A historical overview of the effects of new mass media
First Monday

A historical overview of the effects of new mass media: Introductions in magazine publishing during the twentieth century by Quint Randle

This paper provides an overview of the positive and negative effects of new mass media introductions on the magazine publishing industry from an historical perspective. Since the early 1900s, the trends of new media both displacing magazines as well as spurring magazine sales and introductions are evident through the introduction of feature films, sound recordings, radio, television, computers, and the World Wide Web. New media have a tendency to both displace magazines, but also cause increasing specialization. The overriding goal of this paper is to provide a perspective for magazine publishers and scholars as they address the increasing penetration of the World Wide Web.


Magazines in America
Motion pictures
Sound recordings
Television and video
The Internet




With the popularity and interactivity offered by the Internet and World Wide Web, media organizations see the Web as a medium they must conquer if they are going to survive (Villano, 1999). They have good reason to be concerned. From an historical perspective, whenever a new medium reaches critical mass it threatens to, and does, displace existing media to some degree. For example, the upstart television industry took consumers and advertisers away from the radio industry back in the 1940s and 1950s. The revolution of special–interest niche magazines began back in the early 1970s; the magazine industry reacted to the loss of national advertising and eventual failure of mass circulation, general interest magazines due to the increasing use of television by both consumers and advertisers (Gage, 1982; van Zuilen, 1977).

Today, magazines face competition from Internet–only e–zines, which have virtually no traditional paper, printing, or distribution costs, and are better versed in new media interactivity. Because of this they are able to serve even more specialized vertical communities — a function similar to today’s special interest and trade magazines. Magazines also face the television and radio industries’ entry into the text–based medium now available through the Internet. In sum, the four–color, text–based medium that magazines used to “own” has in many ways become available to virtually anyone with Web technology.

Meanwhile, magazine publishers are trying to find ways to best capitalize on the Internet without cannibalizing their own readers and advertisers (Marlatt, 2001; Woodard, 2001). According to a survey in Folio, a leading trade publication, 54.5 percent of the sampled magazine professionals feel that the integration of print and digital media is a top issue facing the industry — second only to circulation economics (Folio, 2001).




The purpose of this is paper is to provide an historical overview of the positive and negative effects of new mass media introductions on magazine publishing in the United States over the last century. The goal is to provide context and perspective on the increasing penetration of the World Wide Web and its effect on magazine reading habits. Some of industry’s major developments and trends are examined in light of the introductions of new mass media. Within the framework of this paper, new media are considered as new forms of mass communication or entertainment media that threaten to take readers or advertisers away from traditional magazines.

The major media types or groups that have been introduced since the beginning of the twentieth century include film, sound recordings, radio, television, personal computers, video cassettes, video games, and the Internet. Some of these media introductions have had major negative impacts on magazines; for example, television “stole” readers and advertisers that resulted in the eventual extinction of general interest, mass circulation magazines in the late 1960s and early 1970s (van Zuilen, 1977). Conversely, the births of other new media have had positive effects on the magazine industry. For example, the growing penetration and popularity of the personal computer during the 1980s motivated millions of information–hungry readers and special–interest advertisers. Each introduction of a new brand of personal computer or even model number was followed immediately (or concurrently) by the launch of several competitive magazine titles in the 1980s (Maryles, 1983; New York Times, 1983).

Each time a new medium is introduced it threatens to displace existing media to some degree or another (Dimmick and Rothenbuhler, 1984b). An historical perspective on both the perceived threats at their introduction, and the general effects of new media on magazines throughout this century will provide a better understanding of the current media landscape.



Magazines in America

Magazines have been a part of American culture since American Magazine was first published in colonial America (Paneth, 1983). By 1825 there were an estimated 100 magazines being published. This figure grew to more than 600 in 1850, with another four or five thousand titles having come and gone during that 25–year span (Schmidt, 1980). But even with such popularity, magazines were a considered a medium of leisure. As Peterson outlines:

“So long as people were preoccupied with earning a living and pushing back the frontier, so long as leisure and literacy were not widespread, so long as transportation was rudimentary and uncertain, magazines lived precariously.” [1]

Until the end of the 1880s these magazines relied solely on subscription revenues or the wealth of their publishers to cover expenses. “A publisher started a magazine because he had something to say.” [2] Money was not the main motivation: “Magazines, except for a few local publications or trade papers, seldom contained advertisements.” [3] Even so, the post–Civil war economic boom saw the number of magazines being published jump from 700 in 1865 to 3,300 in 1885 (Peterson, 1980).

