learning during the 1600s, the publications inspired enthusiasm for education.

Another Frenchman, Jean Donneau de Vizé, published the first “periodical of amusement,” Le Mercure Galant (later renamed Mercure de France), in 1672, which contained news, short stories, and poetry. This combination of news and pleasurable reading became incredibly popular, causing other publications to imitate the magazine (Encyclopedia Britannica). This lighter magazine catered to a different reader than did the other, more intellectual publications of the day, offering articles for entertainment and enjoyment rather than for education.

With the arrival of the 18th century came an increase in literacy. Women, who enjoyed a considerable rise in literacy rates, began reading in record numbers. This growth affected the literary world as a whole, inspiring a large number of female writers to publish novels for female readers (Wolf). This influx of female readers also helped magazines flourish as more women sought out the publications as a source of knowledge and entertainment. In fact, many magazines jumped at the chance to reach out to women. The Athenian Mercury, the first magazine written specifically for women, appeared in 1693.

British Magazines Appear

Much as in newspaper publication, Great Britain closely followed continental Europe’s lead in producing magazines. During the early 18th century, three major influential magazines published regularly in Great Britain: Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe’s the Review, Sir Richard Steele’s the Tatler, and Joseph Addison and Steele’s the Spectator.

All three of these publications were published either daily or several times a week. While they were supplied as frequently as newspapers, their content was closer to that of magazines. The Review focused primarily on domestic and foreign affairs and featured opinion-based political articles. The Spectator replaced the Tatler, which published from 1709 to 1711. Both Tatler and Spectator emphasized living and culture and frequently used humor to promote virtuous behavior (Wolf). Tatler and Spectator, in particular, drew a large number of female readers, and both magazines eventually added female-targeted publications: Female Tatler in 1709 and Female Spectator in 1744.

American Magazines

The first American magazines debuted in 1741, when Andrew Bradford’s American Magazine and Benjamin Franklin’s General Magazine began publication in Philadelphia a mere 3 days apart from each other. Neither magazine lasted long, however; American Magazine folded after only 3 months and General Magazine after 6. The short-lived nature of the publications likely had less to do with the outlets themselves and more to do with the fact that they were “limited by too few readers with leisure time to read, high costs of publishing, and expensive distribution systems (Straubbhaar, et. al., 2009).” Regardless of this early setback, magazines began to flourish during the latter half of the 18th century, and by the end of the 1700s, more than 100 magazines had appeared in the nascent United States. Despite this large publication figure, typical colonial magazines still recorded low circulation figures and were considered highbrow.

Mass-Appeal Magazines

All this changed during the 1830s when publishers began taking advantage of a general decline in the cost of printing and mailing publications and started producing less-expensive magazines with a wider audience in mind. Magazine style also transformed. While early magazines focused on improvement and reason, later versions focused on amusement. No longer were magazines focused on the elite class. Publishers took advantage of their freshly expanded audience and began offering family magazines, children’s magazines, and women’s magazines. Women’s publications again proved to be a highly lucrative market. One of the earliest American women’s magazines was Godey’s Lady’s Book, a Philadelphia-based monthly that printed between 1830 and 1898. This particular magazine reached out to female readers by employing nearly 150 women.

The Saturday Evening Post

The first truly successful mass circulation magazine in the United States was The Saturday Evening Post. This weekly magazine first began printing in 1821 and remained in regular print production until 1969, when it briefly ceased circulation. However, in 1971 a new owner remodeled the magazine to focus on health and medical breakthroughs. From the time of its first publication in the early 1800s, The Saturday Evening Post quickly grew in popularity; by 1855, it had a circulation of 90,000 copies per year (Saturday Evening Post). Widely recognized for transforming the look of the magazine, the publication was the first to put artwork on its cover, a decision that The Saturday Evening Post has said “connected readers intimately with the magazine as a whole (Saturday Evening Post).” Certainly, The Saturday Evening Post took advantage of the format by featuring the work of famous artists such as Norman Rockwell. Using such recognizable artists boosted circulation as “Americans everywhere recognized the art of the Post and eagerly awaited the next issue because of it (Saturday Evening Post).”

Figure 5.3


The Saturday Evening Post popularized the use of artwork on its cover, setting a standard for other publications to follow.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

But The Saturday Evening Post did not only feature famous artists; it also published works by famous authors including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, and Ring Lardner. The popularity of these writers contributed to the continuing success of the magazine.

Youth’s Companion

Another early U.S. mass magazine was Youth’s Companion, which published between 1827 and 1929 when it merged with The American Boy. Based in Boston, Massachusetts, this periodical featured fairly religious content and developed a reputation as a wholesome magazine that encouraged young readers to be virtuous and pious. Eventually, the magazine sought to reach a larger, adult audience by including tame entertainment pieces. Nevertheless, the magazine in time began featuring the work of prominent writers for both children and adults and became “a literary force to be reckoned with (Nineteenth-Century American Children and What They Read).”

Price Decreases Attract Larger Audiences

While magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Youth’s Companion were fairly popular, the industry still struggled to achieve widespread circulation. Most publications cost the then-hefty sum of 25 or 35 cents per issue, limiting readership to the relative few who could afford them. This all changed in 1893 when Samuel Sidney McClure began selling McClure’s Magazine, originally a literary and political magazine, at the bargain price of only 15 cents per issue. The trend caught on. Soon, Cosmopolitan (founded 1886) began selling for 12.5 cents, while Munsey Magazine (1886–1929) sold for only 10 cents. All three of these periodicals were widely successful. Frank A. Munsey, owner of Munsey Magazine, estimated that between 1893 and 1899 “the ten-cent magazine increased the magazine-buying public from 250,000 to 750,000 persons (Encycopaedia Britannica).” For the first time, magazines could be sold for less than they cost to produce. Because of greater circulation, publications could charge more for advertising space and decrease the cost to the customer.

By 1900, advertising had become a crucial component of the magazine business. In the early days of the industry, many publications attempted to keep advertisements out of their issues because of publishers’ natural fondness toward literature and writing (Encycopaedia Britannica). However, once circulation increased, advertisers sought out space in magazines to reach the larger audience. Magazines responded by raising advertising rates, ultimately increasing their profitability. By the turn of the 20th century, advertising became the norm in magazines, particularly in some women’s magazines, where advertisements accounted for nearly half of all content.

Early 20th-Century Developments

The arrival of the 20th century brought with it new types of magazines, including news, business, and picture magazines. In time, these types of publications came to dominate the industry and attract vast readerships.


As publishers became interested in succinctly presenting the fresh increase of worldwide information that technology made available during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they designed the newsmagazine. In 1923, Time became the first newsmagazine that focused on world news. Time first began publication with the proposition that “people are uninformed because no publication has adapted itself to the time which busy men are able to spend simply keeping informed (Encycopaedia Britannica).” Although the periodical struggled during its early years, Time hit its stride in 1928 and its readership grew. The magazine’s signature style of well-researched news presented in a succinct manner contributed greatly to its eventual success.

Several other newsmagazines came onto the market during this era as well. Business Week was founded in 1929 with a focus on the global market. Forbes, currently one of the most popular financial magazines, began printing in 1917 as a biweekly publication. In 1933, a former Time foreign editor founded Newsweek, which now has a circulation of nearly 4 million readers. Today, Newsweek and Time continue to compete with each other, furthering a trend that began in the early years of Newsweek.

Picture Magazines

Photojournalism, or the telling of stories through photography, also became popular during the early 20th century. Although magazines had been running illustrations since the 19th century, as photography grew in popularity so did picture magazines. The most influential picture magazine was Henry Luce’s Life, which regularly published between 1936 and 1972. Within weeks of its initial publication, Life had a circulation of 1 million. In Luce’s words, the publication aimed “to see life; to see the world; to witness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things (Encycopaedia Britannica).” It did not disappoint. Widely credited with establishing photojournalism, Life captured the attention of many on first read. With 96 large-format glossy pages, even the inaugural issue sold out. The opening photograph depicted an obstetrician holding a newborn baby with the caption “Life begins.”

While Life was the most influential picture magazine, it was certainly not the only photo-centric publication. Popular biweekly picture magazine Look printed between 1937 and 1971, claiming to compete with Life by reaching out to a larger audience. Although Look offered Life stiff competition during their almost identical print runs, the latter magazine is widely considered to have a greater legacy. Several other photo magazines—including Focus, Peek, Foto, Pic, and Click—also took their inspiration from Life.

Into the 21st Century

During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the advent of online technology began to greatly affect both the magazine industry and the print media as a whole. Much like newspaper publishers, magazine publishers have had to rethink their structure to reach out to an increasingly online market. The specifics of the changes made to the magazine industry will be discussed in further detail later in this chapter.

Key Takeaways

  • The first magazine was published in Germany during the 17th century. The success of this publication led to the introduction of magazines across Europe. During the 17th and 18th centuries, publishers founded several different types of periodicals aimed at diverse audiences, including the elite and women.
  • The 1830s triggered the arrival of mass circulation magazines in the United States. Publishers began offering less expensive magazines to a wider audience, promoting greater consumption of the print media.
  • The introduction of newsmagazines and picture magazines dramatically changed the U.S. magazine industry during the early 20th century. Today, newsmagazines such as Time and Newsweek continue to dominate the magazine industry.


Select a magazine that you enjoy reading and research its history. Then, answer the following writing prompts.

  1. When was it founded, and by whom? Is the magazine similar to the early European and U.S. magazines? Why or why not?
  2. How have its articles, photographs, and advertisements changed over the years? What changes in printing technologies in the 1830s had a direct influence on the way the magazine looks now?
  3. Based on the way the magazine has adapted to trends in journalism during the 20th century, how do you predict the magazine will evolve in the future?

5.4 Major Publications in the Magazine Industry


Learning Objectives

  1. List the top three highest circulation journals.
  2. Discuss the controversial transformation of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Magazines have evolved significantly since their inception. Magazines have affected the world by bringing news, entertainment, literature, and photography to their readers. Additionally, the magazine industry has profoundly affected U.S. popular culture. As magazines have developed over time, individual publications have targeted specific groups and have found particular niches. This section explores a number of popular periodicals and their effect on their target audiences.

High-Circulation Magazines

The top 10 highest circulating magazines in the United States differ greatly in style and audience. From AARP to Better Homes and Gardens, from National Geographic to Family Circle, the list demonstrates the wide pool of readers and interests attracted to the medium. This section will explore the top three publications: AARP The Magazine, AARP Bulletin, and Reader’s Digest.

AARP The Magazine and AARP Bulletin

Some may be surprised to learn that the two magazines with the highest circulation in the United States are not ones readily available to buy at a newsstand or grocery store: AARP The Magazine and AARP Bulletin. Published by the nonprofit organization AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons), both are automatically sent to the organization’s more than 40 million members.

A bimonthly publication that is “geared exclusively towards 50+ Americans seeking to enhance their quality of life as they age (AARP),” AARP The Magazine publishes lifestyle articles and includes sections dedicated to health, money, work, relationships, and travel, among others. Its mission statement reads:

AARP The Magazine provides three editorial versions targeted to different life stages (50–59, 60–69, 70+) to empower readers with editorial written just for them. Annual editorial packages, strong service journalism, and celebrity profiles will be presented in a warm, vibrant and inviting format to encourage readers to reflect, engage and enjoy (AARP).

AARP also publishes AARP Bulletin, which is “a monthly news publication that reaches influential consumers and policymakers (AARP).” Rather than presenting lifestyle stories, this publication focuses on news stories of interest to its target audience.

AARP Bulletin chronicles and interprets important social issues that affect 50+ Americans. News, balanced analysis and concise stories, in an accessible format, motivates these influential readers to engage in public policy on health care, financial well-being and consumer protection (AARP).

Reader’s Digest

Reader’s Digest boasts the third-highest circulation among U.S. magazines. First published in 1922 as a “digest of condensed articles of topical interest and entertainment value taken from other periodicals (Encyclopaedia Britannica),” this famous pocket-sized journal was first produced on a low budget by a husband and wife team who believed the magazine would sell despite numerous rejections from magazine publishers (Encyclopaedia Britannica). They were right. Reader’s Digest was an almost immediate success and now regularly outsells competitors. The monthly magazine has subscribers around the globe and seeks to “create products that inform, enrich, entertain and inspire people of all ages and cultures around the world (Reader’s Digest).”

News Magazines

As discussed earlier in this chapter, newsmagazines became popular during the 1920s. Today, newsmagazines make up a large portion of magazine sales, with multiple news periodicals ranking in the top 30 for circulation. Over time, a number of newsmagazines have established themselves in the industry, including Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report.


Newsweek’s initial February 1933 issue was called News-Week and featured seven different photographs from the week’s news on its cover. The weekly publication currently “offers comprehensive coverage of world events with a global network of correspondents, reporters and editors covering national and international affairs, business, science and technology, society and the arts and entertainment (Newsweek, 2007).” Relying on a wide array of reporters, Newsweek also uniquely publishes a reader-penned section titled “My Turn.” The magazine has been hugely successful over the years and holds more prestigious National Magazine Awards than any other newsweekly.

The magazine has not been without its trials, however. In November of 2009 Newsweek published an article discussing Sarah Palin’s book, Going Rogue: An American Life. The cover of that issue featured a photo of Palin that had been used in an issue of Runner’s World with Palin in running attire. The words “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sarah?” were splayed across the photograph.

Figure 5.6


Sarah Palin was the subject of a controversial cover of Newsweek, published in November 2009, that earned the magazine much criticism.

The cover caused a popular backlash, with readers calling it sexist and unfair. One reader suggested that Newsweek would never print a photograph of Barack Obama in such attire. In response, Newsweek published a photo of President Obama in his swim trunks in its following issue, although this photo was smaller and on an inside page rather than on the cover.


Time has remained an influential publication during the decades since its inception. Today, the publication prides itself on its “rare convergence of incisive reporting, lively writing and world-renowned photography,” which combined have earned it the praise of being “journalism at its best (Time).” The magazine is divided into four main sections: Briefing, The Well, Life, and Arts. Briefing includes concise stories on major news events in the United States and other countries. The Well section features longer articles, including the cover story and articles on world and business. Life contains stories on health, science, technology, and the environment. Finally, Arts consists of reviews of theater, film, literature, music, exhibits, and architecture. Like Newsweek, Time has won numerous awards and prides itself on being “the guide through chaos” in an era of information overload (Time).

U.S. News & World Report

Created through the merger of a newspaper and a magazine, U.S. News & World Report has gained great prestige over the years. In 1933—the same year that Newsweek debuted—journalist David Lawrence began publishing a weekly newspaper called the United States News. Six years later, he founded a weekly magazine titled World Report. In 1948, the two weeklies merged to create the new U.S. News & World Report. The magazine’s focus is similar to those of Time and Newsweek, but U.S. News & World Report concentrates more on political, economic, health, and education stories, perhaps in part because it is based in Washington, DC. Although for most of its long history the magazine published weekly, in 2008 it announced its transition to a monthly printing schedule, vowing to concentrate on its website.

The magazine is perhaps best known for its annual ranking of U.S. colleges. This ranking began in 1983 and has since evolved to include newsstand books of America’s Best Colleges and America’s Best Graduate Schools. Since the ranking system began, students turn to the publication for information about the strengths and weaknesses of institutions of higher learning.

Women’s Magazines

Female readers have been important to the magazine industry since the early 19th century, initially because women were not traditionally part of the workforce and were believed to have more leisure time to read. This lucrative market has only grown over time. In an increasingly online era, many magazines have sought ways to expand their scope to reach a larger audience. Yet others, such as Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and Better Homes and Gardens, have maintained their original scope and have still managed to turn profits. These three periodicals are part of the “Seven Sisters,” a group of magazines traditionally targeted at women.

Ladies’ Home Journal

Ladies’ Home Journal began in 1879 as a column for women published in the Tribune and Farmer newspaper. The wife of the publisher was not entirely impressed with her husband’s column and so began writing it herself (Aliperti). The column grew in popularity so rapidly that, by 1883, Louisa Knapp Curtis had published her first major supplement called the Ladies Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper. Today, the publishers of the Ladies’ Home Journal state that it is “a unique lifestyle magazine dedicated to the millions of American women who want to look good, do good and feel great (Meredith).” Ranked twelfth in circulation, the magazine presently has a readership of nearly 4 million (Echo Media).Ladies’ Home Journal focuses on style, health, relationships, and food. Perhaps its most recognizable feature is a column titled “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”, which made its debut in 1953. The regular column features stories of real-life couples struggling in their marriages, offers advice from marriage and family therapists, and projects the outcomes.

Good Housekeeping

In May of 1885, Good Housekeeping began publishing with the intention of providing “information about running a home, a broad range of literary offerings, and opportunities for reader input (Library of Congress).” Fifteen years later, the magazine founded the Good Housekeeping Research Institute. The research institute includes a product-evaluation laboratory where a staff of scientists, engineers, nutritionists, and researchers evaluate a wide variety of products. The magazine then reports their findings to its readers to “improve the lives of consumers and their families through education and product evaluation (Good Housekeeping).” The magazine describes itself as:

Devoted to contemporary women. Monthly articles focus on food, fitness, beauty, and childcare using the resources of the Good Housekeeping Institute. From human interest stories and social issues to money management and travel, the magazine will encourage positive living for today’s woman (Good Housekeeping Magazine, 2010).

With over 4.6 million readers, Good Housekeeping currently ranks ninth highest in U.S. circulation (Echo Media).

