Magazines As Initiators. The Social Role of the American Consumer Magazines. A Blast from Mr. Magazine’s™ Past… Dissertation Entries Part 5…

March 20, 2015

Magazines As Initiators

inkonpaper_blog_ad The role of magazines as initiators is a complex one because it is most often linked to its role as a reflector. If magazines do exist in circles, as Roland Wolseley said, then they should play the role of both initiators and reflectors. Over the years, magazines have been the only place for certain stories and pictures to exist or to start stirring things up from that ground.

Whether it was depicting the first woman to be shown lighting a cigarette or a discussion of corruption in government or big business, it appeared first on the pages of the national magazines. As stated by Benjamin Compaine, “Magazines have often taken the initiative in delving into national issues and problems.” Magazines have played this role since the days of Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens at McClure’s. It was in the Ladies Home Journal in 1919 that the first woman was shown lighting a cigarette and in 1922 the first woman was shown drinking alcohol.

The above information was written in 1983 and is taken from a portion of my dissertation when I was at the University of Missouri-Columbia where I obtained my doctorate in journalism. And while the majority of the material still holds true, things have changed drastically in some areas.


In today’s digital age, print magazines still hold the number one spot as initiators of conversation. It doesn’t matter what one reads online; what website catches their fancy, or what comment receives the most thumbs-up on a particular social media site; magazines can unnerve, please, or move an entire nation simultaneously.

While the content of controversy may have changed since the 1920s; not too many people today would blink an eye at a woman lighting a cigarette or having an alcoholic libation; the response to the topic in discussion has not.

Time mom nursing For example, the May 2012 cover of Time magazine showcasing Jamie Lynne Grumet nursing her 3-year-old son. This particular cover initiated a firestorm of debate on the subject of attachment parenting. The entire country was talking about it. Some were aghast and some were pleased that a mother would continue to breastfeed (a natural act that’s considered the best possible nutrition for a child) and some were blasé about the whole thing; seeing it as no big deal. Regardless of the majority’s opinion, rest assured there were plenty of them and they all stemmed from a printed magazine’s cover. Initiation at its best.

Dixie-Chicks-EW-COver Entertainment Weekly decided to have the Dixie Chicks on their May 2003 cover at the height of their fall from country grace with comments made about President George W. Bush during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Lead singer, Natalie Maines’ words hit a very sour note with their country music fans across the country and sparked criticism from all facets of media.

Yet, Entertainment Weekly used their forum to ignite and initiate the ‘other side’ of the argument; the Dixie Chicks’ side, and in turn roiled up the turbulent seas even more. But initiators do what they do best: they initiate.

new york magazine And then there was the Photoshopped image on the cover of New York Magazine in 2011 of a woman in her 60s, naked and pregnant, replicating the 1991 Vanity Fair cover of a very naked, very pregnant Demi Moore. In the first case, the woman was neither naked nor pregnant; she was just digitally made to look that way. Maybe an unusual way to integrate print and digital, however it worked.

And while having pregnant moms on the covers of magazines is not controversial in and of itself, having one who is over the age of 50 stopped consumers in their tracks. And it initiated an ongoing pro and con exchange about older parents.

v2-Rollingstone When Rolling Stone put accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s face on the cover of the July 2013 issue, it initiated such a backlash of controversy across the country that it’s still being talked about today in some circles. The magazine took a huge chance when they placed someone like Tsarnaev in such a prominent spot like its cover. The photo of the man, who was accused of killing three people and wounding more than 200 in the tragedy, was said by many to be more of a depiction of youth than guilt. However, there were those that thought it was a good likeness of a man who appeared to be an unlikely terrorist and that the public should be aware of that fact.

And whether you agreed or disagreed; you certainly couldn’t argue the fact that it initiated a communication that may have never been opened up without that provocative Rolling Stone cover.

As I wrote in 1983, magazines have played the role of initiators almost from the beginning, delving into national issues and problems as Compaine stated. And they do it in a way that is inimitable, with an impact that reverberates around the world.

Until next week, when Mr. Magazine™ continues his journey with a blast from the past.

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