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, due to the mass production of consumer products and the evolution of brand names, “the modern magazine arose in the 1890s as a handmaiden of the marketing system … New products were appearing in profusion.” [4] Publishers began to realize that magazines could be a vehicle to showcase merchandise, not just ideas (Bart, 1962). By 1900 major advertisers were pouring money into all of the popular magazines (Douglas, 1991).

With the turn of the century came increases in technological advances providing in part more leisure time for Americans. Both technology and leisure time increased the popularity of magazines. For example:

“By the early 1900s the physical appearance of magazines was transformed by the new dry–plate processes by which pictures, line drawings and photographs could be printed as half–tones … . Widespread use of this process followed, with the increased opportunity for magazines to become designed objects, not merely collections of type with occasional woodcuts or steel engravings.” [5]

While black and white photography played a prominent role, four–color printing would be commercially viable soon. National Geographic was publishing four–color editorial as early as 1910 (Edkins, 1978). At this time, newspapers and books were the main competitors of magazines (Peterson, 1956). But a new mass medium was on the horizon — one that did not require reading.



Motion pictures

The three mass media competitors at this stage of development were all text–based: newspapers, books, and magazines. The first new mass media to affect magazines was film, which entered the realm of mass media in 1904 as The Great Train Robbery drew in moviegoers. The proliferation of movie magazines began around 1910 and continued into the 1940s (Peterson, 1956). “Magazines for movie fans began to appear when motion pictures moved from the shady atmosphere of the nickelodeon into grand houses of their own … . Throughout the twenties, thirties and forties, new titles were forever appearing on newsstands.” [6]

In 1922, average weekly movie attendance was 40 million with an average weekly household attendance of 1.56. This continued to grow until weekly attendance peaked out at 90 million in 1948 with an average weekly household attendance of 2.22 (Salvaggio and Bryant, 1989).

But because the film industry relied solely on consumer ticket purchases for revenues, and not on advertising income, the economic impact on magazines was not necessarily a negative one. While ticket costs and the recreational time required to attend motion pictures did eat away at leisure dollars and hours, the new medium spurred an interest in movie stars’ lives both on and off the screen. These publications “satisfied the public curiosity about what was happening during the golden age of Hollywood.” [7]

One early readership study showed some empirical evidence of a complementary relationship between movies and magazines. In this effort to examine environmental factors affecting readership, a study (Lazarsfeld and Wyant, 1937) compared the circulation of 25 leading magazines in 90 U.S. cities with seven geographic and socioeconomic variables, including occupational structure, educational expenditures, and the number of movie houses in a city.

They first established that large populations were associated with lower readership levels, perhaps because “larger cities offer a greater number of diversified amusements.” [8] But there was a moderate positive relationship (r = .38 being the only statistic reported) between the number of movie houses in a city and the readership variable. It was concluded that “Clearly, a rise in the number of movies results in an increase in reading interest.” [9]

In further analysis of the circulations of specific magazines, they reported a particularly strong positive relationship between the number of theaters in a city and the circulation of the magazine Red Book. “One possible reason for this correlation is that the type of story in Red Book is especially similar to the type of story portrayed on the screen.” [10] This study supports the idea that sometimes similar subject matter creates a complementary effect between media, rather than a displacement effect.

Between 1911 and 1938 alone, 60 consumer magazines and nearly 90 trade and in–house publications were founded that addressed the subject of films, cinema, movie stars, and production (Lomazow, 1996). Some of the more memorable startups of the first half of the twentieth century included Photoplay (1911), Picture Play (1915), Screen Play (1925), Screen Romances (1929), Movie Life (1937), and Movieland (1942) (Peterson, 1956). Thus, a whole new category was created and numerous magazines were launched to satisfy the appetite of the millions of fans of this new sensation called Hollywood and the business and industry that accompanied it.

Today there are not nearly as many specific movie star magazines being published; average weekly movie attendance is approximately a third of what it was at its peak in the 1940s (Salvaggio and Bryant, 1989). But the public’s seemingly unending interest in stars and the intimate details of their lives is reflected in the large circulations of many leading consumer magazines. People Weekly (4.1 million), Teen People (1.6 million), Rolling Stone (1.2 million), and Us (1 million); leading women’s magazines all rely heavily on reader interest in the stars produced by movies and the media–infatuated popular culture. Today, the leading general circulation magazine devoted solely to the movies is Premiere with a circulation just more than 600,000 (Audit Bureau of Circulations, 2001). However, there are still many other smaller circulation titles covering different facets of the movies and its trades.