Better Homes and Gardens

Making its print debut in 1922, Better Homes and Gardens entered the industry later than its counterparts. Currently, the magazine is ranked fifth in circulation in the United States with a readership of more than 7.6 million (Echo Media). Since its inception, the publication has focused on home and gardening style and decorations. Its positioning statement reads:

For the woman who reads Better Homes and Gardens, home is where she creates her life story. It’s her haven, where she raises her family, entertains friends, and celebrates life’s big—and small—accomplishments. It’s where she indulges her dreams and builds a world of her own. Home is her emotional center—it’s where life happens. Better Homes and Gardens recognizes this and inspires her with infinite possibilities for creativity and self-expression. Each issue delivers smart, approachable editorial on design and individual style, decorating and gardening, food and entertaining, and personal and family well-being. Better Homes and Gardens helps her bridge the gap between dreaming and doing (Meredith).

The monthly magazine is divided into six sections: Food and Nutrition, Home, Health, Family, Gardening, and Lifestyle.


First published in 1886, the female-targeted Cosmopolitan has changed dramatically over time from its original intent of being a “first-class family magazine (Mott, 1957).” In the first issue, the editor told readers that “there will be a department devoted exclusively to the interests of women, with articles on fashions, on household decoration, on cooking, and the care and management of children, etc., also a department for the younger members of the family (Mott, 1957).” Just 2 years later, however, the original publishing company went out of business, and after several publisher changes Cosmopolitan was eventually purchased by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst in 1905.

The magazine became more successful during the 1960s when Helen Gurley Brown “transformed an antiquated general-interest mag called Cosmopolitan into the must-read for young, sexy single chicks (Benjamin).” Brown transformed the magazine from the family-focused publication it was to the somewhat controversial read with an emphasis on sex, work, and fashion that it is today. The magazine describes the transformation saying:

Over the years, Cosmo has not only become the number-one-selling monthly magazine on the newsstand, but it has also served as an agent for social change, encouraging women everywhere to go after what they want (whether it be in the boardroom or the bedroom) (Benjamin).

In 1965, Cosmopolitan revamped its journal with Brown’s vision in mind. The first retooled issue had an article about birth-control pills, then a relatively new and controversial innovation. The magazine’s provocative articles attracted a large readership, but many found it offensive. Conservatives believed that the content was too racy, while some feminists thought it was too focused on beauty and pleasing men (Benjamin). Yet the publishers of Cosmopolitan believed that they were introducing a new form of feminism (Benjamin). Brown argued that “Cosmo is feminist in that we believe women are just as smart and capable as men are and can achieve anything men can. But it also acknowledges that while work is important, men are too. The Cosmo girl absolutely loves men (Benjamin)!”

Today, Cosmopolitan continues to attract readers by maintaining the same ideals that Brown put forth in the 1960s. Nearly 30 percent of every issue is dedicated to relationships, sex especially. The rest provides articles on beauty, fashion, entertainment, health and fitness, and self-improvement.

Men’s Magazines

Just as women’s magazines have existed for much of the history of the medium, over the years many magazines have been devoted to male readers. One of the most enduring and popular of those magazines is Sports Illustrated.

Sports Illustrated

When Time cocreator Henry Luce launched Sports Illustrated in 1954, his staff was doubtful about its chances. Spectator sports had not yet reached the level of popularity they have today, and the new magazine failed to make a profit for its first 12 years of publication. As television brought spectator sports to the growing suburbs, however, their popularity quickly rose, and Sports Illustrated became a success. Managing editor Andre Laguerre assembled a staff of talented, loyal writers and instituted the extensive use of color photographs, developing the basis for the format the magazine still uses.

In 1964, Laguerre initiated the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition as a way of increasing sales during the winter months when there are fewer developments in sports. Putting model Babette March on the cover in a bikini helped the magazine sell, and the swimsuit edition became an annual tradition. Filled with pictures of models in revealing swimwear, the issue generates its share of controversy but is consistently the best-selling issue of the magazine each year.

Celebrity Magazines

Despite being criticized at times for their less-than-sophisticated approach to journalism, celebrity magazines bring in enormous profits and help shape U.S. pop culture, fueling the obsession some Americans have with the mundane day-to-day details of the lives of celebrities. Three of the most prominent celebrity magazines currently publishing are People, OK!, and Us Weekly.


Since it first began publishing as a spin-off of Time magazine’s “People” section in 1974, People has been a leading celebrity magazine. The publication sets itself apart from other celebrity gossip magazines by publishing human-interest stories alongside photos and articles about celebrities. The publishers of People state that they avoid pure Hollywood gossip articles and they refuse to publish stories without some sort of verification (Moni). This editorial slant is unique among celebrity magazines, and, as such, the publication frequently receives exclusive interviews and photo shoots with celebrities. The somewhat more respectful relationship between the publishers and some celebrities has helped People become the most popular celebrity magazine in circulation, ranking thirteenth overall with a verified readership of over 3.6 million in 2010 (Moni).


A British-run magazine that began publishing in 1993, OK! claims to “bring you the truth and the inside scoop about celebrities (OK Magazine).” Known for its exclusive interviews that often lead to public announcements on pregnancies and engagements, OK! initially had a policy to print only positive celebrity profiles (Search). That policy changed in 2007 thanks to an erratic interview with pop singer Britney Spears, which was so surprising that the magazine decided to break with tradition and publish it anyway (Search). In 2008, Spears agreed to a second interview with the publication in which she discussed her previous behavior, leading to a more positive profile of the singer. The widely successful magazine has readers around the world along with several branch publications.

Us Weekly

Founded in 1977, Us Weekly followed the format of a bimonthly entertainment news and review magazine until 2000, when it switched formats to become a weekly leader in celebrity news and style. The publication “delivers a mass audience of young, educated, and affluent adults who are compelled by breaking celebrity news, Hollywood style and the best in entertainment (Us Weekly).” Us Weekly has become known for its fashion sections such as “Who Wore It Best?,” a reader poll comparing two celebrities wearing the same outfit, and “Fashion Police,” in which comedians comment on celebrity fashion mishaps and successes. With a circulation of nearly 2 million in December 2010, Us Weekly prides itself on being a leader in the celebrity magazine industry (Us Weekly).

Key Takeaways

  • AARP The Magazine, AARP Bulletin, and Reader’s Digest boast the three highest U.S. circulations among contemporary magazines.
  • Women’s magazines, such as Cosmopolitan, make up a large portion of the medium.


Study the top 10 highest circulating magazines, which were outlined in this section: http://www.magazine.org/CONSUMER_MARKETING/CIRC_TRENDS/ABC2009TOTALrank.aspx. Then, answer the following writing prompts.

  1. Why might these magazines rank higher in circulation than others? What themes, audiences, and differences set these apart?
  2. Is any controversy surrounding them comparable to the controversy surrounding the modern Cosmopolitan?


AARP, “AARP Bulletin,” http://aarpmedia.org/bulletin.

AARP, “AARP The Magazine,” http://aarpmedia.org/atm.

Aliperti, Cliff. “The Ladies’ Home Journal: Development under Louisa Knapp Curtis and Edward W. Bok,” http://www.things-and-other-stuff.com/magazines/ladies-home-journal.html.

Benjamin, Jennifer “How Cosmo Changed the World,” Cosmopolitan, http://www.cosmopolitan.com/about/about-us_how-cosmo-changed-the-world.

Echo Media, “Better Homes and Gardens,” http://www.echo-media.com/mediaDetail.php?ID=4227&filterUsed=FALSE;Audit Bureau of Circulations, http://www.accessabc.com/.

Echo Media, “Good Housekeeping,” http://www.echo-media.com/mediaDetail.php?ID=4155&filterUsed=FALSE; Audit Bureau of Circulations, http://www.accessabc.com/.

Echo Media, “Ladies’ Home Journal,” http://www.echo-media.com/mediaDetail.php?ID=4162.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Reader’s Digest,” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/492829/Readers-Digest.

Good Housekeeping Magazine,” http://worldmags.net/women/2022-good-housekeeping-september-2010-us.html.

Good Housekeeping, “About the Good Housekeeping Research Institute,” http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/product-testing/history/about-good-housekeeping-research-institute.

Library of Congress, “Today in History: Good Housekeeping,” American Memory Project, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/may02.html.

Meredith, Better Homes and Gardens, “Positioning Statement,” http://www.meredith.com/mediakit/bhg/index.html.

Meredith, Ladies’ Home Journal, “Mission Statement,” http://www.meredith.com/mediakit/lhj/print/index.htm.

Moni, Alyssa. “An Inside Look at People Magazine,” March 31, 2011, http://www.hercampus.com/school/bu/inside-look-people-magazine.

Mott, Frank Luthor. A History of American Magazines: 1885–1905 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), 480.

Newsweek, “History of Newsweek,” http://www.newsweek.com/2007/10/10/history-of-newsweek.html.

OK Magazine!, “About,” http://www.okmagazine.com/about/.

Reader’s Digest, “Customer Care,” http://www.rd.com/customer-care/.

Search, “OK!” http://www.search.com/reference/OK!.

Time, “National Editorial,”

Us Weekly, “Us Weekly Circulation Strength,” http://srds.com/mediakits/UsWeekly-print/Circulation.html.

Us Weekly, “Us Weekly Media Kit,” http://www.srds.com/mediakits/us_weekly/index.html.

5.5 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 not only dictates 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.


In general, the format 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 (State of the Media, 2004). Magazines, however, frequently allow for double that word count when publishing articles of great interest (State of the Media, 2004). 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 (State of the Media, 2004).

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 (Cyber College, 2010). 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 (Cyber College, 2010).

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 (Cyber College).

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 (Knarr). Advertising revenue has decreased steadily since the 1990s, mirroring the rise in online readership (HighBeam Business). 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(State of the Media).

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.


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?


Cyber College, “Magazines: Economics and Careers,” March 20, 2010, http://www.cybercollege.com/frtv/mag3.htm.

HighBeam Business, “Periodicals: Publishing, or Publishing and Printing” http://business.highbeam.com/industry-reports/wood/periodicals-publishing-publishing-printing.

Knarr, David. “Magazine Advertising – Trade Secrets,” http://www.studio1productions.com/Articles/MagAds.htm.

State of the Media, 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.

State of the Media, Project for Excellence in Journalism, “Magazines” in The State of the News Media 2004.

State of the Media, 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.

5.6 Specialization of Magazines


Learning Objectives

  1. Identify different types of specialized magazines.
  2. Recognize ways that advertisers benefit from the specialization of magazines.

Over the last century, magazines have slowly moved into more specialized, fragmented groupings. This transformation from general-interest to niche publications began with the popularization of television. To survive the threat posed by the success of broadcast media, print publications worked to stand out from their competitors by developing market niches. During this transition, magazine editors found that by specializing they were also appealing to advertisers hoping to reach specific audiences. No longer were ads just going out to the general public. Instead, advertisers could target groups by gender, age, race, class, and social and cultural interests (Cambell, et. al.).

From the medical field to the auto industry, specialization has become necessary to compete in an ever-growing market. Yet the trend is perhaps most obvious in mass media and in the publishing industry in particular. “In 2006, the Magazine Publishers of America trade organization listed more than 40 special categories of consumer magazines (Cambell, et. al.).” This wide variety of niche publications reflects the increasing specificity of markets and audiences. “In publishing, demand for specialized magazines and books can be evidenced by looking at the magazine rack. [There are] magazines focusing on photography to cars, to economics and foreign affairs and more (Hess, 2007).” Specialization is likely to increase, rather than decrease. “Market fragmentation has and probably will continue to proliferate. Customization and individualization will probably be the continuing trend (Hess, 2007).”

Professional Trade Publications

Nearly every trade group produces some sort of professional publication for its members. Many trade organizations even have their own libraries that house publications solely dedicated to their specific groups. For example, if a person wishes to find information on agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting organizations, the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland, near Washington, DC, might offer a starting point. This library is one of four national libraries of the United States and has one of the world’s largest agricultural information collections and links a nationwide network of state land-grant and U.S. Department of Agriculture field libraries (Career Resource Library). This is but one example of the array of trade-group publications available. Resources such as the Career Resource Library are also available to those who wish to browse publications by trade groups.

Scholarly Publications

Academic journals have, in some form, been around since the early years of magazine publication. During the 17th century, the Universal Historical Bibliothèque became the first journal to invite scholarly contributions. Today, hundreds of scholarly journals exist, such as the American Economic Review and The Journal of Marriage and Families, and every academic field has its own array of journals to which scholars can contribute. Most university libraries allow students and faculty access to these journals via library databases.

In every academic field, journals are ranked based on the types of articles they publish and on their selectiveness. Most academic journals use a peer-reviewing process to determine which articles are printed. During this process, a panel of readers reviews an anonymous article and then decides whether to accept the paper, accept with changes, or reject it altogether. Scholarly publication is essential for graduate students and university faculty members alike as they seek to disseminate their ideas and progress in their careers.

Religious Groups

With faith at the center of many individuals’ lives, it is hardly surprising that there are hundreds of magazines dedicated to religious groups. From Christianity Today to Catholic Digest, Christian publications make up the largest group of religious magazines. But Christianity is not the only faith represented in periodicals. Kashrus Magazine targets the Jewish community, and Shambhala Sun is affiliated with the Buddhist faith. Additionally, certain magazines, such as CrossCurrents, are designed for people of all faiths. The magazine’s publishers state that CrossCurrents serves as “a global network for people of faith and intelligence who are committed to connecting the wisdom of the heart and the life of the mind (Cross Currents).”

Political Groups

Political groups also have capitalized on the magazine industry. Whether liberal or conservative, most people can find a publication that reflects their political opinions. Two such magazines are The American Prospect and The American Conservative. The American Prospect targets Democrats with “thoughtful views of America’s progressive liberal Democratic issues, ideas, politics and policy (All You Can Read).” Conversely, the American Conservative is aimed at right-leaning individuals. Edited by well-known conservatives Pat Buchanan and Taki Theodoracopulos, this biweekly “is dedicated to reigniting the conservative conversation, engaging the neo-conservative agenda through its espousal of traditional conservative themes (All You Can Read).”

Pulp and Genre Fiction Magazines

Although today not as many pulp magazines publish as did at the style’s height of popularity, during the 1930s, this unique niche still plays an important role in the magazine industry. One such example is Asimov’s Science Fiction, a science fiction magazine founded in 1977 and still popular today. Founded because “one of science fiction’s most influential and prolific writers, Isaac Asimov wanted to provide a home for new SF (science fiction) writers—a new magazine that young writers could break into. Asimov’s Science Fiction remains that home, as well as the publisher of some of the field’s best known authors (Asimov’s Science Fiction).” True to its original intention, the magazine publishes stories of varying lengths for the avid science fiction fan.

Figure 5.7


Asmiov’s Science Fiction is a modern pulp magazine reaching out to sci-fi readers around the globe.

Tim Cox – Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine – CC BY-NC 2.0.

Another modern example of a genre magazine is Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. First launched in 1941 to “raise the sights of mystery writers generally to a genuine literary form,” to “encourage good writing among our colleagues by offering a practical market not otherwise available,” and to “develop new writers seeking expression in the genre (The Mystery Place),” the journal has published a large number of now famous writers including Rudyard Kipling, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and Alice Walker. Today, the publication prides itself on being “on the cutting edge of crime and mystery fiction, offering readers the very best stories being written in the genre anywhere in the world (The Mystery Place).” Though pulp and genre fiction magazines tend to have a fairly low circulation—Asimov’s circulation in 2009 was about 17,000—the caliber of the authors they often attract gives these publications a great degree of influence within their respective niches (Anders, 2009).

Hobby and Interest Magazines

Perhaps the most populated classification is that of hobby and special-interest magazines, a reflection of the wide array of hobbies and interests that different individuals enjoy. Within this classification of journals, one can find magazines on such topics as sports (Sports Illustrated), wellness (Health), cooking (Bon Appétit), home decoration and renovation (This Old House), and travel and geography (National Geographic).

Readers interested in specific hobbies can generally find a magazine that caters to them. Photographers, for example, can subscribe to the British Journal of Photography, the world’s longest-running photography magazine, in publication since 1854. This journal prints “profiles of emerging talent alongside star names, a picture-led Portfolio section, business analysis and detailed technology reviews (British Journal of Photography).” Music enthusiasts can choose from an array of publications ranging from more general ones such as Spin and the International Early Music Review to highly specific such as the Journal of the International Double Reed Society and Just Jazz Guitar. There are also magazines entirely devoted to crafting, such as Creating Keepsakes for scrapbook enthusiasts, and for pet ownership, such as the appropriately named Pet.

Fashion has provided a highly lucrative and visible interest magazine market. Founded in 1892, the most famous fashion magazine is Vogue. “Vogue has been America’s cultural barometer, putting fashion in the context of the larger world we live in—how we dress, live, socialize; what we eat, listen to, watch; who leads and inspires us (Vogue).” The magazine has a huge following, with a circulation topping 1.2 million readers. Vogue’s mission statement declares an intent to lead the way in the fashion magazine industry, reading:

Vogue’s story is the story of women, of culture, of what is worth knowing and seeing, of individuality and grace, and of the steady power of earned influence. For millions of women each month, Vogue is the eye of the culture, inspiring and challenging them to see things differently, in both themselves and the world (Vogue).

Despite Vogue’s high circulation, most special-interest magazines have a smaller readership. This can be worrisome for editors charged with adding more subscriptions to make a larger profit. However, the appeal of such specific audiences generates more revenue from advertisers, who can purchase magazine space knowing that their ads are reaching a targeted audience.

Vogue Crosses Media Lines

In recent years, Vogue has served as inspiration for two major films: The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and The September Issue (2009). Based on Lauren Weisberger’s novel of the same name, The Devil Wears Prada is a feature film about a young woman living in New York dreaming of becoming a magazine writer. She lands a job as the assistant to the city’s most ruthless magazine editor, Miranda Priestly—played by Meryl Streep—who runs Runway magazine, a fictionalized version of Vogue. This coming-of-age story highlights the work that goes into producing a magazine of such prestige. Streep was nominated for an Oscar award for her performance and, appropriately for a film about fashion, the costume designer was also nominated for Best Achievement in Costume Design.