After the entrance of the motion picture as a competitive threat to magazines, the next new medium to enter the marketplace was radio. Prior to the advent of film “talkies,” the first radio station with commercial sponsors and programming went on the air in Pittsburgh, towards the end of 1920 (van Zuilen, 1977).

Unlike motion pictures, this new mass medium relied on consumer time and advertising sponsor revenues. Radio grew rapidly in popularity, with NBC forming the first formal network in 1926 (Salvaggio and Bryant, 1989). The organization of network radio brought a greater competitive threat to magazines:

“By the late twenties, radio was rapidly becoming an important competitor for advertising appropriations; the gross advertising carried by the networks jumped from $4,000,000 in 1927 to $10,000,000 in 1928 to $19,000,000 in 1929. Magazines recognized the threat; the Saturday Evening Post ran many articles about stage and screen but paid the scantiest of editorial attention to radio.” (Peterson, 1956)

Leading magazine publishers went so far as to seek the advice of university faculty because they were concerned about the loss of advertising to radio as well as the effects of the Great Depression (Peterson, 1980). Not surprisingly, the answer they got then was to improve their editorial focus and quality.

Radio reached its “Golden Age” during the 1930s when by 1934 half of the homes in the U.S. had radios (Media History Project, 2001). By 1940 there were more than 28 million households with radios, a penetration of just more than 80 percent (Salvaggio and Bryant, 1989). But while radio was reaching high penetration levels, publishers began capitalizing on new print technologies that would enhance what they could offer both readers and advertisers. Magazines would grow to rely on and would differentiate themselves from competing media for the next several decades:

“… full–color photographic reproduction in the 30s started a new era of general magazine publishing … In the Nov. 15, 1931 issue of Vogue, they made color history with a sensational color photography [sic] of fruit and silver … . From this time on Vogue enhanced its page with color, including during the Depression.” [11]

The specific impact of the radio medium was apparently not substantial because by the mid 1930s, “… publishers saw that radio was not eating into their share of total advertising appropriations” [12]

However, radio was still a threat to magazines, capable of taking away national advertising accounts. There was also the Great Depression to deal with. Perhaps because of these threats, and the fact that radio was not a visual medium, it was not embraced with numerous magazine launches in the same way film and Hollywood was adapted. Even so there was a “ready market for magazines carrying radio program schedules as long as many newspapers refused to list such schedules because of their feud with the new medium.” [13] For example, with 17 regional editions, Annenberg’s Radio Guide sold 420,000 issues in 1936.

While the further development of printing technology certainly played its part (Edkins, 1978), it is interesting to note the relatively parallel timeline of the peaking popularity of radio and the emergence of the picture magazine. Picture magazines and general interest titles would drive the industry well into the 1960s. The picture magazine can also be seen as a competitive response to radio’s popularity among consumers. Radio was not a visual medium and could never become such. However, magazines were and could tell stories through pictures — large and small. Thus, as a medium, magazines altered their content, forming a new category — the picture magazine. As Peterson explains:

“ … the ’30s belonged to the picture magazine. Anticipating the visual world of television, it surpassed even the condensations of the news weeklies and digest by summarizing in photographs instead of in text. So many picture magazines sprouted up in the mid–thirties that Scribner’s entitled an article about them ‘One Every Minute.’ Their influences, especially the influences of Life and Look, permeated the whole of American journalism.” [14]

In 1977, Susan Sontag in On photography offered one reason why photographs had such an impact on the American public, and in turn, on the popularity of the picture magazine:

“A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always the presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.” [15]

While there were forerunners, the culmination of technological and competitive forces saw the launches of the two major picture magazines: Life in 1936, which was selling more than one million copies in just a few weeks, and Look in 1937, which was selling 1.7 million copies before its first anniversary. There were a host of others, too. Click, which emphasized sex and shock reached a circulation of 1.6 million. Focus, Pic, Photo–history, Peek, Foto, and Picture were just some of the other short– and long–lived titles that began or re–conceptualized in the 1930s. Ideas for picture magazines were so prevalent that one trade paper remarked, “… every advertising man carried a dummy for a picture magazine in his pocket.” [16]

Today, all types of magazines use the airwaves to support subscription campaigns and single copy sales (Hovey, 1991). They have also found success in partnering with radio stations and networks to produce short audio segments highlighting the general or specific content of a magazine. Said one publisher: “It would be prohibitively expensive for us to buy this extensive kind of radio time … . It’s a great way to give people a sense of the information that we provide in our issues.” [17]



Sound recordings

Another aural medium, the phonograph record, began its commercial ascent in the 1910s. But “beginning in 1922, radio interrupted the progress of the phonograph industry, and sales of both players and records dropped 50 percent by 1924 over the previous year.” [18] The impact of the World Wars and a musicians’ strike also stunted its growth. The phonograph record — which would eventually lead to other forms of sound recordings such as magnetic tape, compact discs, and digital media — did not really take off until the late 1940s when the 33–1/3 long–playing record (LP) and 45–rpm were introduced (Salvaggio and Bryant, 1989). High Fidelity, which launched in 1951, was the first U.S. magazine to address readers who didn’t exist before 1940 — audiophiles (Nourie and Nourie, 1990).

“Recordings have, since their beginning, complemented and amplified many areas of publishing.” [19] The sound recording medium affected magazine publishing in much the same way film did. It was an entertainment medium that relied solely on consumer purchases, and did not rely on advertising. It was not as threatening as radio, but sound recordings were threatening to radio. As the number of phonographs being shipped each year reached the million mark in the early 1950s, the interest in music stars (and instruments) spawned new titles and eventually a new category of magazines.

In 1943, the American Newspaper Directory listed only eight magazines in the music category, including Song Hits with a circulation nearly 450,000 (American Newspaper Directory, 1943). By 1970, the number of music magazine titles had grown to 32, including Hit Parader with a circulation of 216,575 (Ayer Directory of Publications, 1970). Rolling Stone, which was launched in 1967, quickly became a social, political, and cultural voice of a generation. By 1976 the magazine had a bi–weekly circulation of 500,000 (Nourie and Nourie, 1990). Today, with a circulation of 1.2 million (Audit Bureau of Circulations, 2001), Rolling Stone appeals to both the young music fan as well as the aging baby boomer.

According to one source, there are nearly 60 magazines being published in the music category today, not including trade magazines (SRDS, 2001). But there are even more music titles according to the National Directory of Magazines. Over a ten–year span from 1989 to 1999, the music and music trades category was rated the third–fastest growing category in magazine publishing. There were 286 titles in 1989. By 1999 that number had risen to 519 (Magazine Publishers of America, 2001a). And another source shows new music magazine launches in the Top 20 in 1999 (Husni, 1999) [20].

In addition to a healthy number of music titles today, roles have even reversed with publishers and record companies partnering to produce CDs targeted at readers of their magazines. A growing number of magazines — including major titles such as Good Houskeeping and Esquire — have licensed their names to record labels, producing CDs filled with songs that relate to their magazines (Beam, 1995). Said one VP of magazine brand development, “It’s not going to make you a millionaire, but it’s good for your magazine and good for your readers.” [21]



Television and video

By the 1940s, the general interest, mass circulation magazines (with and without an emphasis on pictures) were well established. These include Life, Look, Collier’s, and the Saturday Evening Post and others. National magazines, with circulations in the millions, were an important part of national advertising strategies of virtually all major brand name products. In 1946 magazines held 12.6 percent of the total advertising market share (van Zuilen, 1977).

It was earlier that decade when television began its diffusion into U.S. households, but network television did not begin until 1949 (Media History Project, 2001). By 1956, television penetration reached 71.8 percent with 35 million sets (van Zuilen, 1977). As outlined by Dimmick and Rothenbuhler (1984a), the growth in television advertising market share caused a serious drop in national radio advertising sales. Radio adjusted to this threat by focusing on local and regional advertising sales. Meanwhile, magazine publishers perhaps did not feel immediately threatened because in its first incarnation television did not offer four–color advertising.

General interest consumer magazines continued to flourish throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s. But as the cost of four color television sets decreased, and television’s overall penetration went up — 97 percent by 1969 — the economic ride the general interest and picture magazines had enjoyed came to end. The immediacy and emotional depth of color television displaced the four–color general interest and picture magazines. By as early as 1956 television had 12.2 percent of total advertising market share, while magazine advertising market share had dropped to eight percent (van Zuilen, 1977).