The September Issue is a documentary chronicling Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour’s preparation for the 2007 fall fashion issue. Wintour, the editor upon whom Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada was loosely based (Zeitchik, 2011), is well known for being a powerful influence on the fashion industry and a demanding editor. The film, however, humanizes her, while still demonstrating her obsession with fashion and with perfection in her magazine.

The success of both films reveals a fascination with the fashion and publishing industries. The fact that these two films would be released as the magazine industry is in decline is surprising but perhaps reflects an interest in journalism from a younger audience. The use of publishing as a topic in the film medium shows how magazines, though struggling, remain relevant and how special-interest magazines, like those in fashion, can transcend the medium and cross over into other mass media.

Key Takeaways

  • Niche publications include magazines that cater to hobbyists in such diverse fields as sports, crafts, music, and even pets. Some modern niche publications hearken back to the pulp magazines of the 1930s.
  • Although niche markets for magazines mean fewer readers, advertisers often prefer to publish ads in these more specialized publications because their ads will reach a more targeted demographic, thus ensuring that nearly everyone reading the journal will have an interest in their product.


Consider the specialized magazines discussed in this section, as well as others you are familiar with, and identify whether or not you are among the target audience for each. Then, read a copy of a magazine targeting a specialized group or demographic you are not a part of. For example, if you’re a man, examine a copy of Cosmopolitan, or if you have no interest in fashion, look through an issue of Vogue. Then, answer the following writing prompts.

  1. What do you learn about the subject from one edition of one magazine?
  2. How do the articles reach out to the target demographic?
  3. How are the advertisements doing the same?


All You Can Read, “Top 10 Political Magazines,” AllYouCanRead.com, http://www.allyoucanread.com/top-10-political-magazines/.

Anders, Charlie Jane “Has The Print Magazine Circulation Crash Started To Level Off?” io9, June 25, 2009, http://io9.com/5302638/has-the-print-magazine-circulation-crash-started-to-level-off.

Asimov’s Science Fiction, http://www.asimovs.com/201007/index.shtml.

British Journal of Photography, “About Us,” http://www.bjp-online.com/static/about-us.

Campbell, Richard. Christopher R Martin, Bettina Fabos, “Magazines in the Age of Specialization: Chapter Nine,” pp. 255–284, Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, http://www.profbob.com/MCOM%2072/Media%20Culture%20TEXT/Media%20Culture%20PPTs/Chapter%209.ppt.

Career Resource Library, CareerOneStop, http://www.acinet.org/crl/library.aspx?LVL2=99&LVL3=n&LVL1=58&CATID=744&PostVal=9.

CrossCurrents, http://www.aril.org/.

Hess, Jennifer. “Specialization Trends in Business,” Helium.com, October 5, 2007, http://www.helium.com/items/664459-specialization-trends-in-business.

The Mystery Place, “About EQMM: A Brief History of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,” The Mystery Place, http://www.themysteryplace.com/eqmm/about/history.aspx.

Vogue, “Mission Statement,” http://www.condenastmediakit.com/vog/index.cfm.

Zeitchik, Steven. “Meryl Streep and her ‘Devil Wears Prada’ Director Jump Into New Springs,” 24 Frames (blog), Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2011, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/movies/2011/02/meryl-streep-david-frankel-hope-springs-prada.html.

5.7 Influence of the Internet on the Magazine Industry


Learning Objectives

  1. Describe how print magazines have adapted to an online market.
  2. Indicate a unique benefit of print magazines archiving back issues on their websites.

In March of 2010, Consumerist published a story titled “Print edition of TV Guide tells me to go online to read most of cover story.” According to the article, TV Guide printed a story listing “TV’s Top 50 Families,” but shocked readers by including only the top 20 families in its print version. To discover the rest of the list, readers needed to go online (Villarreal, 2010). As dismayed as some readers were, this story reflects an ongoing trend in magazine journalism: the move toward online reporting.

Just like their newspaper cousins, magazines have been greatly affected by the influence of the Internet. With so much information available online, advertisers and readers are accessing content on the Internet, causing declines in both revenue and readership. These changes are forcing magazines to adapt to an increasingly online market.

Online-Only Magazines

In 1995, Salon launched the first major online-only magazine at http://www.salon.com. “Salon, the award-winning online news and entertainment website, combines original investigative stories, breaking news, provocative personal essays and highly respected criticism along with popular staff-written blogs about politics, technology and culture (Salon).” Like many print magazines, the site divides content into sections including entertainment, books, comics, life, news and politics, and technology and business. With an average of 5.8 million monthly unique visitors, this online magazine demonstrates the potential successes of Internet-based publications (Salon).

Other online-only magazines include Slate and PC Magazine. All three magazines, like most online publications, support themselves in part through ads that appear alongside articles and other content. Founded in 1996, Slate is a “general interest publication offering analysis and commentary about politics, news, and culture (Slate).” Considering itself “a daily magazine on the Web,” Slate offers its readers information on news and politics, arts, life, business, technology, and science via online articles, podcasts, and blogs (Slate). The successful magazine has been recognized with numerous awards for its contributions to journalism.

PC Magazine differs somewhat from Slate or Salon in that it was originally a print publication. First published in 1982, the computer magazine published hard-copy issues for over 15 years before announcing in 2008 that its January 2009 issue would be its last printed edition. In an open letter to its readers, PC Magazine discussed the transition:

Starting in February 2009, PC Magazine will become a 100-percent digital publication. So, in addition to our popular network of Websites…we’ll offer PC Magazine Digital Edition to all of our print subscribers. The PC Magazine Digital Edition has actually been available since 2002. So for thousands of you, the benefits of this unique medium are already clear. And those benefits will continue to multiply in the coming months, as we work hard to enhance your digital experience (Ulanoff, 2008).

While it is perhaps fitting that this computer-focused publication is one of the first print magazines to move to an entirely online form, its reasons for the transition were financial rather than creative. In describing the decision, Jason Young, chief executive of Ziff Davis Media, said, “The viability for us to continue to publish in print just isn’t there anymore (Clifford, 2008).” Unfortunately for the magazine industry, Young’s sentiment reflects a trend that has been building for some time. Several other publications have followed in PC Magazine’s footsteps, making the move from print to online-only. Journals such as Elle Girl and Teen People that were once available in print can now be viewed only via the Internet. As printing costs rise and advertising and subscription revenues decrease, more magazines will likely be making similar shifts.

Magazine-Like Websites

In recent years, websites that function much as magazines once did without officially being publications themselves have become an increasingly popular online model. For example, Pitchfork Media is an Internet publication on the music industry. Established in 1995, the site offers readers criticism and commentary on contemporary music and has many of the same features as a traditional music magazine: reviews, news, articles, and interviews. Whether the site is capitalizing on the success of print magazines by following their format or if it is simply responding to its readers by providing them with an accessible online experience is a debatable point. Of course, the website also has many features that would not be available in print, such as a streaming playlist of music and music videos. This hybrid of magazine-like content with new-media content offers a possible vision of the digital future of print publications.

Print Magazines With Online Presences

Indeed, most print magazines have created websites. Nearly every major print publication has a site available either for free or through subscription. Yet there are intrinsic differences between the print and online media. Bernadette Geyer, author of a poetry chapbook, What Remains, discusses the practical contrasts between online and print journals saying:

I will read a print journal cover to cover because I can bookmark where I left off…. Simply taking all of the content of what would have been a print issue and putting it online with links from a Table of Contents is all well and good in theory, but I have to ask, how many people actually sit and read all of the contents of an online journal that publishes several authors/genres per issue (Geyer, 2010)?

Her question is a good one, and one which most magazines have already asked themselves. In light of this dilemma, magazines with online editions have sought ways to attract readers who may not, in fact, read much. Most websites also include online-only content such as blogs, podcasts, and daily news updates that, naturally, are not available in print form. The additional features on magazines’ websites likely stem from a need to attract audiences with shorter attention spans and less time to devote to reading entire articles.

Another way that magazines court online readers is by offering back-issue content. Readers can browse old articles without having to remember in which issue the content first appeared. The cost for this varies from publication to publication. For example, CooksIllustrated.com reprints recipes from previous issues as part of a paid online membership service, while CookingLight.com offers back issues for free. Some magazines have online archive collections, though those collections generally do not print entire articles or complete issues. Time, for example, offers “hand-picked covers and excerpts from the best articles on a wide variety of subjects (Time).” Time suggests that one should “use them as chronological guides to Time’s past coverage of a person, event, or topic (Time).” Still, even without the entire collection online, there is a distinct benefit of being able to search back for articles from 1923 from a computer.

Is Print Dead?

The question Is print dead? has dominated the magazine and newspaper industries for several years. In 2008, The New York Times printed an article titled “Mourning Old Media’s Decline,” in which author David Carr describes multiple announcements of job loss in the print industry. Thousands of individuals working at magazines and newspapers faced layoffs because of reduced subscriber and advertiser demand. “Clearly the sky is falling,” he writes, “The question now is how many people will be left to cover it (Carr, 2008).” At the same time, Carr articulates the shift in readership from print to web, saying, “The paradox of all these announcements is that newspapers and magazines do not have an audience problem—newspaper Web sites are a vital source of news, and growing—but they do have a consumer problem (Carr, 2008).” With a majority of magazines and newspapers now available for free online, one has to wonder how the industry will stay afloat. Although advertisements pay for a portion of the cost of running a magazine, it may not be enough.

The debate over whether print is still viable is a heated one that is infiltrating the magazine industry. At a 2006 magazine editorial meeting, Glamour’s editor in chief, Cindi Leive, claimed that she “loves this question…. Is print dead? Discuss (Benkoil & Stableford, 2006)!” The editor in chief of More magazine responded to the statement saying, “It’s what we talk about all day long (Benkoil & Stableford, 2006).” But for as many people who are fighting for the print industry to remain profitable, there is an equally vocal group arguing for the elimination of the print medium altogether. In a 2005 published debate on the topic, former print editor-turned-blogger Jeff Jarvis squared off against John Griffin, president of the National Geographic Society’s magazine group. Jarvis claimed, “Print is not dead. Print is where words go to die.” But Griffin countered, “Actually print is where words go to live—we’re still reading the ancient Greeks (Jarvis & Griffin, 2005).”

Regardless of your position, the fact that the print industry is facing hardships is unquestionable. Magazines are rethinking their marketing strategies to remain viable in an increasingly online world. But many are hopeful that journals will find a way to publish both in print and on the Internet. After all, “There’s something special and unique, even luxurious about reading a big, glossy magazine…. Or, in the words of Marie Claire editor Joanna Coles, ‘As long as people take baths, there will always be a monthly magazine (Benkoil & Stableford).’”Benkoil and Stableford, “Is Print Dead? Discuss!”

Key Takeaways

  • Print journals are adapting to an increasingly online market by offering web-only features such as blogs, podcasts, and daily news updates. Regularly updating websites may help publications remain relevant as more readers turn to the Internet to receive information.
  • As more magazines archive back issues on their websites, readers benefit by being able to search for old articles and, sometimes, entire editions. Many back issues are offered for free, but some publications require a subscription fee for this perk.


Explore the website of one of your favorite magazines. Consider how the site maintains the look and feel of its print edition, and how the site distinguishes itself from its original print version. Then, answer the following writing prompts.

  1. Has it successfully adapted to the online market? Why or why not?
  2. Does the website offer an archive of back issues? If so, describe the archive’s features and identify its pros and cons.

End-of-Chapter Assessment

Review Questions

  1. Section 1

    1. What medium “came to occupy the large middle groups…between the book and the newspaper (Encyclopaedia Britannica)”?
    2. How did magazines first evolve and diffuse?
    3. How and why did early magazines target women?
    4. What was the first truly successful U.S. mass magazine?
    5. Name one early successful newsmagazine and one successful picture magazine.
  2. Section 2

    1. How did the advent of nationwide magazine circulation affect American culture?
    2. Describe the controversy surrounding early pulp magazines.
  3. Section 3

    1. What are the three highest circulating magazines in the United States today?
    2. What are some long-running, influential women’s magazines?
    3. Why did feminists speak out against the 1960s transformation of Cosmopolitan magazine?
  4. Section 4

    1. How does format play a role in the way stories are presented?
    2. Why do advertisers attempt to control which stories are published and how they are presented?
  5. Section 5

    1. List four specializations in the magazine industry.
    2. How do advertisers benefit from specialization?
  6. Section 6

    1. Explain PC Magazine’s move to an online-only market.
    2. How do print magazines remain relevant in an increasingly online world?
    3. What role do advertisers play in the way the Internet is affecting the magazine industry?

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. What major contributions did The Saturday Evening Post offer to the magazine industry?
  2. How did pulp magazines move the U.S. journalism industry forward? Are there any modern examples of publications that are doing the same?
  3. Describe the differences among current celebrity magazines. How might so many journals of similar style and repute remain competitive in today’s declining market?
  4. What is an editorial slant and how does it play a role in industry control?
  5. Describe what brought about the need for niche magazines and discuss how niche magazines stay afloat despite smaller audiences.
  6. Discuss the debate over the question Is print dead? Explain both sides of the argument.

Career Connection

Specialization in the magazine industry has provided magazines and advertisers the ability to seek out target audiences, bettering a publication’s chances of remaining competitive in a declining market. Choose a specialization that interests you. Select two magazines where you might like to work within that specialization. Look through the website for each magazine, looking specifically at job opportunities and staff positions. Use the information you find to answer the following questions.

  1. What entry-level positions are available at each magazine?
  2. How might one move up within the company?
  3. What is the company’s mission statement and how might you use that information to better prepare yourself for a job in the industry?
  4. What tools might you need to acquire before applying for a position?
  5. What surprised you in your research?


Benkoil and Stableford, “Is Print Dead? Discuss!”

Benkoil, Dorian and Dylan Stableford, “Is Print Dead? Discuss!” Mediabistro.com, November 17, 2006, http://www.mediabistro.com/articles/cache/a9077.asp.

Carr, David. “Mourning Old Media’s Decline,” New York Times, October 28, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/29/business/media/29carr.html.

Clifford, Stephanie. “PC Magazine, a Flagship for Ziff Davis, Will Cease Printing a Paper Version,” New York Times, November 19, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/20/business/media/20mag.html.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “History of Publishing,” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/482597/publishing/28679/Magazine-publishing.

Geyer, Bernadette “Online vs. Print Journal Models,” Bernadette Geyer: Livin’ the Literary Life in the Exiles of Suburbia (blog), March 9, 2010, http://bernadettegeyer.blogspot.com/2010/03/online-vs-print-journal-models.html.

Jarvis, Jeff. and John Griffin, “Is Print Doomed?” Fast Company, December 1, 2005, http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/101/open-debate-extra.html.

Salon, “Salon Fact Sheet,” http://www.salon.com/press/fact/.

Slate, “About Us: Everything you need to know about Slate,” http://www.slate.com/id/2147070/.

Time, “Time Magazine Archives,” http://www.time.com/time/archive/.

Ulanoff, Lance. “PC Magazine Goes 100% Digital,” (2008), PC Magazine, http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2335009,00.asp.

Villarreal, Phil. “Print Edition of TV Guide Tells Me to Go Online to Read Most of Cover Story,” Consumerist (blog), March 30, 2010, http://consumerist.com/2010/03/print-edition-of-tv-guide-tells-me-to-go-online-to-read-most-of-cover-story.html.

Chapter 6: Music


6.1 Music
6.2 The Evolution of Popular Music
6.3 The Reciprocal Nature of Music and Culture
6.4 Current Popular Trends in the Music Industry
6.5 Influence of New Technology

6.1 Music


From Social Networking to Stardom

Figure 6.1


Justin Higuchi – Colbie Caillat 9/27/2013 #7 – CC BY 2.0.

In 2006, Californian vocalist Colbie Caillat was an aspiring singer-songwriter. Although her audio engineer father, Ken Caillat, coproduced one of the biggest selling albums of all time, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Colbie had never considered booking a studio, much less campaigning for a record deal. She considered her music to be a hobby rather than a career choice (Waco Tribune-Herald, 2010). Fast-forward a year later and Caillat’s debut album, Coco, was at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 album chart, on its way to achieving platinum status. How did an unknown artist from Malibu, California, become a best-selling star in so little time? Caillat’s success can be attributed, in part, to the social networking website MySpace.

Hugely popular among teens and young adults in the mid-2000s, MySpace enables people to set up a personal profile on which they can post original music for the public to listen to and comment on. One of Caillat’s friends thought that her music merited a wider audience and set up a page on which Caillat could post her tunes. Six months later, Caillat was the MySpace website’s top unsigned artist (Colbie Caillat). The site enables people to “friend” artists or performers whose music they enjoy. As Caillat’s friend count climbed to 100,000, music labels began to notice. In 2007, she signed with Universal Records and released her debut album, Coco. Boosted by the online success of the single “Bubbly,” Coco reached No. 5 on the Billboard chart and established Caillat as a bona fide pop star. She has since won a Grammy award for “Lucky,” her duet with Jason Mraz, toured with artists such as the Goo Goo Dolls and John Mayer, and in 2009, released a second successful album, Breakthrough. The combined sales of Caillat’s first two albums are upward of 4 million copies worldwide.

Caillat’s story highlights one area in which the Internet is changing the face of the music industry. Aspiring artists no longer need to rely on expensive publicists, recording studios, or contacts within the industry; they can connect directly with fans to sell their music. Social networking sites, like MySpace, and virtual worlds, like Second Life, make it easier for fans to search for new music and easier for artists to communicate with fans. In fact, MySpace has been so influential that it teamed with several major labels to create the MySpace music website. Generating a buzz on social networking sites is sometimes enough to achieve fame and stardom. Of course, for every Colbie Caillat, there are thousands of unknown singers and bands trying to promote their music online with little or no success. Despite this, it’s clear that social networking sites have taken some control away from record labels and placed it in the hands of the artists themselves.