“No competitor ever gave publishers as many fretful hours as television, which grew rapidly in the postwar boom. Expenditures on television advertising — network, spot, and local — climbed from virtually nothing in the late 1940s to more than $1.7 billion in 1963 … . When magazine profits declined in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many observers were quick to blame the trouble on television.” [22]

Through the marketing concept of “product life cycle” van Zuilen (1977) thoroughly examined the economics of the rise and fall of the general interest mass market magazine and stated the following about the threat of television:

“During the 1950s and 1960s television became the arch enemy of mass audience magazines by siphoning away badly needed advertising revenues. This lack of advertising revenue, television’s impact on tens of millions of fascinated viewers, followed by circulation battles among the magazines themselves, and coupled with all of this a lack of clear vision and often mismanagement, contributed to the decline and fall of the general interest mass audience magazines.” [23]

As mentioned in the above quote, television not only ate away magazines’ national advertising market share, but it also took readers away — general entertainment seekers. “If the habit of nighttime television viewing is heavy in the household, magazines pile up unread and there’s little incentive to buy new copies.” [24] This is another reason why large general circulation magazines struggled. The general mass market magazines like Life, Look, and others eventually failed due to a loss of two crucial resources: national advertising and consumer time, both of which were being successfully courted by the new four–color television medium.

Reacting to the loss of these resources, the magazine industry rebounded by developing an increasing number of special–interest magazines. This new resource was made up of readers who wanted specialized or more detailed information they couldn’t get in the general electronic media, and advertisers who wanted to spend money on a more specific, target audience. So, the magazine industry became more specialized leading to a proliferation of special interest magazines beginning in the 1970s on through to today (Abrahamson, 1996). This was the beginning of the trend known as niche publishing.

With increased specialization, when videocassettes and cable television began to reach critical mass in the 1970s and 1980s, one might have predicted the death of reading because there was now a channel or videocassettes for just about every interest imaginable. However, just the opposite occurred. The magazine industry used television advertising and videocassettes as promotional giveaways providing added value for subscribers and attracting new ones (Dougherty, 1982). The classic example is Sports Illustrated offering different videos “with your paid subscription”, depending on the time of year and specific sports season. Subscribing to the magazine was almost an afterthought to getting the free video. So in essence, videocassettes were used to expand the magazine market. Magazines also used the cable television medium as brand extensions, producing instructional tapes and television shows designed specifically for the magazine’s audience (Knoll, 1984; Learner, 1982; Pool, 1983).

But the positive effect of cable television was felt beyond the shows and advertisements produced by specific magazines. Samir Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi and a magazine industry consultant, explained the continued growth of niche publications in this way: “If I watch mud wrestling on ESPN and want to see more, I get a magazine. TV’s fueling it all.” (Anthony, 1998) But this explanation is not necessarily a new one. The idea of specialized television promoting increased magazine readership was suggested as early as 1965 by Wolseley: “… documentary television as well as some regular programming can move viewers to read specialized magazines as they search for more information on the subject of deep interest.” [25]

So in effect, these new media have helped increase the number of magazines by increasing an important resource: the number of people interested in a specific hobby or subject, and the degree to which they want that information. For example, in recent years, we have seen the launches of a variety of new cable sports networks such as ESPN2, the Golf Channel, a sports history channel, Speed Vision, a network of regional sports channels under Fox, and more. Yet 1998 alone saw the launch of more than 122 new consumer sports magazines, with the cable network ESPN launching its own print publication to compete with Sports Illustrated (Shapiro, 1999). Then in 1999, the sports magazine category led again in the number of new launches (Magazine Publishers of America, 2001a).

This same idea of cross–pollination can also be applied to video games. Beginning with the introduction of Pong in 1972 (Media History Project, 2001) video games have not relied on advertising but only competed with magazines for consumer time. But the increased interest created by these new games motivated potential buyers for a whole new category of magazines.

“If you’re a 12–year–old boy, you’re totally psyched for the new 64–bit Nintendo gaming console to hit the market in September. If you’re a parent, you can’t wait until the price drops from $249.95 to under $200 hopefully by Christmas. If you’re the publisher of a gaming magazine, you’re counting on these events to boost your business.” [26]

In 1980, (S.R.D.S., 1980) this was essentially a category that didn’t exist. Today with the number of different video game consoles and the popularity of many of the same games on the PC, entertainment gaming magazines are integral to the portfolio of some of the major players in the magazine industry (Sucov, 1996). Some of these titles have circulations in the 400,000 range. A number of gaming magazines also include game demos on CDs with their magazines (Nelson, 1997).




Computers first appeared in their mainframe forms in the 1940s and 1950s in government agencies and universities; eventually they migrated to the publishing industry in the 1960s and 1970s, providing an effective means for magazines to reduce costs and improve production quality via electronic typesetting and pre–production. As the personal computer became popular in the 1980s, they were also an important part of magazines increasing production quality and reducing costs. No longer did magazines have to hire typesetters; writers and editors did the typesetting while they wrote and edited. Furthermore, the eventual cost efficiencies provided by the desktop publishing revolution enabled publishers to launch more magazines in a diverse variety of formats.

In much the same way film provided fodder for its fans, the subject of computers provided numerous opportunities for magazine launches. This analogy was not lost on business writers in the early 1980s:

“In the Great Depression, Americans forgot their troubles and found their comfort at the movies. A batch of movie magazines soon sprang up to chronicle movie idols. Now a new star is commanding publishers’ attention. It’s not a platinum–blonde sex symbol or a Gable clone. Hardly. It’s a machine, the IBM Personal Computer. At last count there were half a dozen magazines devoted solely to Big Blue’s offering.” [27]

Americans purchased 415,000 PCs for home and business use in 1980 (New York Times, 1983). Magazine consultants described the rush to publish new computer titles as “incredible gold strikes” with entrepreneurs hitting the big time with relatively little investment [28]. In early 1980 there were about 24 computer magazines. This increased to 33 by the end of the year. In 1981 there were 11 new launches, followed by 25 in 1982 and at least another 40 in 1983 (Klingel, 1983). That same year, a New York Times article put the total number of computer titles at more than 200, not counting the new media attempts of magazines being published on floppy disks (New York Times, 1983). Jay Walker, publisher of the Folio 400, the magazine industry’s answer to the Fortune 500, said, “This is unprecedented in the history of magazine publishing.” [29]

For every new computer or operating system, software category, and specific software applications introduced in the 1980s, there seemed to be several new magazines launched (Business Week, 1983). For example, when IBM debuted its PCjr home computer in 1983, there were at least three magazines aimed at end users (New York Times, 1983). Note the names of these magazines that were playing off of the Apple Computer brand name at the time: Apple Orchard, inCider, Nibble, and Peelings. Most appropriately, reporters used the term “niche” to describe the situation (Benoit, 1983; Klingel, 1983; New York Times, 1983). These magazines succeeded and failed on the success or failure of specific systems or software. In some instances the magazines outlasted the popularity and manufacturing of the particular PC brand or model (Wilson, 1994).

In one article, a successful publisher compared the explosion of the PC to the explosion in popularity of the television in the 1950s. But the reporter writing the story identified one insightful difference: “Television inspired a torrent of words but only one big magazine.” [30] Without the direct competition for advertising dollars, the result of the PC explosion was instead a plethora of magazines directed at specific segments of the PC market — again, a whole new magazine category was created.

In addition to the increasing popularity of computers by consumers — “magazines are livelier and easier to read than technical manuals” [31] — another reason was the necessity for new companies and products to build brand recognition in a market where none existed. “When new brands are competing to establish brand identities, … they spend an abnormally high level on advertising … the advertisers won’t, probably can’t maintain this level of advertising forever.” [32] The boom eventually ended and a shakeout took place for both PC manufacturers and publishers as advertising slowed and reader interest lagged behind the number of magazines (Klingel, 1983; Moran, 1984; Tchong, 1985).

Another benefit from computer magazines was their experimenting with new media in the early 1980s: delivering programs, text, and advertising on disk to their readers. “Because all of the readers have computers, the medium can be different. You can distribute information on diskette as well as paper. They’re going to advance publishing, getting it away from paper,” said David Bunnell, founder of Personal Computing and PC magazines [33]. “It will not be the trend, but it will be a trend,” said PC Disk Publisher Andre Van Hattum [34].

Computer, technology, and new media magazines are still a major category today. Many magazines include CD–ROM disks as promotional tools and to enhance single copy newsstand sales. According to the National Directory of Magazines, the computer/automation magazine category was the fourth leading category, growing from 338 to 605 titles between the years 1988–1998 (National Directory of Magazines, 1999). And Samir Husni’s Guide to New Consumer Magazines lists the computer category as the fifth fastest–growing category in 1999 with 16 new launches (Husni, 1999). These categories, of course, include new media and Internet–oriented magazines.