Artists are also using social networking sites to develop a more intimate relationship with fans. In the past couple of years, the Twitter social networking website has become hugely popular among musicians and fans alike. The microblogging service enables users to send a tweet message—a short post of 140 characters or less that is displayed on the author’s profile page and delivered to his or her subscribers. Musicians such as John Mayer, Alicia Keys, Britney Spears, and Lily Allen regularly post on Twitter, providing their fans with real-time updates about their daily lives and promoting their musical endeavors.

Social networking sites are just the latest technological development in the music business. An in-depth look at the history and evolution of popular music throughout the last century will help explain some of the current processes and trends in the industry.


Colbie Caillat, ColbieCaillat.com, http://www.colbiecaillat.com/colbie.

Waco Tribune-Herald, “Colbie Caillat Turns Hobby into Billboard Success, Will Perform at Baylor’s Diadeloso,” Waco Tribune-Herald, April 15, 2010, http://www.wacotrib.com/accesswaco/arts/Colbie-Caillat-turns-hobby-into-Billboard-success-will-perform-at-Baylors-Diadeloso.html.

6.3 The Reciprocal Nature of Music and Culture


Learning Objective

  1. Identify ways in which culture and music have influenced each other.

The tightknit relationship between music and culture is almost impossible to overstate. For example, policies on immigration, war, and the legal system can influence artists and the type of music they create and distribute. Music may then influence cultural perceptions about race, morality, and gender that can, in turn, influence the way people feel about those policies.

Cultural Influences on Music

The evolution of popular music in the United States in the 20th century was shaped by a myriad of cultural influences. Rapidly shifting demographics brought previously independent cultures into contact and also created new cultures and subcultures, and music evolved to reflect these changes. Among the most important cultural influences on music are migration, the evolution of youth culture, and racial integration.


One of the major cultural influences on the popular music industry over the past century is migration. In 1910, 89 percent of Black Americans still lived in the South, most of them in rural farming areas (Weingroff, 2011). Three years later, a series of disastrous events devastated the cotton industry. World cotton prices plummeted, a boll weevil beetle infestation destroyed large areas of crops, and in 1915, flooding destroyed many of the houses and crops of farmers along the Mississippi River. Already suffering from the restrictive “Jim Crow” laws that segregated schools, restaurants, hotels, and hospitals, Black sharecroppers began to look to the North for a more prosperous lifestyle. Northern states were enjoying an economic boom as a result of an increased demand for industrial goods because of the war in Europe. They were also in need of labor because the war had slowed the rate of foreign immigration to Northern cities. Between 1915 and 1920, as many as 1 million Black individuals moved to Northern cities in search of jobs, closely followed by another million throughout the following decade (Nebraska Studies, 2010). The mass exodus of Black farmers from the South became known as the Great Migration, and by 1960, 75 percent of all Black Americans lived in cities (Emerging Minds, 2005). The Great Migration had a huge impact on political, economic, and cultural life in the North, and popular music reflected this cultural change.

Figure 6.13


During the Great Migration, the 12 states in blue had the largest population growth of Black individuals, while the states in red had the 10 largest net losses (Martin).

Some of the Black individuals who moved to Northern cities came from the Mississippi Delta, home of the blues. The most popular destination was Chicago. Delta-born pianist Eddie Boyd later told Living Blues magazine, “I thought of coming to Chicago where I could get away from some of that racism and where I would have an opportunity to, well, do something with my talent…. It wasn’t peaches and cream, man, but it was a hell of a lot better than down there where I was born (Szatmary).” At first, the migrants brought their style of country blues to the city. Characterized by the guitar and the harmonica, the Delta blues was identified by its rhythmic structure and strong vocals. Migrant musicians were heavily influenced by Delta blues musicians such as Charley Patton and legendary guitarist Robert Johnson. However, as the urban setting began to influence the migrants’ style, they started to record a hybrid of blues, vaudeville, and swing, including the boogie-woogie and rolling-bass piano. Mississippi-born guitarist Muddy Waters, who moved to Chicago in the early 1940s, revolutionized the blues by combining his Delta roots with an electric guitar and amplifier. He did so partly out of necessity, since he could barely make himself heard in crowded Chicago clubs with an acoustic guitar (Chicago Blues Guitar). Waters’s style was peppier and more buoyant than the sullen country blues. His plugged-in electric blues became the hallmark of the Chicago blues style, influencing countless other musicians and creating the underpinnings of rock and roll. Other migrant bluesmen helped to create regional variations of the blues all around the country, including John Lee Hooker in Detroit, Michigan, and T-Bone Walker in Los Angeles, California.

Youth Culture

Prior to 1945, most music was created with adults in mind, and teenage musical tastes were barely a consideration. Young adults had few freedoms—most males were expected to join the military or get a job to support their fledgling families, while most females were expected to marry young and have children. Few young adults attended college, and personal freedom was limited. Following World War II, this situation changed drastically. A booming economy helped create an American middle class, which created an opening for a youth consumer culture. Unsavory memories of the war discouraged some parents from forcing their children into the military, and many emphasized enjoying life and having a good time. As a result, teenagers found they had a lot more freedom. This new liberalized culture allowed teenagers to make decisions for themselves, and, for the first time, many had the financial means to do so. Whereas many adults enjoyed the traditional sounds of Tin Pan Alley, teens were beginning to listen to rhythm and blues songs played by radio disc jockeys such as Alan Freed. Increased racial integration within the younger generation made them more accepting of Black musicians and their music, which was considered “cool,” and provided a welcome escape from the daunting political and social tension caused by Cold War anxieties. The wide availability of radios, juke boxes, and 45 rpm records exposed this new style of rock and roll music to a broad teenage audience.

Figure 6.14


The popularity of American Bandstand made host Dick Clark an influential tastemaker in pop music.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

Once teenagers had the buying power to influence record sales, record companies began to notice. Between 1950 and 1959, record sales in the United States skyrocketed from $189 million to nearly $600 million (Szatmary). The 45 rpm vinyl records that were introduced in the late 1940s were an affordable option for teens with allowances. Dick Clark, a radio presenter in Philadelphia, soon tuned in to the new teenage tastes. Sensing an opportunity to tap in to a potentially lucrative market, he acquired enough advertising support to turn local hit music telecast Bandstand into a national television phenomenon.

Figure 6.15


Teen heartthrob Fabian was molded to fit teenage musical tastes in order to maximize record sales.

Otto Caldwell – Fabian Forte – CC BY-NC 2.0.

The result was the launch of American Bandstand in 1957, a music TV show that featured a group of teenagers dancing to current hit records. The show’s popularity prompted record producers to create a legion of rock and roll acts specifically designed to appeal to a teenage audience, including Fabian and Frankie Avalon (Grimes, 2011). During its almost 40-year run, American Bandstand was a prominent influence on teenage fashions and musical tastes and, in turn, reflected the contemporary youth culture.

Racial Integration

Following the Great Migration, racial tensions increased in Northern cities. Whereas many Northerners had previously been unconcerned with the issue of race relations in the South, they found themselves confronted with the very real issue of having to compete for jobs with Black migrant workers. Black workers found themselves pushed into undesirable neighborhoods, often living in crowded, unsanitary slums where they were charged exorbitant rates by unscrupulous landlords. During the 1940s, racial tensions boiled over into race riots, most notably in Detroit. The city’s 1943 riot caused the deaths of 34 people, 25 of whom were Black (Gilcrest, 1993).

Frustrated with inequalities in the legal system that distinguished Black and White individuals, members of the civil rights movement pushed for racial equality. In 1948, an executive order granted by President Harry Truman integrated the military. The move toward equality gained further momentum in 1954, with the U.S. Supreme Court decision to end segregation in public schools in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. The civil rights movement escalated throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, aided by highly publicized events such as Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a White passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. In 1964, Congress passed the most sweeping civil rights legislation since the Civil War, forbidding discrimination in public places and authorizing financial aid to enable school desegregation.

Although racist attitudes did not change overnight, the cultural changes brought on by the civil rights movement laid the groundwork for the creation of an integrated society. The Motown sound developed by Berry Gordy Jr. in the 1960s both reflected and furthered this change. Gordy believed that by coaching talented but unpolished Black artists, he could make them acceptable to mainstream culture. He hired a professional to head an in-house finishing school, teaching his acts how to move gracefully, speak politely, and use proper posture (Michigan Rock and Roll Legends). Gordy’s commercial success with gospel-based pop acts such as the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, and Martha and the Vandellas reflected the extent of racial integration in the mainstream music industry. Gordy’s most successful act, the Supremes, achieved 12 No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Figure 6.16


The commercial success of Motown girl group the Supremes reflected changing attitudes toward race in the United States.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

Musical Influences on Culture

Even though pop music is frequently characterized as a negative influence on society, particularly with respect to youth culture, it also has positive effects on culture. Many artists in the 1950s and 1960s pushed the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior with sexually charged movements and androgynous appearances. Without these precedents, acts like the Rolling Stones or David Bowie may have never made the transition into mainstream success.

On the other hand, over the past 50 years, critics have blamed rock and roll for juvenile delinquency, heavy metal for increased teenage aggression, and gangsta rap for a rise in gang warfare among young urban males. One recent study claimed that youths who listen to music with sexually explicit lyrics were more likely to have sex at an early age, stating that exposure to lots of sexually degrading music gives teens “a specific message about sex (MSNBC, 2006).” In addition to its effects on youth culture, popular music has contributed to shifting cultural values regarding race, morality, and gender.


As the music of Chuck Berry and Little Richard gained popularity among White teens in the United States during the 1950s, most of the new rock acts were signed to independent labels, and larger companies such as RCA were losing their share of the market.

To capitalize on the public’s enthusiasm for rock and roll and to prevent the loss of further potential profits, big record companies signed White artists to cover the songs of Black artists. The songs were often censored for the mainstream market by the removal of any lyrics that referenced sex, alcohol, or drugs. Pat Boone was the most successful cover artist of the era, releasing songs originally sung by artists such as Fats Domino, the El Dorados, Little Richard, and Big Joe Turner. Releasing a cover of a Black performer’s song by a White performer was known as hijacking a hit, and this practice usually left black artists signed to independent labels broke. Because large companies such as RCA could widely promote and distribute their records—six of Boone’s recordings reached the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart—their records frequently outsold the original versions. Many White artists and producers would also take writing credit for the songs they covered and would buy the rights to songs from Black writers without giving them royalties or songwriting credit. This practice fueled racism within the music industry. Independent record producer Danny Kessler of Okeh Records said, “The odds for a black record to crack through were slim. If the black record began to happen, the chances were that a white artist would cover—and the big stations would play the white records…. There was a color line, and it wasn’t easy to cross (Szatmary).”

Although cover artists profited from the work of Black R&B singers, occasionally they also helped to promote the original recordings. Many teenagers who heard covers on mainstream radio stations sought out the original artists’ versions, increasing sales and prompting Little Richard to refer to Pat Boone as “the man who made me a millionaire (Crane, 2005).” Benefiting from covers also worked both ways. In 1962, soul singer Ray Charles covered Don Gibson’s hit “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” which became a hit on country and western charts and furthered mainstream acceptance of Black musicians. Other Black artists to cover hits by White performers included Otis Redding, who performed the Rolling Stones hit “Satisfaction,” and Jimi Hendrix, who covered Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

Hijacking Hits

Releasing cover versions of hit songs was fairly standard practice before the 1950s because it was advantageous for songwriters and producers to have as many artists as possible sing their records to maximize royalties. Several versions of the same song often appeared in the music charts at the same time. However, the practice acquired racial connotations during the 1950s when larger music labels hijacked R&B hits, using their financial strength to promote the cover version at the expense of the original recording, which often exploited Black talent. As a result, many 1950s R&B artists lost out on royalties.

Two contemporary Black performers who were victims of this practice were R&B singer LaVern Baker and blues singer Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Baker, who was signed with then small-time label Atlantic Records, had been promoted as a pop singer. Because her songs appealed to mainstream audiences, they were ideal for covering, and industry giant Mercury Records took full advantage of this. When Baker released her 1955 hit “Tweedle Dee,” Mercury immediately put out its own version, a note-for-note cover sung by White pop singer Georgia Gibbs. Atlantic could not match Mercury’s marketing budget, and Gibbs’s version outsold Baker’s recording, causing her to lose an estimated $15,000 in royalties (Parales, 1997).

Around the same time, Arthur Crudup was producing hits such as “So Glad You’re Mine,” “Who’s Been Foolin’ You,” “That’s All Right Mama,” and “My Baby Left Me,” which were subsequently released by performers such as Elvis Presley, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Rod Stewart for huge financial gain, Crudup’s songs made everybody rich—except him. This realization caused him to quit playing altogether in the late 1950s. A later attempt to collect back royalties was unsuccessful (Stanton, 1998). Baker filed a lawsuit in an attempt to revise the Copyright Act of 1909, making it illegal to copy an arrangement verbatim without permission. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, and Gibbs continued to cover Baker’s songs (Dahl).


When Elvis Presley burst onto the rock and roll scene in the mid-1950s, many conservative parents of teenagers all over the United States were horrified. With his gyrating hips and sexually suggestive body movements, Presley was viewed as a threat to the moral well-being of young women. Television critics denounced his performances as vulgar, and on a 1956 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, cameras filmed him only from the waist up. One critic for the New York Daily News wrote that popular music “has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley (Collins, 2002).” Despite the critics’ opinions, Presley immediately gained a fan base among teenage audiences, particularly adolescent girls, who frequently broke into hysterics at his concerts. Rather than tone down his act, Presley defended his movements as manifestations of the music’s rhythm and beat and continued to gyrate on stage. Liberated from the constraints imposed by morality watchdogs, Presley set a precedent for future rock and roll performers and marked a major transition in popular culture.

In addition to decrying raunchy onstage performances by rock and roll artists, moralists in the conservative Eisenhower era objected to the sexually suggestive lyrics found in original rock and roll songs. Big Joe Turner’s version of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” used sexual phrases and referred to the bedroom, while Little Richard’s original version of “Tutti Frutti” contained the phrase “tutti frutti, loose booty (Hall & Hall, 2006).” Although many of these lyrics were sanitized for mainstream White audiences when they were rereleased as cover versions, the idea that rock and roll was a threat to morality had been firmly implanted in many people’s minds.

Ironically, many of the controversial key figures in the rock and roll era came from extremely religious backgrounds. Presley was a member of the evangelical First Assembly of God Church, where he acquired his love of gospel music (History Of Rock). Similarly, Ray Charles soaked up gospel influences from his local Baptist church (Walk Of Fame). Jerry Lee Lewis came from a strict Christian background and often struggled to reconcile his religious beliefs with the moral implications of the music he created. During a recording session in 1957, Lewis argued with manager Sam Phillips that the hit song “Great Balls of Fire” was too “sinful” for him to record (History, 1957). The religious backgrounds of the rock and roll pioneers both influenced and challenged moral norms. When Ray Charles recorded “I Got a Woman” in 1955, he reworded the gospel tune “Jesus Is All the World to Me,” drawing criticism that the song was sacrilegious. Despite the objections, Charles’s style caught on with other musicians, and his experimentation with merging gospel and R&B resulted in the birth of soul music.


While Presley was revolutionizing people’s notions of sexual freedom and expression, other performers were changing cultural norms regarding gender identity. Dressed in flamboyant clothing with a pompadour hairstyle and makeup, Little Richard was an exotic, androgynous performer who blurred traditional gender boundaries and shocked 1950s audiences with his blatant campiness. Between his wild onstage antics, bisexual tendencies, and love of post-concert orgies, the self-proclaimed “King and Queen of Rock and Roll” challenged many social conventions of the time (Buckley, 2003). Little Richard’s flamboyant, gender-bending appearance was so outrageous that it was not taken seriously during the 1950s—he was considered an entertainer whose androgynous look bore no relevance to the real world. However, Richard paved the way for future entertainers to shift cultural perceptions of gender. Later musicians such as David Bowie, Prince, and Boy George adopted his outrageous style, frequently appearing on stage wearing glittery costumes and heavy makeup. The popularity of these 1970s and 1980s pop idols, along with other gender-bending performers such as Annie Lennox and Michael Jackson, helped make androgyny more acceptable in mainstream society.

Figure 6.17

6.3 collage 0

Gender-bending performers such as Little Richard, David Bowie, Boy George, and Prince helped to change social attitudes toward androgyny.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain; Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0; Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 4.0; Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 2.0.

Key Takeaways

  • The relationship between music and culture is reciprocal. Cultural influences on music include factors such as migration, youth culture, and racial integration. Musical influences on culture include factors such as racism within the music industry, content of particular genres of music that push conventional ideas of morality, and the physical appearance of individual performers.
  • The mass migration of Southern Black individuals to urban areas during the early 20th century brought the blues to the North. Influenced by their new urban setting, migrant musicians incorporated new styles, including vaudeville and swing, into their music. Muddy Waters began playing electric guitar to make himself heard in the Chicago clubs and inadvertently created a new style known as Chicago blues.
  • Young people in the 1950s had increased financial and personal freedom, giving them the power to influence record sales. Record companies began marketing rock and roll records specifically to teens, and the popularity of the new genre was enhanced by radio airplay and TV shows such as American Bandstand.
  • The civil rights movement helped bring about desegregation in the 1950s. Although racial tensions persisted and race riots occurred in several Northern cities, racial integration gradually took place. The move toward integration was furthered and reflected by the Motown sound created by Berry Gordy Jr. Motown had crossover appeal among Black and White audiences, illustrated by the mainstream success of groups such as the Supremes.
  • Large record companies fueled racism in the music industry by hijacking the hits of Black performers and releasing censored cover versions by White artists. The practice cost Black artists royalties. Although many performers were angered by the trend, some believed it helped popularize their original recordings.
  • Rock and roll music was denounced for its negative impact on morality. Elvis Presley’s “vulgar” onstage gyrations outraged critics in the conservative Eisenhower era. Sexually suggestive song lyrics were also held responsible by many for a decline in moral values, although they were often censored cover versions.
  • Gender-bending performers such as Little Richard, David Bowie, and Annie Lennox helped normalize androgyny in American culture.


Choose a genre of popular music from the last century. Using the ideas in this section as a starting point, examine ways in which your chosen genre has influenced aspects of culture and ways in which cultural aspects have affected the genre’s development.

  • Which factors have played the biggest roles? Are they interrelated?


Buckley, Peter. The Rough Guide to Rock (Rough Guides, 2003), 603–604.

Chicago Blues Guitar, “Chicago Blues Guitar Story,” ChicagoBluesGuitar.com, http://www.chicagobluesguitar.com.

Collins, Dan. “How Big Was the King?” CBS News, August 7, 2002, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/08/07/entertainment/main517851.shtml.

Crane, Dan. “Cover Me: Introducing the Instant Tribute,” New York Times, March 27, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/27/arts/music/27cran.html.

Dahl, Bill. “LaVern Baker,” allmusic, http://www.allmusic.com/artist/lavern-baker-p3619/biography.

Emerging Minds, “The Great Migration,” Emerging Minds, January 31, 2005, http://emergingminds.org/The-Great-Migration.html.

Gilcrest, Brenda J. “Detroit’s 1943 Race Riot, 50 Years Ago Today, Still Seems Too Near,” Detroit Free Press, June 20, 1993.

Grimes, William. “Bob Marcucci, 81, Backer of Fabian and Frankie Avalon,” New York Times, March 18, 2011, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A01EEDA1E3EF93BA25750C0A9679D8B63.

Hall, Dennis and Susan G. Hall, American Icons: An Encyclopedia of the People, Places, and Things That Have Shaped Our Culture Volume 1 (Greenwood, 2006), 134.

History Of Rock, “Elvis Presley,” History-of-rock.com, http://www.history-of-rock.com/elvis_presley.htm.

History, “Jerry Lee Lewis Records ‘Great Balls of Fire’ in Memphis, Tennessee,” History.com: This Day in History: October 8, 1957, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/jerry-lee-lewis-records-quotgreat-balls-of-firequot-in-memphis-tennessee.

Martin, Elizabeth Anne. “Detroit and the Great Migration, 1916–1929,” Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, http://bentley.umich.edu/research/publications/migration/ch1.php.

Michigan Rock and Roll Legends, “Berry Gordy Jr.,” Michigan Rock and Roll Legends,” http://www.michiganrockandrolllegends.com/Default.aspx?name=BERRYGORDY.

MSNBC, Associated Press, “Dirty Song Lyrics Can Prompt Early Teen Sex,” MSNBC, August 7, 2006, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14227775/.

Nebraska Studies, “Racial Tensions in Omaha: African American Migration” Nebraskastudies.org, June 25, 2010, http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0700/stories/0701_0131.html.

Parales, Jon. “LaVern Baker is Dead at 67; A Rhythm-and-Blues Veteran,” New York Times, March 12, 1997, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/12/arts/lavern-baker-is-dead-at-67-a-rhythm-and-blues-veteran.html.

Stanton, Scott. The Tombstone Tourist; Musicians (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 67.

Szatmary, Rockin’ in Time, 26.

Szatmary, Rockin’ in Time, 4.

Szatmary, Rockin’ in Time, 57.

Walk Of Fame, “Ray Charles,” Hollywood Walk of Fame, http://www.walkoffame.com/ray-charles.

Weingroff, Richard. “Highway History: The Road to Civil Rights: The Black Migration,” U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, April 7, 2011, http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/highwayhistory/road/s10.cfm.

6.5 Influence of New Technology


Learning Objectives

  1. Determine the difference between illegal file sharing and legitimate digital downloads.
  2. Identify ways in which digital music sales have influenced the music industry.
  3. Identify ways in which the Internet has enabled artists to sell music directly to fans.

In the mid-1990s, CD sales were booming. Cassette tapes were all but obsolete, and record companies were reaping the benefits of sales to consumers who wanted their music collections in the latest technological format. This boom was a familiar step in the evolution of technology. In past decades, records seemed to have an ironclad lock on sales, but they were eventually passed by cassette sales. Cassettes, as previously mentioned, were then passed by CD sales. However, despite a few advantages in quality and convenience, there were several areas in which CDs were lacking. They were expensive for consumers to purchase, and consumers had to buy a full album even if they were only interested in listening to one or two songs on it because every album came as a complete package.

At the height of the CD revolution, new digital technology was being developed that would eliminate these disadvantages and revolutionize digital music storage. In 1989, German company Fraunhofer-Gesellshaft discovered how to compress digital audio to approximately one-tenth the size of the original audio with almost no discernible loss in quality to the average listener. Small enough to be transmitted over a modem, the so-called MP3 files (the MP stands for Moving Pictures Experts Group, which is the group that sets the standard for audio and video compression and transmission, and the 3 refers to the most popular layer or scheme with the standard) could be downloaded onto a website or FTP site in a relatively short amount of time. Initially done only by a tech-savvy elite, the process of downloading and sharing audio files was a painstaking process because MP3 files were not in one centralized location. Peer-to-peer file sharing—the process in which two or more computer systems are connected over the Internet for the purpose of sharing music or video files—became a worldwide phenomenon in 1999 with the development of centralized online file-sharing system Napster.

File Sharing: From Illegal Downloading to Digital Music Stores

In 1999, Northeastern University student Shawn Fanning dropped out of school to complete work on a software project that would simplify finding and downloading MP3 files on the Internet (Doyle, 2000). The result was a free downloadable Napster program that transformed PCs into servers for exchanging music files over the Internet. The program also sported a chat-room feature that served a community of music fans eager to discuss their favorite bands. Originally an experiment between Fanning and his friends, the program’s popularity spread through word of mouth. By the end of the first week, 15,000 people had downloaded the program (Riedel, 2006).

Although music fans were thrilled by their newfound ability to download free songs (albeit illegally), the record industry was not happy. In December 1999, all four major record labels, together with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), launched a series of lawsuits against Fanning and his site for copyright infringement. Citing the nonpayment of royalties and the loss of revenue through lost CD sales, the RIAA also claimed that artists would be unwilling to create new songs now that they could be obtained for free. In response, Napster argued that it merely provided the software for people to share music files and no copyrighted material appeared on the site itself. In addition, Fanning claimed that the site encouraged people to go out and buy CDs based on the exposure artists received from Napster (Riedel, 2006).

As the number of the Napster program users grew, the lawsuit began to garner publicity. Some Napster supporters, many of them college students, viewed the legal battle as a David versus Goliath situation and rooted for Fanning to beat the corporate music giants. Most recording artists sided with the record labels, with heavy metal rock group Metallica and rap artist Dr. Dre launching their own separate lawsuits against Napster in April 2000. However, some bands discovered a way to use the site to their advantage. Alternative rock group Radiohead promoted its album Kid A by secretly releasing the record to Napster 3 weeks before its street release date, creating a wave of publicity that launched the album to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart in October 2000 (Menta, 2000). Reggae-rock band Dispatch poured free recordings onto the site, increasing its fan base to such an extent that it sold out multiple nights at Madison Square Garden in early 2007 (Knopper, 2009). Dispatch bassist Pete Heimbold said, “What we found was it really didn’t deter kids from coming to shows and buying CDs. In fact, I think it had the opposite effect—people heard songs off Napster and had a lot of merchandise and CDs (Knopper, 2009).”

Despite the Napster program’s many advantages, including a built-in user base of 26.4 million people, the major record labels were unable to reach a deal with the site to create any form of fee-based service. In 2007, former EMI Executive Ted Cohen said, “The record labels had an opportunity to create a digital ecosystem and infrastructure to sell music online, but they kept looking at the small picture instead of the big one. They wouldn’t let go of CDs (Mnookin, 2007).” A court injunction in 2000 ordered Napster to remove all copyrighted material from its servers, and within two days the website was effectively shut down. Following a bankruptcy liquidation, the Napster program was reinvented as a paid subscription service in 2003. Under its new terms, users pay a fee to access music.

The Post-Napster Universe: Gnutella and Kazaa

Napster’s initial success resulted in a wave of similar sites emerging throughout 2000. The creators of these new services recognized that Napster’s legal problems were the result of maintaining a central file server. By keeping a list of all the users on the network, Napster was able to control its users’ activities by blocking illegal downloads. When the court ordered the service to halt illegal downloading, the absence of a central database destroyed the entire Napster network.

To avoid a similar fate, new peer-to-peer (P2P) systems adopted two different approaches. The Gnutella network, which serves clients such as LimeWire, BearShare, and WinMX, avoided maintaining a central database. Instead, it dispersed information about file locations across computer “nodes” around the world. Users were able to find each other, but the service could disclaim the ability to prevent copyright infringements. The lack of a centralized server and multiple client base meant that, unlike Napster, it would be impossible to shut down the entire Gnutella network through a simple court order. Courts would need to block all Gnutella network traffic at the Internet service provider (ISP) level of the Internet, a far trickier prospect than simply shutting down a central database.

In addition to a lack of a central database, some P2P providers set up in offshore locations to take advantage of less-restrictive copyright laws and weaker enforcement. Kazaa was initially based in the Pacific island nation of Vanuata and operated out of Australia. However, the company’s offshore location did not protect it from copyright infringement laws. After a series of legal wrangles, Kazaa was ordered to modify its software in Australia in 2005 and agreed to pay $100 million in damages to the record industry. In 2006, the site became a legal music download service (BBC News, 2006).

Not content with pursuing providers of illegal music downloads, the RIAA also took legal action against the users of sites such as LimeWire and Kazaa. In 2003, the recording industry sued 261 American music fans for illegally sharing songs on P2P networks (Kravets, 2008). Although fines under U.S. copyright law can rise to up to $150,000 per illegally downloaded track, most of the cases were settled for much less. As of 2008, the RIAA had sued or threatened to sue more than 30,000 individuals for copyright infringement (Kravets, 2008).

Busted! Woman Fined $1.92 Million

In an ongoing legal battle with the RIAA, Minnesota woman Jammie Thomas was found guilty of copyright infringement for a second time in 2009 and fined $1.92 million for illegally downloading 24 songs on file-sharing Kazaa website. First fined $222,000 for using the Kazaa service, the 30-year-old single mother of four refused to settle with the recording industry out of court. Thomas claimed her innocence, maintaining that she was not the Kazaa service user whose files had been detected by RIAA investigators (Kravets, 2008).

The case became the first of its kind to go before a jury in 2007, and Thomas faced fines ranging from $18,000 to $3.6 million under the Copyright Act of 1976. After deliberating for 5 hours, a jury found her guilty of copyright infringement and awarded the RIAA $222,000 in damages. The verdict was thrown out a year later when a federal judge declared a mistrial. However, jurors in Thomas’s second trial found her guilty again, upping the fine to $1.92 million. A federal judge later reduced the damages to $50,000. In January 2010, the RIAA offered to close the case for $25,000, but Thomas continued to refuse to pay (Kravets, 2010).

Thomas’s case has provoked strong reactions on both sides of the debate. RIAA spokeswoman Cara Duckwork said, “It is a shame that Ms. Thomas-Rasset continues to deny any responsibility for her actions rather than accept a reasonable settlement offer and put this case behind her (Kravets, 2010).” Joe Sibley, one of Thomas’s lawyers, argued, “They want to use this case as a bogeyman to scare people into doing what they want, to pay exorbitant damages (Kravets, 2010).” The RIAA is currently winding down its 6-year campaign against illegal downloaders, approximately 30,000 lawsuits in all. Instead the RIAA is focusing on creating a program with Internet providers to discontinue service to users who continue to break online copyright laws (Kravets, 2010).

The Advent of Digital Music Stores

With the closure of the Napster program and the crackdown on illegal downloading, a void in the music distribution market opened and was almost immediately filled by fee-based online music providers. This void helped to resurrect one company many feared was declining. Apple launched iTunes—a free application for the Mac computer that converted audio CDs into digital music files, organized digital music collections, and played Internet radio—and the iPod—a portable media player compatible with the iTunes software—in 2001, and both products have dominated the market ever since. In 2003, the company signed deals with all of the major record labels and launched the iTunes Store, a virtual store that enabled people to buy and download digital music on demand. Initially featuring 200,000 songs at a cost of $0.99 each to download, the store quickly revolutionized the digital music industry. Within a week, iTunes Store customers purchased 1 million songs (Apple). Six months later, Apple convinced the record labels to expand the service to Microsoft Windows operating system users, and by the following year, the iTunes Store had gone international. Within 5 years of its launch, the iTunes Store was the top music seller in the United States, and in February 2010, Apple celebrated its 10 billionth download (Williams, 2010).

Several companies have attempted to cash in on the success of iTunes, with varying results. In 2007, Internet giant Amazon.com launched the Amazon MP3 digital music download store that initially offered more than 2 million songs priced between $0.89 and $0.99 (Richardson, 2007). Amazon’s major selling point was its lack of digital rights management (DRM) software, which enabled music downloads to be played on any hardware device. In contrast, songs downloaded through the iTunes appliance program could only be played on Apple products. Apple removed these restrictions in 2009 after negotiating an agreement with the major record labels. Despite its efforts to topple Apple from the top spot in the digital music arena, the Amazon MP3 service only commanded 8 percent of the digital music market in 2009, compared with Apple’s 69 percent of the market (NPD Group, 2009). Napster has also stayed in the game by releasing a new design plan in 2009 after being purchased by Best Buy. The plan requires users to pay a fee to access all the music in its catalog. This plan has kept Napster in business; however, the company only had 1 percent to 2 percent of the market share at the beginning of 2010 (Weintraub, 2010). Other online music stores are operated by Wal-Mart, Rhapsody, and Yahoo! Music.

The Impact of Digital Music Technology

Once digital music technology was introduced to the world, its domination of the music industry was almost instantaneous. MP3 players have several key advantages over CD players. They are smaller and more portable, eliminating the necessity of lugging around bulky CD carrying cases. Whereas CDs can only hold a relatively small amount of data, MP3 players are able to compress thousands of songs onto a single device (this lack of packaging and manufacturing has caused disputes between artists and labels over royalties, which will be discussed later on). The lack of moving parts means MP3 players can be taken jogging or cycling without the risk of a song skipping every time the user hits a bumpy patch of road. Users are also no longer obligated to buy entire albums; instead, they can pick and choose their favorite songs from a catalog of online music.

Of the many brands of MP3 player currently available on the market, Apple’s iPod has been the dominant force in the digital music industry since its launch in 2001 (see Figure 6.15). Apple CEO Steve Jobs attributes the success of his product to its simple design. In a 2005 interview he said, “One of the biggest insights we have was that we decided not to try to manage your music library on the iPod, but to manage it in iTunes. Other companies tried to do everything on the device itself and made it so complicated that it was useless (levy, 2006).” The iPod has also reaped the benefits of a successful marketing campaign and constant reinvention of its original format. Customers now have the choice of several different iPod models according to their need for storage space and desire for additional services such as Internet access and video-playing capability.

Figure 6.20


Since its launch in 2001, Apple’s iPod has remained the biggest-selling brand of MP3 player (Nusca, 2009).

Profit Division

One effect that Apple iTunes and other online retailers have had on the music industry is to shake up the way that profits are divided among artists and record labels. Because of the unanticipated boom in digital record sales, recording artists and their publishers were unprepared for the possibility that they might need to renegotiate their contracts to include digital downloads. Many artists discovered to their cost that their contracts predated the digital download era, leaving them open to exploitative royalty rates for digital downloads of songs and ringtones.

The very definition of digital royalties is still under negotiation—should a download be classified as licensed use of an artist’s music (which nets the artist approximately 50 percent of the download fee in royalties), or should it be classified as a retail sale (which nets the artist approximately 12 percent of the download fee in royalties) (Michaels, 2009)? The answer depends on the contractual agreement between artists and record labels. In 2009, rapper Eminem’s publishing company FBT Productions sued Universal Music Group for $1.6 million of unpaid royalties, arguing that the downloads should fall under the “licensing” agreements that cover physical releases such as CDs, rather than the “distribution” agreements put forth by Universal Music Group (Michaels, 2009). A jury agreed that a song sold online is no different from a song bought in a store and ruled in favor of the record label.

Because online retailers such as Apple are responsible for the marketing, management, and delivery of downloaded music, record labels’ overheads are much lower. This new industry trend has prompted many artists and publishers to demand a bigger share of labels’ profits. As of 2010, a $0.99 download from the iTunes appliance program generates $0.30 for Apple and $0.70 for the record label, of which $0.09 goes to the songwriter and publisher as a standard mechanical royalty (Albanesius, 2008).

CD Sales

The burgeoning popularity of digital music has drastically reduced revenue brought in from CD sales since 2001. Although many people have switched from illegally downloading to purchasing music on digital stores, paid digital downloads have not yet begun to make up for the loss of revenue from CD sales, and illegal downloads remain a problem for the recording industry. According to online download tracker BigChampagne Media Measurement, unauthorized downloads still represent about 90 percent of the market (Goldman). With album sales declining at a rate of 8 percent a year, music executives are trying to figure out how to stem the flow of money flooding out of the CD sales market. Former head of Yahoo! Music David Goldberg said, “The digital music business is a war of attrition that nobody seems to be winning. The CD is still disappearing, and nothing is replacing it in entirety as a revenue generator (Goldman).” In 2009, digital revenue sales rose and were well on the way to equaling CD sales, which were on the decline (see Figure 6.21).

Figure 6.21




Digital Music Sales versus Physical Music Sales (Graham, 2009).