The Internet

In its initial form, the computer provided many benefits — both direct and indirect — to the magazine industry. One 1997 study reported that computer use was associated with an increase in the use of print, not a decrease. However most of these positive correlations were explained away by the fact that people of higher socioeconomic status are in general more likely users of print media (Robinson and Godbey, 1997). Furthermore, the study was conducted before the days of monthly unlimited access plans now offered by America Online and virtually all other Internet service providers.

In this new millennium, the centuries–old magazine industry is faced with the World Wide Web, a mass communications medium that some consider interpersonal in nature, offering many of the benefits provided by print, radio, and television. It is also competing in two areas essential to magazines: consumer time and advertising revenues. At least one Internet publisher predicts a “tectonic shift that happens once a generation, and the shift of old brand to new is painful and usually fateful to old brands.” [35] A 1998 report by Forrester Research noted in this same article reported that “advertisers will increasingly migrate to online business–to–business sites, and that trade publishers are lagging behind Web start–ups.” [36]

Advertisers, both local and national, have been spending significant dollars on the Internet. The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), which started tracking U.S. Internet ad spending in 1996, reports nearly US$2 billion in advertising revenue during the third quarter of 2000 alone, an increase of 63 percent over the third quarter of 1999. This, in a category of advertising that didn’t exist six years ago.

But it’s not just advertising dollars that are shifting. Consumer time is shifting as well. With U.S. Internet penetration at 60 percent, 63 million Americans are averaging nearly three hours per week surfing the Web, staying an average of about one minute per page (Netratings, 2001).

But even with the exponential growth the Internet is experiencing, it is certainly not a bad time for the magazine publishing industry. There appears to be no slowing of the trend of increasing number and specialization of magazine titles. 5,200 consumer magazines were distributed nationally in 1998, more than double the 2,500 that were distributed in 1985 (Anthony, 1998). There were more new magazine launches than ever before — a total of 1,076 new consumer magazines in 1998 alone. Says Samir Husni, “I started tracking magazine launches 21 years ago, and I have never seen a year like 1998, complete with a record number of new titles. A non–stop force of new magazines were launched throughout the year, even in the doldrums of December when the number of new titles was more than double the number of launches the previous December.” [37]

The new and old media continue to play an important part of this growth: 58 new computer magazines, 23 new entertainment and performing arts magazines, 125 new media personality magazines, and the list goes on and on (Shapiro, 1999). Again, in 1999 there was an increase in the number of magazine launches, although not quite as robust as 1998: 354 in 46 categories (Husni, 1999). According to Husni, the Internet is driving increased consumer interest the same way cable television did:

“The Internet and cable television have driven a demand for more information on more obscure things. So, as niche marketing is carried further, magazines become ‘more human.’ While TV provides viewership to feed the readership, the Internet — where niche marketing is far easier because distribution is cheap — is feeding a Balkanization of interests. And amateur ’zines once almost guerrilla publications, are now entering the mainstream as desktop publishing becomes easier and the number of national distributors increases.” [38]

The question remains, however, can this growth and consumer interest be sustained with the increasing penetration of Internet households, growing carrier bandwidth (Strategis Group, 2001), and quality of Web sites? As outlined earlier, it was more than 20 years after television’s advent before the full impact of television hit the mass–market consumer magazines in the 1960s. One recent study conducted by Starcom, the media buying unit of Leo Burnett Co., blames the Internet for an apparent sharp fall–off in magazine readership.

“Top magazines lost 61 million readers, ages 18 to 49, between fall 1997 and fall 1998 … the study blames the decline on reader migration to the Internet and predicts the effects will be ‘real and lasting.’ … 56 titles gained 18 million impressions, but 144 magazines lost 79 million impressions.” (Mediacentral, 1999)

But publishers argue that the report mixed apples and oranges. “Readership may have declined for the top 50 magazines, but the audience has simply shifted to the incredible number of hot new magazines that started. The real trend … is that magazines are being created for much more targeted segments.” (Mediacentral, 1999). Further defending the position of print publishers, there has also been some question for a number of years as to the stability and consistency of year–to–year, industry–wide circulation figures (Media Industry Newsletter, 1996).