To partially make up for lost sales, the music industry has been generating revenue through licensing fees, including fees for ringtones, music played on Internet radio stations such as MySpace Music and Pandora, and music videos on the YouTube video-sharing website that is owned by Google. In 2009, digital licensing revenue reached $84 million and continues to grow (Goldman). Meanwhile, recording artists are focusing their attention on live performances and merchandise, which have become their main source of revenue. Demand for concert tickets rose at least 7 percent in 2008 to $4.2 billion, according to touring industry trade magazine Pollstar (Sisario, 2008).

Utilizing the Internet: A New Level of Indie

6.5 collage 0

Artists such as Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead are abandoning the traditional music industry model in favor of marketing their songs directly to fans.

Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0; Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 2.5.

Over the past few years, the Internet has begun to level the proverbial playing field between major and independent record labels. Exemplifying how smaller indie labels are able to latch on to trends more quickly than the Big Four, indies have embraced new technology, including blogging, online video sites, and online social networking sites, as a means of promoting their music, while the major labels have fallen behind the curve. With social networking sites enabling artists to communicate directly with their fans, the need for extensive financial backing or an industry middleman is all but eliminated. Now, artists can upload their music onto a social networking site for free and generate record sales purely through word of mouth.

Although a few indie artists have become household names entirely through the buzz generated on social networking sites, many others find that they need some guidance. The direct-to-fan business model has created opportunities for web-based companies such as Nimbit and ReverbNation, which provide software that enables independent artists and record labels to market their music online, keep track of sales, create demand for their music, and communicate with fans. The companies offer social networking applications that enable fans to purchase music directly from the artists rather than being redirected to a third-party website. Other advantages for bands include automatic updates to fans across a variety of networking sites, digital distribution through the iTunes appliance program and other stores, and real-time sales updates.

Many established artists have also embraced the direct-to-fan business model. In 2007, Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor announced that the band was splitting from its contractual obligations to Universal Music Group to distribute its next albums independently. Well known for his vocal distaste of major record labels and their profiteering, Reznor encouraged fans in Australia to steal his album Year Zero because he believed it was priced too highly there (SPIN, 2007). Commenting on the state of the music industry in a 2007 interview he said, “I’ve got a battle where I’m trying to put out quality material that matters and I’ve got fans that feel it’s their right to steal it and I’ve got a company that’s so bureaucratic and clumsy and ignorant and behind the times they don’t know what to do, so they rip the people off (Johnson, 2007).” Following the band’s split with Universal, they released studio album The Slip as a free digital download in 2008. Reznor stated, “This one’s on me,” on his website, thanking fans for their loyalty. The album was downloaded 1.4 million times within the first 6 weeks of its release (Kent, 2011). A similar technique used by tech-savvy alternative band Radiohead reaped even higher rewards in 2007, when its retail release of In Rainbows entered the album chart at No. 1 even though the digital version had been offered online at a price of the customer’s choosing several months earlier (see Chapter 11 “The Internet and Social Media” for more information about Radiohead’s In Rainbows release) (Brandle, 2008). The web-based direct release model allows bands such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails to obtain vital information about their fan bases—including e-mail addresses—that they can use for future promotions. Whether or not the practice proves to be a passing fad, the traditional music industry model is shifting as new technology makes it easier for artists to communicate directly with their fans.

Key Takeaways

  • The introduction of digital music technology and peer-to-peer file sharing in 1999 changed the nature of the music industry. Websites, such as the Napster service, which enabled users to share free music, negatively impacted CD sales. Although the RIAA successfully shut down Napster, other sites emerged throughout the early 2000s, such as the Gnutella network and the Kazaa service. Rather than figuring out a way to make money from digital music, the recording industry focused its efforts on bringing lawsuits against illegal downloaders. By the time iTunes and other fee-based music sites became available, irreversible damage had been done to the industry’s sales figures.
  • Apple’s iTunes Store is the dominant digital music retailer in the United States, commanding almost 70 percent of the digital music market. The boom in digital music sales has affected the music industry in several ways: It has changed the way that profits are distributed among recording artists and labels, it has caused a massive decline in CD sales, and it has prompted industry executives to seek profits elsewhere (for example, through licensing fees).
  • The Internet has proved advantageous for smaller indie labels that take advantage of blogging, social networking sites, and video websites as a means to promote their music. Companies such as Nimbit and ReverbNation are replacing some of the functions performed by major record labels, enabling artists to promote and distribute their own music directly to fans. Established bands such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have separated from major labels and used the Internet to successfully distribute their music at little or no cost to fans. The ready availability and low cost of this new technology is changing the music industry, and the Big Four companies may need to adapt traditional business models to return to profit.


Visit the Apple website (http://www.apple.com/) and compare its digital music services and products with those of its nearest competitors. For music, look at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/), Yahoo! Music (http://new.music.yahoo.com/), and Napster (http://www.napster.com). How do the prices and experiences differ? For MP3 players, look at Sony (http://www.sony.com), Philips (http://www.usa.philips.com/), and RCA (http://www.rca.com).

  • How do the various MP3 players differ?
  • After comparing Apple to its competitors, why do you think Apple commands a larger share of the digital music market?
  • Conduct a survey among your peers to research consumer opinions. How have these sites been influenced by digital music sales?

End-of-Chapter Assessment

Review Questions

  1. Section 1

    1. How did Tin Pan Alley influence the development of popular music, and how did the music that came out of Tin Pan Alley differ from classical music?
    2. What are some of the technological developments that influenced the growth of popular music, and how did they assist its progress?
    3. What genres of music developed throughout the 20th century? What musical elements characterize each genre?
  2. Section 2

    1. What cultural factors influenced the popular music industry in the 20th century?
    2. How did music influence culture in the 20th century? How are music and culture interrelated?
  3. Section 3

    1. What are the Big Four record labels? In what ways do they influence the music industry?
    2. What are the main differences between major labels and indie labels? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
    3. What three steps are involved in the music production process? What factors are currently affecting the ways in which music is produced and distributed?
  4. Section 4

    1. How did peer-to-peer sharing networks affect the music business when they were first introduced? How did digital music progress from users downloading music illegally to purchasing from online music stores?
    2. What are some of the impacts that digital music has had on the industry? How are industry executives responding to these impacts?
    3. What is the direct-to-fan business model, and how has new technology enabled its progression?

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. Does music primarily reflect or influence cultural and social change?
  2. How did the major record labels’ reaction to peer-to-peer file sharing place them at a strategic disadvantage in the music industry?
  3. What are the potential implications of the direct-to-fan business model for the future of the music industry?
  4. Music critics frequently proclaim the “death of rock and roll.” How might the corporate influence of the Big Four over the modern music industry be related to these claims?
  5. How have social and political factors influenced musical tastes throughout the past century?

Career Connection

Although many traditional music industry careers are in decline as a result of poor CD sales and the impact of new technology, changes within the industry have created new opportunities. As artists turn away from recorded music and focus on live performances, demand for concert tickets continues to rise. One possible career path in the music industry is that of a concert promoter. Read about the demands and expectations of a concert promoter at http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/concert-tour2.htm. Once you have familiarized yourself with the material, read about the personal experiences of concert promoter David Werlin at http://www.bankrate.com/brm/news/advice/19990701a.asp and answer the following questions:

  1. What advantages and disadvantages does Werlin give for working for a big promotion company versus working for a small organization?
  2. How do both the HowStuffWorks website and Werlin’s experiences emphasize the need for flexibility when working as a concert promoter?
  3. As with many careers, working as a concert promoter usually involves starting at the bottom and working your way to the top. Think about how you might promote an event on your college campus or in your neighborhood. Use the tips from both websites to make a list of things you would need to consider to prepare for the event.


Albanesius, Chloe. “Music-Download Royalty Rates Left Unchanged,” PC Magazine, October 2, 2008, http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2331598,00.asp.

Apple, “iPod + iTunes Timeline,” Apple Press Info, http://www.apple.com/pr/products/ipodhistory/.

BBC News, “Kazaa Site Becomes Legal Service,” July 27, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/5220406.stm.

Brandle, Lars. “‘In Rainbows’ Looms for U.K. No. 1,” Billboard, January 2, 2008, http://www.billboard.com/news/in-rainbows-looms-for-u-k-no-1-1003690356.story#/news/in-rainbows-looms-for-u-k-no-1-1003690356.story.

Doyle, T. C. “Shawn Fanning, Founder, Napster,” CRN, November 10, 2000, http://www.crn.com/news/channel-programs/18834885/shawn-fanning-founder-napster.htm;jsessionid=nqMTTQpakxKozxhpf778kw**.ecappj01.

Goldman, “Music’s Lost Decade.”

Goldman, “Music’s Lost Decade.”

Graham, Lee. “Digital Music Increases Share of Overall Music Sales Volume in the U.S.,” news release, NPD Group, August 18, 2009, http://www.npd.com/press/releases/press_090818.html.

Johnson, Neala. “Q & A with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails,” Herald Sun (Melbourne), May 17, 2007, http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/music/q-a-with-trent-reznor-of-nine-inch-nails/story-e6frf9hf-1111113550202.

Kent, F. Daniel. “The Upward Spiral of Trent Reznor,” Dishmag, April 2011, http://dishmag.com/issue120/music-film/13777/the-upward-spiral-of-trent-reznor/.

Knopper, Steve. “Napster Wounds the Giant,” Rocky Mountain News, January 2, 2009, http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2009/jan/02/napster-wounds-the-giant/.

Kravets, David. “File Sharing Lawsuits at a Crossroads, After 5 Years of RIAA Litigation,” Wired, September 4, 2008, http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2008/09/proving-file-sh/.

Kravets, David. “Settlement Rejected in ‘Shocking’ RIAA File Sharing Verdict,” Wired, January 27, 2010, http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/01/settlement-rejected-in-shocking-riaa-file-sharing-verdict/.

Kravets, David. “Verizon Terminating Copyright Infringers’ Internet Access,” Wired, January 20, 2010, http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/01/verizon-terminating-internet-accessinternet-access/.

Levy, Steven. “Q&A: Jobs on iPod’s Cultural Impact,” Newsweek, October 15, 2006, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15262121/site/newsweek/print/1/displaymode/1098/.

Menta, Richard. “Did Napster Take Radiohead’s New Album to Number 1?” MP3newswire.net, October 28, 2000, http://www.mp3newswire.net/stories/2000/radiohead.html.

Michaels, Sean. “Eminem Sues Universal Over Digital Royalties,” Guardian (London), February 25, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/feb/25/eminem-universal-digital-royalties-lawsuit.

Mnookin, Seth. “Universal’s CEO Once Called iPod Users Thieves. Now He’s Giving Songs Away,’ Wired, November 27, 2007, http://www.wired.com/entertainment/music/magazine/15-12/mf_morris?currentPage=2.

NPD Group, “Digital Music Increases Share of Overall Music Sales Volume in the U.S.,” news release, August 18, 2009, http://www.npd.com/press/releases/press_090818.html.

Nusca, Andrew. “Apples Announces New iPod Touch, Nano, Shuffle, Classic; iTunes 9,” The Toy Box Blog, ZDNet, September 9, 2009, http://www.zdnet.com/blog/gadgetreviews/apple-announces-new-ipod-touch-nano-shuffle-classic-itunes-9/7240.

Richardson, Adam. “Quick Take on Amazon’s MP3 Download Store,” Matter/Anti-Matter (blog), October 3, 2007, http://news.cnet.com/8301-13641_3-9790970-44.html.

Riedel, Sarah. “A Brief History of Filesharing: From Napster to Legal Music Downloads,” Associated Content from Yahoo, February 24, 2006, http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/20644/a_brief_history_of_filesharing_from_pg2.html?cat=15.

Sisario, Ben. “Music Sales Fell in 2008, but Climbed on the Web,” New York Times, December 31, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/01/arts/music/01indu.html.

SPIN, “Trent Reznor Blasts Label,” SPIN, May 15, 2007, http://www.spin.com/articles/trent-reznor-blasts-label.

Weintraub, Seth. “Android Helps Amazon Triple Online Music Marketshare,” Fortune, CNN Money, May 26, 2010, http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2010/05/26/android-helps-amazon-triple-music-marketshare/.

Williams, Martyn. “Timeline: iTunes Store at 10 Billion,” Computerworld, February 24, 2010, http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9162018/Timeline_iTunes_Store_at_10_billion.

Chapter 7: Radio


7.1 Radio
7.2 Evolution of Radio Broadcasting
7.3 Radio Station Formats
7.4 Radio’s Impact on Culture
7.5 Radio’s New Future

7.1 Radio


Figure 7.1


In 1983, radio station WOXY’s new owners bought the station and changed its format from Top 40 to the up-and-coming alternative rock format, kicking off with U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday (WOXY, 2009).” Then located in the basement of a fast-food restaurant in Ohio, the station was a risk for its purchasers, a husband and wife team who took a chance by changing the format to a relatively new one. Their investment paid off with the success of their station. By 1990, WOXY had grown in prestige to become one of Rolling Stone magazine’s top 15 radio stations in the country, and had even been made famous by a reference in the 1988 film Rain Man (Bishop, 2004). In 1998, the station launched a web cast and developed a national following, ranking 12th among Internet broadcasters for listenership in 2004 (Bishop, 2004).

When the station’s owners decided to retire and sell the frequency allocation in 2004, they hoped to find investors to continue the online streaming version of the station. After several months of unsuccessful searching, however, the station went off the air entirely—only to find a last-minute investor willing to fund an Internet version of the station (WOXY).

The online version of the station struggled to make ends meet until it was purchased by the online music firm Lala (Cheng, 2010). The now-defunct Lala sold WOXY to music company Future Sounds Inc., which moved the station and staff from Ohio to Austin, Texas. In March 2010, citing “current economic realities and the lack of ongoing funding,” WOXY.com went off the air with only a day’s notice (Cheng, 2010).

Taken in the context of the modern Internet revolution and the subsequent faltering of institutions such as newspapers and book publishers, the rise and fall of WOXY may seem to bode ill for the general fate of radio. However, taken in the larger context of radio’s history, this story of the Internet’s effect on radio could prove to be merely another leap in a long line of radio revolutions. From the shutting down of all broadcasts during World War I to the eclipse of radio by television during the 1950s, many arbiters of culture and business have prophesized the demise of radio for decades. Yet this chapter will show how the inherent flexibility and intimacy of the medium has allowed it to adapt to new market trends and to continue to have relevance as a form of mass communication.


Bishop, Lauren. “97X Farewell,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 10, 2004, http://www.enquirer.com/editions/2004/05/10/tem_tem1a.html.

Cheng, Jacqui. “Bad Luck, Funding Issues Shutter Indie Station WOXY.com,” Ars Technica (blog), March 23, 2010, http://arstechnica.com/media/news/2010/03/bad-luck-funding-issues-shutter-indie-station-woxycom.ars.

WOXY, “The History of WOXY,” 2009, http://woxy.com/about/.

WOXY, “The History.”

7.2 Evolution of Radio Broadcasting


Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the major technological changes in radio as a medium since its inception.
  2. Explain the defining characteristics of radio’s Golden Age.
  3. Describe the effects of networks and conglomerates on radio programming and culture.

At its most basic level, radio is communication through the use of radio waves. This includes radio used for person-to-person communication as well as radio used for mass communication. Both of these functions are still practiced today. Although most people associate the term radio with radio stations that broadcast to the general public, radio wave technology is used in everything from television to cell phones, making it a primary conduit for person-to-person communication.

The Invention of Radio

Guglielmo Marconi is often credited as the inventor of radio. As a young man living in Italy, Marconi read a biography of Hienrich Hertz, who had written and experimented with early forms of wireless transmission. Marconi then duplicated Hertz’s experiments in his own home, successfully sending transmissions from one side of his attic to the other (PBS). He saw the potential for the technology and approached the Italian government for support. When the government showed no interest in his ideas, Marconi moved to England and took out a patent on his device. Rather than inventing radio from scratch, however, Marconi essentially combined the ideas and experiments of other people to make them into a useful communications tool (Coe, 1996).

Figure 7.2


Guglielmo Marconi developed an early version of the wireless radio.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

In fact, long-distance electronic communication has existed since the middle of the 19th century. The telegraph communicated messages through a series of long and short clicks. Cables across the Atlantic Ocean connected even the far-distant United States and England using this technology. By the 1870s, telegraph technology had been used to develop the telephone, which could transmit an individual’s voice over the same cables used by its predecessor.

When Marconi popularized wireless technology, contemporaries initially viewed it as a way to allow the telegraph to function in places that could not be connected by cables. Early radios acted as devices for naval ships to communicate with other ships and with land stations; the focus was on person-to-person communication. However, the potential for broadcasting—sending messages to a large group of potential listeners—wasn’t realized until later in the development of the medium.

Broadcasting Arrives

The technology needed to build a radio transmitter and receiver was relatively simple, and the knowledge to build such devices soon reached the public. Amateur radio operators quickly crowded the airwaves, broadcasting messages to anyone within range and, by 1912, incurred government regulatory measures that required licenses and limited broadcast ranges for radio operation (White). This regulation also gave the president the power to shut down all stations, a power notably exercised in 1917 upon the United States’ entry into World War I to keep amateur radio operators from interfering with military use of radio waves for the duration of the war (White).

Wireless technology made radio as it is known today possible, but its modern, practical function as a mass communication medium had been the domain of other technologies for some time. As early as the 1880s, people relied on telephones to transmit news, music, church sermons, and weather reports. In Budapest, Hungary, for example, a subscription service allowed individuals to listen to news reports and fictional stories on their telephones (White). Around this time, telephones also transmitted opera performances from Paris to London. In 1909, this innovation emerged in the United States as a pay-per-play phonograph service in Wilmington, Delaware (White). This service allowed subscribers to listen to specific music recordings on their telephones (White).

In 1906, Massachusetts resident Reginald Fessenden initiated the first radio transmission of the human voice, but his efforts did not develop into a useful application (Grant, 1907). Ten years later, Lee de Forest used radio in a more modern sense when he set up an experimental radio station, 2XG, in New York City. De Forest gave nightly broadcasts of music and news until World War I halted all transmissions for private citizens (White).

Radio’s Commercial Potential

After the World War I radio ban lifted with the close of the conflict in 1919, a number of small stations began operating using technologies that had developed during the war. Many of these stations developed regular programming that included religious sermons, sports, and news (White). As early as 1922, Schenectady, New York’s WGY broadcast over 40 original dramas, showing radio’s potential as a medium for drama. The WGY players created their own scripts and performed them live on air. This same groundbreaking group also made the first known attempt at television drama in 1928 (McLeod, 1998).

Businesses such as department stores, which often had their own stations, first put radio’s commercial applications to use. However, these stations did not advertise in a way that the modern radio listener would recognize. Early radio advertisements consisted only of a “genteel sales message broadcast during ‘business’ (daytime) hours, with no hard sell or mention of price (Sterling & Kittross, 2002).” In fact, radio advertising was originally considered an unprecedented invasion of privacy, because—unlike newspapers, which were bought at a newsstand—radios were present in the home and spoke with a voice in the presence of the whole family (Sterling & Kittross, 2002). However, the social impact of radio was such that within a few years advertising was readily accepted on radio programs. Advertising agencies even began producing their own radio programs named after their products. At first, ads ran only during the day, but as economic pressure mounted during the Great Depression in the 1930s, local stations began looking for new sources of revenue, and advertising became a normal part of the radio soundscape (Sterling & Kittross, 2002).

The Rise of Radio Networks

Not long after radio’s broadcast debut, large businesses saw its potential profitability and formed networks. In 1926, RCA started the National Broadcasting Network (NBC). Groups of stations that carried syndicated network programs along with a variety of local shows soon formed its Red and Blue networks. Two years after the creation of NBC, the United Independent Broadcasters became the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and began competing with the existing Red and Blue networks (Sterling & Kittross, 2002).

Although early network programming focused mainly on music, it soon developed to include other programs. Among these early innovations was the variety show. This format generally featured several different performers introduced by a host who segued between acts. Variety shows included styles as diverse as jazz and early country music. At night, dramas and comedies such as Amos ’n’ Andy, The Lone Ranger, and Fibber McGee and Molly filled the airwaves. News, educational programs, and other types of talk programs also rose to prominence during the 1930s (Sterling & Kittross, 2002).

The Radio Act of 1927

In the mid-1920s, profit-seeking companies such as department stores and newspapers owned a majority of the nation’s broadcast radio stations, which promoted their owners’ businesses (ThinkQuest). Nonprofit groups such as churches and schools operated another third of the stations. As the number of radio stations outgrew the available frequencies, interference became problematic, and the government stepped into the fray.

The Radio Act of 1927 established the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) to oversee regulation of the airwaves. A year after its creation, the FRC reallocated station bandwidths to correct interference problems. The organization reserved 40 high-powered channels, setting aside 37 of these for network affiliates. The remaining 600 lower-powered bandwidths went to stations that had to share the frequencies; this meant that as one station went off the air at a designated time, another one began broadcasting in its place. The Radio Act of 1927 allowed major networks such as CBS and NBC to gain a 70 percent share of U.S. broadcasting by the early 1930s, earning them $72 million in profits by 1934 (McChesney, 1992). At the same time, nonprofit broadcasting fell to only 2 percent of the market (McChesney, 1992).

In protest of the favor that the 1927 Radio Act showed toward commercial broadcasting, struggling nonprofit radio broadcasters created the National Committee on Education by Radio to lobby for more outlets. Basing their argument on the notion that the airwaves—unlike newspapers—were a public resource, they asserted that groups working for the public good should take precedence over commercial interests. Nevertheless, the Communications Act of 1934 passed without addressing these issues, and radio continued as a mainly commercial enterprise (McChesney, 1992).

The Golden Age of Radio

The so-called Golden Age of Radio occurred between 1930 and the mid-1950s. Because many associate the 1930s with the struggles of the Great Depression, it may seem contradictory that such a fruitful cultural occurrence arose during this decade. However, radio lent itself to the era. After the initial purchase of a receiver, radio was free and so provided an inexpensive source of entertainment that replaced other, more costly pastimes, such as going to the movies.

Radio also presented an easily accessible form of media that existed on its own schedule. Unlike reading newspapers or books, tuning in to a favorite program at a certain time became a part of listeners’ daily routine because it effectively forced them to plan their lives around the dial.

Daytime Radio Finds Its Market

During the Great Depression, radio became so successful that another network, the Mutual Broadcasting Network, began in 1934 to compete with NBC’s Red and Blue networks and the CBS network, creating a total of four national networks (Cashman, 1989). As the networks became more adept at generating profits, their broadcast selections began to take on a format that later evolved into modern television programming. Serial dramas and programs that focused on domestic work aired during the day when many women were at home. Advertisers targeted this demographic with commercials for domestic needs such as soap (Museum). Because they were often sponsored by soap companies, daytime serial dramas soon became known as soap operas. Some modern televised soap operas, such as Guiding Light, which ended in 2009, actually began in the 1930s as radio serials (Hilmes, 1999).

The Origins of Prime Time

During the evening, many families listened to the radio together, much as modern families may gather for television’s prime time. Popular evening comedy variety shows such as George Burns and Gracie Allen’s Burns and Allen, the Jack Benny Show, and the Bob Hope Show all began during the 1930s. These shows featured a central host—for whom the show was often named—and a series of sketch comedies, interviews, and musical performances, not unlike contemporary programs such as Saturday Night Live. Performed live before a studio audience, the programs thrived on a certain flair and spontaneity. Later in the evening, so-called prestige dramas such as Lux Radio Theater and Mercury Theatre on the Air aired. These shows featured major Hollywood actors recreating movies or acting out adaptations of literature (Hilmes).

Figure 7.3


Many prime-time radio broadcasts featured film stars recreating famous films over the air.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

Instant News

By the late 1930s, the popularity of radio news broadcasts had surpassed that of newspapers. Radio’s ability to emotionally draw its audiences in close to events made for news that evoked stronger responses and, thus, greater interest than print news could. For example, the infant son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped and murdered in 1932. Radio networks set up mobile stations that covered events as they unfolded, broadcasting nonstop for several days and keeping listeners updated on every detail while tying them emotionally to the outcome (Brown, 1998).

As recording technology advanced, reporters gained the ability to record events in the field and bring them back to the studio to broadcast over the airwaves. One early example of this was Herb Morrison’s recording of the Hindenburg disaster. In 1937, the Hindenburg blimp exploded into flames while attempting to land, killing 37 of its passengers. Morrison was already on the scene to record the descent, capturing the fateful crash. The entire event was later broadcast, including the sound of the exploding blimp, providing listeners with an unprecedented emotional connection to a national disaster. Morrison’s exclamation “Oh, the humanity!” became a common phrase of despair after the event (Brown, 1998).

Radio news became even more important during World War II, when programs such as Norman Corwin’s This Is War! sought to bring more sober news stories to a radio dial dominated by entertainment. The program dealt with the realities of war in a somber manner; at the beginning of the program, the host declared, “No one is invited to sit down and take it easy. Later, later, there’s a war on (Horten, 2002).” In 1940, Edward R. Murrow, a journalist working in England at the time, broadcast firsthand accounts of the German bombing of London, giving Americans a sense of the trauma and terror that the English were experiencing at the outset of the war (Horten, 2002). Radio news outlets were the first to broadcast the attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the United States into World War II in 1941. By 1945, radio news had become so efficient and pervasive that when Roosevelt died, only his wife, his children, and Vice President Harry S. Truman were aware of it before the news was broadcast over the public airwaves (Brown).

The Birth of the Federal Communications Commission

The Communications Act of 1934 created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and ushered in a new era of government regulation. The organization quickly began enacting influential radio decisions. Among these was the 1938 decision to limit stations to 50,000 watts of broadcasting power, a ceiling that remains in effect today (Cashman). As a result of FCC antimonopoly rulings, RCA was forced to sell its NBC Blue network; this spun-off division became the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in 1943 (Brinson, 2004).

Another significant regulation with long-lasting influence was the Fairness Doctrine. In 1949, the FCC established the Fairness Doctrine as a rule stating that if broadcasters editorialized in favor of a position on a particular issue, they had to give equal time to all other reasonable positions on that issue (Browne & Browne, 1986). This tenet came from the long-held notion that the airwaves were a public resource, and that they should thus serve the public in some way. Although the regulation remained in effect until 1987, the impact of its core concepts are still debated. This chapter will explore the Fairness Doctrine and its impact in greater detail in a later section.

Radio on the Margins

Despite the networks’ hold on programming, educational stations persisted at universities and in some municipalities. They broadcast programs such as School of the Air and College of the Air as well as roundtable and town hall forums. In 1940, the FCC reserved a set of frequencies in the lower range of the FM radio spectrum for public education purposes as part of its regulation of the new spectrum. The reservation of FM frequencies gave educational stations a boost, but FM proved initially unpopular due to a setback in 1945, when the FCC moved the FM bandwidth to a higher set of frequencies, ostensibly to avoid problems with interference (Longley, 1968). This change required the purchase of new equipment by both consumers and radio stations, thus greatly slowing the widespread adoption of FM radio.

One enduring anomaly in the field of educational stations has been the Pacifica Radio network. Begun in 1949 to counteract the effects of commercial radio by bringing educational programs and dialogue to the airwaves, Pacifica has grown from a single station—Berkeley, California’s KPFA—to a network of five stations and more than 100 affiliates (Pacifica Network). From the outset, Pacifica aired newer classical, jazz, and folk music along with lectures, discussions, and interviews with public artists and intellectuals. Among Pacifica’s major innovations was its refusal to take money from commercial advertisers, relying instead on donations from listeners and grants from institutions such as the Ford Foundation and calling itself listener-supported (Mitchell, 2005).

Another important innovation on the fringes of the radio dial during this time was the growth of border stations. Located just across the Mexican border, these stations did not have to follow FCC or U.S. regulatory laws. Because the stations broadcast at 250,000 watts and higher, their listening range covered much of North America. Their content also diverged—at the time markedly—from that of U.S. stations. For example, Dr. John Brinkley started station XERF in Del Rio, Mexico, after being forced to shut down his station in Nebraska, and he used the border station in part to promote a dubious goat gland operation that supposedly cured sexual impotence (Dash, 2008). Besides the goat gland promotion, the station and others like it often carried music, like country and western, that could not be heard on regular network radio. Later border station disc jockeys, such as Wolfman Jack, were instrumental in bringing rock and roll music to a wider audience (Rudel, 2008).

Television Steals the Show

A great deal of radio’s success as a medium during the 1920s and 1930s was due to the fact that no other medium could replicate it. This changed in the late 1940s and early 1950s as television became popular. A 1949 poll of people who had seen television found that almost half of them believed that radio was doomed (Gallup, 1949). Television sets had come on the market by the late 1940s, and by 1951, more Americans were watching television during prime time than ever (Bradley). Famous radio programs such as The Bob Hope Show were made into television shows, further diminishing radio’s unique offerings (Cox, 1949).

Surprisingly, some of radio’s most critically lauded dramas launched during this period. Gunsmoke, an adult-oriented Western show (that later become television’s longest-running show) began in 1952; crime drama Dragnet, later made famous in both television and film, broadcast between 1949 and 1957; and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar aired from 1949 to 1962, when CBS canceled its remaining radio dramas. However, these respected radio dramas were the last of their kind (Cox, 2002). Although radio was far from doomed by television, its Golden Age was.

Transition to Top 40

As radio networks abandoned the dramas and variety shows that had previously sustained their formats, the soundscape was left to what radio could still do better than any other mass medium: play music. With advertising dollars down and the emergence of better recording formats, it made good business sense for radio to focus on shows that played prerecorded music. As strictly music stations began to rise, new innovations to increase their profitability appeared. One of the most notable and far-reaching of these innovations was the Top 40 station, a concept that supposedly came from watching jukebox patrons continually play the same songs (Brewster & Broughton, 2000). Robert Storz and Gordon McLendon began adapting existing radio stations to fit this new format with great success. In 1956, the creation of limited playlists further refined the format by providing about 50 songs that disc jockeys played repeatedly every day. By the early 1960s, many stations had developed limited playlists of only 30 songs (Walker, 2001).

Another musically fruitful innovation came with the increase of Black disc jockeys and programs created for Black audiences. Because its advertisers had nowhere to go in a media market dominated by White performers, Black radio became more common on the AM dial. As traditional programming left radio, disc jockeys began to develop as the medium’s new personalities, talking more in between songs and developing followings. Early Black disc jockeys even began improvising rhymes over the music, pioneering techniques that later became rap and hip-hop. This new personality-driven style helped bring early rock and roll to new audiences (Walker, 2001).

FM: The High-Fidelity Counterculture

As music came to rule the airwaves, FM radio drew in new listeners because of its high-fidelity sound capabilities. When radio had primarily featured dramas and other talk-oriented formats, sound quality had simply not mattered to many people, and the purchase of an FM receiver did not compete with the purchase of a new television in terms of entertainment value. As FM receivers decreased in price and stereo recording technology became more popular, however, the high-fidelity trend created a market for FM stations. Mostly affluent consumers began purchasing component stereos with the goal of getting the highest sound quality possible out of their recordings (Douglas, 2004). Although this audience often preferred classical and jazz stations to Top 40 radio, they were tolerant of new music and ideas (Douglas, 2004).

Both the high-fidelity market and the growing youth counterculture of the 1960s had similar goals for the FM spectrum. Both groups eschewed AM radio because of the predictable programming, poor sound quality, and over-commercialization. Both groups wanted to treat music as an important experience rather than as just a trendy pastime or a means to make money. Many adherents to the youth counterculture of the 1960s came from affluent, middle-class families, and their tastes came to define a new era of consumer culture. The goals and market potential of both the high-fidelity lovers and the youth counterculture created an atmosphere on the FM dial that had never before occurred (Douglas, 2004).

Between the years 1960 and 1966, the number of households capable of receiving FM transmissions grew from about 6.5 million to some 40 million. The FCC also aided FM by issuing its nonduplication ruling in 1964. Before this regulation, many AM stations had other stations on the FM spectrum that simply duplicated the AM programming. The nonduplication rule forced FM stations to create their own fresh programming, opening up the spectrum for established networks to develop new stations (Douglas, 2004).

The late 1960s saw new disc jockeys taking greater liberties with established practices; these liberties included playing several songs in a row before going to a commercial break or airing album tracks that exceeded 10 minutes in length. University stations and other nonprofit ventures to which the FCC had given frequencies during the late 1940s popularized this format, and, in time, commercial stations tried to duplicate their success by playing fewer commercials and by allowing their disc jockeys to have a say in their playlists. Although this made for popular listening formats, FM stations struggled to make the kinds of profits that the AM spectrum drew (Douglas, 2004).

In 1974, FM radio accounted for one-third of all radio listening but only 14 percent of radio profits (Douglas, 2004). Large network stations and advertisers began to market heavily to the FM audience in an attempt to correct this imbalance. Stations began tightening their playlists and narrowing their formats to please advertisers and to generate greater revenues. By the end of the 1970s, radio stations were beginning to play specific formats, and the progressive radio of the previous decade had become difficult to find (Douglas, 2004).

The Rise of Public Radio

After the Golden Age of Radio came to an end, most listeners tuned in to radio stations to hear music. The variety shows and talk-based programs that had sustained radio in early years could no longer draw enough listeners to make them a successful business proposition. One divergent path from this general trend, however, was the growth of public radio.

Groups such as the Ford Foundation had funded public media sources during the early 1960s. When the foundation decided to withdraw its funding in the middle of the decade, the federal government stepped in with the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. This act created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and charged it with generating funding for public television and radio outlets. The CPB in turn created National Public Radio (NPR) in 1970 to provide programming for already-operating stations. Until 1982, in fact, the CPB entirely and exclusively funded NPR. Public radio’s first program was All Things Considered, an evening news program that focused on analysis and interpretive reporting rather than cutting-edge coverage. In the mid-1970s, NPR attracted Washington-based journalists such as Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer to its ranks, giving the coverage a more professional, hard-reporting edge (Schardt, 1996).

However, in 1983, public radio was pushed to the brink of financial collapse. NPR survived in part by relying more on its member stations to hold fundraising drives, now a vital component of public radio’s business model. In 2003, Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald’s CEO and philanthropist Ray Kroc, bequeathed a grant of over $200 million to NPR that may keep it afloat for many years to come.

Figure 7.4


A Prairie Home Companion, hosted by Garrison Keillor (pictured here), is a long-standing public radio tradition that hearkens back to the early days of radio variety shows.

Having weathered the financial storm intact, NPR continued its progression as a respected news provider. During the first Gulf War, NPR sent out correspondents for the first time to provide in-depth coverage of unfolding events. Public radio’s extensive coverage of the 2001 terrorist bombings gained its member stations many new listeners, and it has since expanded (Clift, 2011). Although some have accused NPR of presenting the news with a liberal bias, its listenership in 2005 was 28 percent conservative, 32 percent liberal, and 29 percent moderate. Newt Gingrich, a conservative Republican and former speaker of the house, has stated that the network is “a lot less on the left” than some may believe (Sherman, 2005). With more than 26 million weekly listeners and 860 member stations in 2009, NPR has become a leading radio news source (Kamenetz, 2009).

Public radio distributors such as Public Radio International (PRI) and local public radio stations such as WBEZ in Chicago have also created a number of cultural and entertainment programs, including quiz shows, cooking shows, and a host of local public forum programs. Storytelling programs such as This American Life have created a new kind of free-form radio documentary genre, while shows such as PRI’s variety show A Prairie Home Companion have revived older radio genres. This variety of popular public radio programming has shifted radio from a music-dominated medium to one that is again exploring its vast potential.