But the trend suggested by the Starcom study continued in 1999 with the Top 25 Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC)-audited magazines losing circulation while the remainder of the Top 100 showing a slight gain, resulting in a net increase of 1.3 percent (Magazine Publishers of America, 2000).

But this may be an indication of another level of increased specialization by the magazine industry: the relatively general magazines of today lose circulation while the even more specialized niche magazines gain. Just as the general interest mass market magazines lost consumers and advertisers to television in the 1950s and 1960s, today’s relatively generalized special–interest publications (large circulation) are losing readers while an increasing number of even more specialized magazines are being launched. Today there are more than 300 ABC–audited magazines with circulations of less than 250,000, while there are less than 100 with circulations greater than one million. And the number of specialized titles keeps growing. Standard Rate and Data figures show the number of consumer magazines increasing from 1,795 in 1998 to 2,520 in 1999 (Magazine Publishers of America, 2000). These figures certainly supports the idea of a complementary effect, where other media increase the overall market size for audience interest in particular magazines. History may be repeating itself in that today’s general interest magazines are losing circulation, while niche magazines are gaining within even more specialized markets.




The purpose of this historical overview was two–fold. First, it provides perspective. When a new medium arrives in the marketplace with its accompanying bells and whistles some observers (usually proponents of the new medium) tend to ring death knells for existing media. And while specific types and segments have and will continue to be negatively affected by new media, as a whole, and over a lengthy period, old media have found ways to survive in the presence of new media. So even with all the excitement generated by the explosive growth of the Internet and its exciting capabilities, history shows us that old media continue to survive and prosper — somehow. But there are serious lessons to be learned as well. If the general interest magazines in the 1960s had reacted earlier and differently to the threat from television, perhaps their downfall would not have been so great.

The second major idea suggested in this chapter is the concept that new media can certainly displace existing media (as with television and the general interest magazines), but it can also have a complementary effect as well (computers, for example). With this displacement vs. complementary idea in mind — based on an historical perspective — publishers can be better informed in making strategic decisions, while scholars can be more prepared to examine theoretical issues. End of article


About the author

Quint Randle is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Brigham Young University. He is also founding editor of Gig, a monthly magazine targeted at working musicians.
E–mail: quint_randle [at] byu [dot] edu



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2. Bart, 1962, p. 32.

3. Douglas, 1991, p. 15.

4. Peterson, 1980, p. 166.

5. Schmidt, 1980, p. 11.

6. Peterson, 1956, pp. 281–282.

7. Tebbel, 1969, pp. 239–240.

8. Lazarsfeld and Wyant, 1937, p. 33.

9. Op.cit., p. 34.

10. Op.cit., p. 38.

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12. Peterson, 1956, p. 30.

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14. Peterson, 1980, p. 168.

15. Sontag, 1977, p. 5.

16. Peterson, 1956, pp. 313–314.

17. Folio, 1997, p. 18.

18. Salvaggio and Bryant, 1989, p. 279.

19. Brook, 1977, p. 72.

20. The Magazine Publishers of America (MPA) notes that there are a number of directories and sources that provide the number magazines in the U.S. market, some more comprehensive than others. These include National Directory of Magazines, Standard Rate and Data Service, Audit Bureau of Circulations, BPA International, and the Publishers Information Bureau; see MPA, 2001b.

21. Beam, 1995, p. 32.

22. Peterson, 1964, p. 24.

23. van Zuilen, 1977, p. 31.

24. Wolseley, 1965, p. 53.

25. Op.cit., p. 52.

26. Sucov, 1996, p. 23.

27. Benoit, 1983, p. 93.

28. Klingel, 1983, p. 64.

29. New York Times, 1983, p. D1.

30. Benoit, 1983, p. 94.

31. Ibid.

32. Klingel, 1983, p. 68. This same scenario and advertising windfall would play out again with the Internet boom in the late 1990s.

33. Benoit, 1983, p. 94.

34. New York Times, 1983, p. D7.

35. Marlatt, 1999, p. 1.

36. Forrester Research, 1998, p. 1.

37. Shapiro, 1999, p. 1.

38. Anthony, 1998, p. 1.



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Editorial history

Paper received 3 August 2001; accepted 17 August 2001.

Copyright © 2001, First Monday.

Copyright © 2001, Quint Randle.

A historical overview of the effects of new mass media: Introductions in magazine publishing during the twentieth century
by Quint Randle
First Monday, Volume 6, Number 9 - 3 September 2001

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