During the early 1990s, many radio stations suffered the effects of an economic recession. Some stations initiated local marketing agreements (LMAs) to share facilities and resources amid this economic decline. LMAs led to consolidation in the industry as radio stations bought other stations to create new hubs for the same programming. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 further increased consolidation by eliminating a duopoly rule prohibiting dual station ownership in the same market and by lifting the numerical limits on station ownership by a single entity.

As large corporations such as Clear Channel Communications bought up stations around the country, they reformatted stations that had once competed against one another so that each focused on a different format. This practice led to mainstream radio’s present state, in which narrow formats target highly specific demographic audiences.

Ultimately, although the industry consolidation of the 1990s made radio profitable, it reduced local coverage and diversity of programming. Because stations around the country served as outlets for a single network, the radio landscape became more uniform and predictable (Keith, 2010). Much as with chain restaurants and stores, some people enjoy this type of predictability, while others prefer a more localized, unique experience (Keith, 2010).

Key Takeaways

  • The Golden Age of Radio covered the period between 1930 and 1950. It was characterized by radio’s overwhelming popularity and a wide range of programming, including variety, music, drama, and theater programs.
  • Top 40 radio arose after most nonmusic programming moved to television. This format used short playlists of popular hits and gained a great deal of commercial success during the 1950s and 1960s.
  • FM became popular during the late 1960s and 1970s as commercial stations adopted the practices of free-form stations to appeal to new audiences who desired higher fidelity and a less restrictive format.
  • Empowered by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, media conglomerates have subsumed unprecedented numbers of radio stations by single companies. Radio station consolidation brings predictability and profits at the expense of unique programming.


Please respond to the following short-answer writing prompts. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  1. Explain the advantages that radio had over traditional print media during the 1930s and 1940s.
  2. Do you think that radio could experience another golden age? Explain your answer.
  3. How has the consolidation of radio stations affected radio programming?
  4. Characterize the overall effects of one significant technological or social shift described in this section on radio as a medium.


Bradley, Becky. “American Cultural History: 1950–1959,” Lone Star College, Kingwood, http://kclibrary.lonestar.edu/decade50.html.

Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, (New York: Grove Press, 2000), 48.

Brinson, Susan. The Red Scare, Politics, and the Federal Communications Commission, 1941–1960 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), 42.

Brown, Manipulating the Ether, 123.

Brown, Robert. Manipulating the Ether: The Power of Broadcast Radio in Thirties America (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 1998), 134–137.

Browne, Ray and Glenn Browne, Laws of Our Fathers: Popular Culture and the U.S. Constitution (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1986), 132.

Cashman, America in the Twenties and Thirties, 327.

Cashman, Sean. America in the Twenties and Thirties: The Olympian Age of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York: New York University Press, 1989), 328.

Clift, Nick. “Viewpoint: Protect NPR, It Protects Us,” Michigan Daily, February 15, 2011, http://www.michigandaily.com/content/viewpoint-npr.

Coe, Lewis. Wireless Radio: A Brief History (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 1996), 4–10.

Cox, Jim. American Radio Networks: A History (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2009), 171–175.

Cox, Jim. Say Goodnight, Gracie: The Last Years of Network Radio (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2002), 39–41.

Dash, Mike. “John Brinkley, the goat-gland quack,” The Telegraph, April 18, 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/non_fictionreviews/3671561/John-Brinkley-the-goat-gland-quack.html.

Douglas, Susan. Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 266–268.

Gallup, George. “One-Fourth in Poll Think Television Killing Radio,” Schenectady (NY) Gazette, June 8, 1949, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=d3YuAAAAIBAJ&sjid=loEFAAAAIBAJ&pg=840,1029432&dq=radio-is-doomed&hl=en.

Grant, John. Experiments and Results in Wireless Telegraphy (reprinted from The American Telephone Journal, 49–51, January 26, 1907), http://earlyradiohistory.us/1907fes.htm.

Hilmes, Radio Voices, 183–185.

Hilmes, Michele. Radio Voices: American Broadcasting 1922–1952 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 157.

Horten, Gerd. Radio Goes to War: The Cultural Politics of Propaganda During World War II (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 48–52.

Kamenetz, Anya. “Will NPR Save the News?” Fast Company, April 1, 2009, http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/134/finely-tuned.html.

Keith, Michael. The Radio Station: Broadcast, Satellite and Internet (Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2010), 17–24.

Longley, Lawrence D. “The FM Shift in 1945,” Journal of Broadcasting 12, no. 4 (1968): 353–365.

McChesney, Robert W. “Media and Democracy: The Emergence of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States, 1927–1935,” in “Communication in History: The Key to Understanding,” OAH Magazine of History 6, no. 4 (1992).

McLeod, Elizabeth. “The WGY Players and the Birth of Radio Drama,” 1998, http://www.midcoast.com/~lizmcl/wgy.html.

Mitchell, Jack. Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005), 21–24.

Museum, “Soap Opera,” The Museum of Broadcast Communications, http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=soapopera.

Pacifica Network, “Pacifica Network Stations,” The Pacifica Foundation, http://pacificanetwork.org/radio/content/section/7/42/.

PBS, “Guglielmo Marconi,” American Experience: People & Events, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/rescue/peopleevents/pandeAMEX98.html.

Rudel, Anthony. Hello, Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio (Orlando, FL: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), 130–132.

Schardt, Sue. “Public Radio—A Short History,” Christian Science Monitor Publishing Company, 1996, http://www.wsvh.org/pubradiohist.htm.

Sherman, Scott. “Good, Gray NPR,” The Nation, May 23, 2005, 34–38.

Sterling, Christopher and John Kittross, Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2002), 124.

ThinkQuest, “Radio’s Emergence,” Oracle ThinkQuest: The 1920s, http://library.thinkquest.org/27629/themes/media/md20s.html.

Walker, Jesse. Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 56.

White, “Broadcasting After World War I (1919–1921),” United States Early Radio History, http://earlyradiohistory.us/sec016.htm.

White, “News and Entertainment by Telephone (1876–1925),” United States Early Radio History, http://earlyradiohistory.us/sec003.htm.

White, “Pre-War Vacuum Tube Transmitter Development 1914–1917),” United States Early Radio History, http://earlyradiohistory.us/sec011.htm.

White, Thomas. “Pioneering Amateurs (1900–1917),” United States Early Radio History, http://earlyradiohistory.us/sec012.htm.

7.3 Radio Station Formats


Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the use of radio station formats in the development of modern stations.
  2. Analyze the effects of formats on radio programming.

Early radio network programming laid the groundwork for television’s format, with many different programs that appealed to a variety of people broadcast at different times of the day. As television’s popularity grew, however, radio could not compete and so it turned to fresh programming techniques. A new type of format-driven station became the norm. Propelled by the development of new types of music such as psychedelic rock and smooth jazz, the evolution of radio station formats took place. Since the beginning of this shift, different stations have tended to focus on the music that certain demographics preferred. For example, many people raised on Top 40 radio of the 1950s and 1960s did not necessarily want to hear modern pop hits, so stations playing older popular songs emerged to meet their needs.

Modern formats take into account aging generations, with certain stations specifically playing the pop hits of the 1950s and early 1960s, and others focusing on the pop hits of the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. These formats have developed to target narrow, defined audiences with predictable tastes and habits. Ratings services such as Arbitron can identify the 10-year age demographic, the education level, and even the political leanings of listeners who prefer a particular format. Because advertisers want their commercials to reach an audience likely to buy their products, this kind of audience targeting is crucial for advertising revenue.

Top Radio Formats

The following top radio formats and their respective statistics were determined by an Arbitron survey that was released in 2010 (Arbitron Inc., 2010). The most popular formats and subformats cover a wide range of demographics, revealing radio’s wide appeal.


Country music as a format includes stations devoted both to older and newer country music. In 2010, the country music format stood as the most popular radio format, beating out even such prominent nonmusic formats as news and talk. The format commanded the greatest listener share and the second largest number of stations dedicated to the style. Favored in rural regions of the country, the country music format—featuring artists like Keith Urban, the Dixie Chicks, and Tim McGraw—appeals to both male and female listeners from a variety of income levels (Arbitron Inc., 2010).


The news/talk/information format includes AM talk radio, public radio stations with talk programming, network news radio, sports radio, and personality talk radio. This format reached nearly 59 million listeners in 2010, appealing particularly to those aged 65 and older; over 70 percent of its listeners had attended college. These listeners also ranked the highest among formats in levels of home ownership (Arbitron Inc., 2010).

Adult Contemporary

Generally targeted toward individuals over 30, the adult contemporary (AC) format favors pop music from the last 15 to 20 years as opposed to current hits. Different subformats, such as hot AC and modern AC, target younger audiences by playing songs that are more current. In 2010, the majority of AC audience were affluent, married individuals divided roughly along the national average politically. Adult contemporary listeners ranked highest by format in at-work listening. Hot AC, a subformat of AC that plays more current hits, ranked seventh in the nation. Urban AC, a version of AC that focuses on older R&B hits, ranked eighth in the nation in 2010 (Arbitron Inc., 2010).

Pop Contemporary Hit Radio

Pop contemporary hit radio, or pop CHR, is a subformat of contemporary hit radio (CHR). Other subformats of CHR include dance CHR and rhythmic CHR. Branded in the 1980s, this format encompasses stations that have a Top 40 orientation but draw on a wide number of formats, such as country, rock, and urban (Ford, 2008). In 2010, pop CHR ranked first among teenaged listeners, with 65 percent of its overall listeners aged under 35. This music, ranging from popular artists like Taylor Swift and Kanye West to Shakira, was played in the car more than at home or work, and saw its largest listening times in the evenings. Rhythmic CHR, a subformat focusing on a mix of rhythmic pop, R&B, dance, and hip-hop hits, also ranked high in 2010 (Arbitron).

Classic Rock

Classic rock stations generally play rock singles from the 1970s and 1980s, like “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin, and “You Shook Me All Night Long,” by AC/DC. Another distinct but similar format is album-oriented rock (AOR). This format focuses on songs that were not necessarily released as singles, also known as album cuts (Radio Station World). In 2010, classic rock stations ranked fifth in listener figures. These individuals were overwhelmingly men (70 percent) between the ages of 35 and 54 (54 percent). Classic rock was most often listened to in the car and at work, with only 26 percent of its listeners tuning in at home (Arbitron).

Urban Contemporary

The urban contemporary format plays modern hits from mainly Black artists—such as Lil Wayne, John Legend, and Ludacris—featuring a mix of soul, hip-hop, and R&B. In 2010, the format ranked eleventh in the nation. Urban contemporary focuses on listeners in the 18–34 age range (Arbitron).

Mexican Regional

The Mexican regional format is devoted to Spanish-language music, particularly Mexican and South American genres. In 2010, it ranked thirteenth in the nation and held the top spot in Los Angeles, a reflection of the rise in immigration from Mexico, Central America, and South America. Mexican regional’s listener base was over 96 percent Hispanic, and the format was most popular in the Western and Southwestern regions of the country. However, it was less popular in the Eastern regions of the country; in New England, for example, the format held a zero percent share of listening. The rise of the Mexican regional format illustrates the ways in which radio can change rapidly to meet new demographic trends (Arbitron).

An increasingly Spanish language–speaking population in the United States has also resulted in a number of distinct Spanish-language radio formats. These include Spanish oldies, Spanish adult hits, Spanish religious, Spanish tropical, and Spanish talk among others. Tejano, a type of music developed in Hispanic Texan communities, has also gained enough of an audience to become a dedicated format (Arbitron).

Other Popular Formats

Radio formats have become so specialized that ratings group Arbitron includes more than 50 designations. What was once simply called rock music has been divided into such subformats as alternative and modern rock. Alternative rock began as a format played on college stations during the 1980s but developed as a mainstream format during the following decade, thanks in part to the popular grunge music of that era. As this music aged, stations began using the term modern rock to describe a format dedicated to new rock music. This format has also spawned the active rock format, which plays modern rock hits with older rock hits thrown in (Radio Station World).

Nostalgia formats have split into a number of different formats as well. Oldies stations now generally focus on hits from the 1950s and 1960s, while the classic hits format chooses from hits of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Urban oldies, which focuses on R&B, soul, and other urban music hits from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, has also become a popular radio format. Formats such as adult hits mix older songs from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s with a small selection of popular music, while formats such as ’80s hits picks mainly from the 1980s (Radio Station World).

Radio station formats are an interesting way to look at popular culture in the United States. The evolution of nostalgia formats to include new decades nods to the size and tastes of the nation’s aging listeners. Hits of the 1980s are popular enough with their demographic to have entire stations dedicated to them, while other generations prefer stations with a mix of decades. The rise of the country format and the continued popularity of the classic rock format are potential indicators of cultural trends.

Key Takeaways

  • Radio station formats target demographics that can generate advertising revenue.
  • Contemporary hit radio was developed as a Top 40 format that expanded beyond strictly pop music to include country, rock, and urban formats.
  • Spanish-language formats have grown in recent years, with Mexican regional moving into the top 10 formats in 2008.
  • Nostalgia genres have developed to reflect the tastes of aging listeners, ranging from mixes of music from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s with current hits to formats that pick strictly from the 1980s.


Please respond to the following writing prompts. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  1. What is the purpose of radio station formats?
  2. How have radio station formats affected the way that modern stations play music?
  3. Pick a format, such as country or classic rock, and speculate on the reasons for its popularity.


Arbitron Inc., Radio Today: How America Listens to Radio, 2010.

Arbitron, Radio Today, 27–30.

Arbitron, Radio Today, 32–34.

Ford, John. “Contemporary Hit Radio,” September 2, 2008, http://radioindustry.suite101.com/article.cfm/contemporary_hit_radio_history.

Radio Station World, “Oldies, Adult Hits, and Nostalgia Radio Formats,” Radio Station World, 1996–2010, http://radiostationworld.com/directory/radio_formats/radio_formats_oldies.asp.

Radio Station World, “Rock and Alternative Music Formats,” Radio Station World, 1996–2010, http://radiostationworld.com/directory/Radio_Formats/radio_formats_rock.asp.

Radio Station World, “Rock and Alternative Music Formats,” Radio Station World.

7.4 Radio’s Impact on Culture


Learning Objectives

  1. Analyze radio as a form of mass media.
  2. Describe the effects of radio on the spread of different types of music.
  3. Analyze the effects of the Fairness Doctrine on political radio.
  4. Formulate opinions on controversial issues in radio.

Since its inception, radio’s impact on American culture has been immense. Modern popular culture is unthinkable without the early influence of radio. Entire genres of music that are now taken for granted, such as country and rock, owe their popularity and even existence to early radio programs that publicized new forms.

A New Kind of Mass Media

Mass media such as newspapers had been around for years before the existence of radio. In fact, radio was initially considered a kind of disembodied newspaper. Although this idea gave early proponents a useful, familiar way to think about radio, it underestimated radio’s power as a medium. Newspapers had the potential to reach a wide audience, but radio had the potential to reach almost everyone. Neither illiteracy nor even a busy schedule impeded radio’s success—one could now perform an activity and listen to the radio at the same time. This unprecedented reach made radio an instrument of social cohesion as it brought together members of different classes and backgrounds to experience the world as a nation.

Radio programs reflected this nationwide cultural aspect of radio. Vox Pop, a show originally based on person-in-the-street interviews, was an early attempt to quantify the United States’ growing mass culture. Beginning in 1935, the program billed itself as an unrehearsed “cross-section of what the average person really knows” by asking random people an assortment of questions. Many modern television shows still employ this format not only for viewers’ amusement and information but also as an attempt to sum up national culture (Loviglio, 2002). Vox Pop functioned on a cultural level as an acknowledgement of radio’s entrance into people’s private lives to make them public (Loviglio, 2002).

Radio news was more than just a quick way to find out about events; it was a way for U.S. citizens to experience events with the same emotions. During the Ohio and Mississippi river floods of 1937, radio brought the voices of those who suffered as well as the voices of those who fought the rising tides. A West Virginia newspaper explained the strengths of radio in providing emotional voices during such crises: “Thanks to radio…the nation as a whole has had its nerves, its heart, its soul exposed to the needs of its unfortunates…We are a nation integrated and interdependent. We are ‘our brother’s keeper (Brown).’”

Radio’s presence in the home also heralded the evolution of consumer culture in the United States. In 1941, two-thirds of radio programs carried advertising. Radio allowed advertisers to sell products to a captive audience. This kind of mass marketing ushered in a new age of consumer culture (Cashman).

War of the Worlds and the Power of Radio

During the 1930s, radio’s impact and powerful social influence was perhaps most obvious in the aftermath of the Orson Welles’s notorious War of the Worlds broadcast. On Halloween night in 1938, radio producer Orson Welles told listeners of the Mercury Theatre on the Air that they would be treated to an original adaptation of H. G. Wells’s classic science fiction novel of alien invasion War of the Worlds. The adaptation started as if it were a normal music show that was interrupted by news reports of an alien invasion. Many listeners had tuned in late and did not hear the disclaimer, and so were caught up by the realism of the adaptation, believing it to be an actual news story.

Figure 7.5


Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast terrified listeners, many of whom actually believed a Martian invasion was actually occurring.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

According to some, an estimated 6 million people listened to the show, with an incredible 1.7 million believing it to be true (Lubertozzi & Holmsten, 2005). Some listeners called loved ones to say goodbye or ran into the street armed with weapons to fight off the invading Martians of the radio play (Lubertozzi & Holmsten, 2005). In Grovers Mill, New Jersey—where the supposed invasion began—some listeners reported nonexistent fires and fired gunshots at a water tower thought to be a Martian landing craft. One listener drove through his own garage door in a rush to escape the area. Two Princeton University professors spent the night searching for the meteorite that had supposedly preceded the invasion (Lubertozzi & Holmsten, 2005). As calls came in to local police stations, officers explained that they were equally concerned about the problem (Lubertozzi & Holmsten, 2005).