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The Magazine Century: A Macro-History Of American Magazines 1900 – 2020…

January 15, 2023

Q and A with Co-author David Sumner by Co-author Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni

The Mr. Magazine™ Interview

The New Yorker said of magazines: “And yet it’s notable that what made magazines appealing in 1720 is the same thing that made them appealing in 1920 and in 2020: a blend of iconoclasm and authority, novelty and continuity, marketability and creativity, social engagement and personal voice.”  David Sumner

“Yes, magazines originate when new interests emerge.  When people become interested in something new, a magazine pops up to serve those interests.” David Sumner

“The histories of individual magazines are micro-histories, and The Magazine Century is a macro-history.” David Sumner

This is a first for me: an interview with the co-author of my new book The Magazine Century, second edition.  The book is published by Peter Lang. You may say, but isn’t this a conflict of interest, and I will be quick to say, no.  In this day and age of overload information and fake truths, I have learned that if you are the best person to promote what you believe is your best work, just do it.  Let alone the work of  David E. Sumner, Ph.D., who wrote, alone, the first edition of The Magazine Century. David is professor emeritus of journalism at Ball State University where he taught magazine journalism for 25 years.  Two other books he co-authored are Magazines: A Complete Guide to the Industry (2006) and Feature and Magazine Writing: Action, Angle and Anecdotes (3rd ed., 2013).  He has also written two football biographies.

David asked me to co-author the second edition of The Magazine Century and I thought that would be the perfect start for my newly established Magazine Media Center that focuses on preserving the past, present and future of magazine media.  A giant first step in preserving the history and role of American magazines in the last 120 years, from 1900 to 2020.  More steps are to come, but for now, let us hear from David himself on the ins and outs of The Magazine Century, second edition in this special Mr. Magazine™ interview:

Professor David E. Sumner

Samir Husni:  In a nutshell, what is The Magazine Century?

David Sumner: Henry Luce, founder of Time Inc.,  wrote in a Life editorial on Feb. 7, 1941: “The world of the 20th century, if it is to come to life in any nobility of health and vigor, must be to a significant degree an American Century.” The idea for The Magazine Century  title came from Luce’s famous quote because the 20th century was a magazine century and an American magazine century. Magazines were the first medium capable of reaching a nationwide audience until radio became popular in the 1920s. By the end of the century, the U.S. published three times as many magazines as any other country. Even accounting for population growth, the typical American read three times as many magazines at the end of the century as he or she did at its beginning. 

S.H. : The 20th Century may have been the golden century of magazines; is this reflected in the book, and do you agree with that statement? 

D.S. Magazines will never again prosper and flourish as they did in the 20th century. Some top print magazines have closed or reached their circulation peak before declining  But we have seen a rebound since 2000 and overall magazines remain much stronger in circulation and profitability than newspapers. Newspapers have tried to be all things to all people, and their public trust has increasingly declined. Since the 1950s, magazines have increasingly focused on offering specialized, curated content to targeted demographic groups. That is the reason for their enduring strength. In a 2021 article, The New Yorker said of magazines: “And yet it’s notable that what made magazines appealing in 1720 is the same thing that made them appealing in 1920 and in 2020: a blend of iconoclasm and authority, novelty and continuity, marketability and creativity, social engagement and personal voice.”

S.H. : I, for one, believe that magazines are the best reflectors of society; is this reflection echoed in the book?  

D.S. :  Yes, magazines originate when new interests emerge.  When people become interested in something new, a magazine pops up to serve those interests. The Magazine Century reflects those changing interests throughout the 20th century. Each chapter in the book is focused on a decade. In the 1950s, magazines competed with television for advertising revenue and this chapter explains how that happened. In the 1980s, personal computers were introduced, and so this chapter describes the rise (and fall) of computer magazines. As the women’s movement gained strength, a group of women started Ms. magazine in the 1972. African Americans sought more career opportunities in the 1970s, so Earl Graves, Sr. started Black Enterprise in 1975. Every new magazine began with a new trend or interest.

Professor Sumner and his wife Elise during a visit to Dotdash Meredith’s test gardens in Des Moines, Iowa.

S.H. :  There have been many books written about the history of individual magazines from the 20thCentury; how is this book different?

D.S. : The histories of individual magazines are micro-histories, and The Magazine Century is a macro-history. Probably 100,000 magazines came and went during the 20th century, so it can’t cover all of them. The book mostly focuses mostly on the best-known magazines that are still being published–who founded them, the interests they met, and their evolution to the present day.  The book also tells a broader story of trends and how they affected magazines—such as the Great Depression in the 1930s, World War II in the 1940s, television in the 1950s, and the “New Journalism” movement of the 1960s. Early chapters contain short profiles of leading publishers of their era, such as Edwin T. Meredith, Condé Nast, Harold Ross, Henry Luce, William Randolph Hearst, Cyrus Curtis, DeWitt and Lila Wallace, John H. Johnson, and J.I. Rodale. Later chapters have short profiles of well-known editors in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Martha Stewart, Tina Brown, Grace Mirabella, and Anna Wintour.

S.H. :  Who is the intended audience for this book?

D.S. :  The first is audience is magazine professionals who want to understand the history of their industry and the major magazines. The second is media historians, especially those who teach in universities.  Many journalism schools have media history courses, and The Magazine Century makes an excellent supplementary text. I was quite surprised to learn how many scholars and doctoral students around the world are interested in U.S. magazines.  According to Google Scholar, the first edition of The Magazine Century was cited in more than 150 books, journals, and dissertations by scholars in more than 15 countries. 

S.H. : This is a history book about American magazines; how can it be helpful with understanding the current and future status of magazines?

D. S. : Magazines and newspapers made many mistakes when the internet first became popular during the 1990s.  First, they gave away all their content, then they begin to experiment with pay walls and revenue models, which they are still doing. At the same time, publishers discovered that the internet offered an excellent way to reach new audiences and attract potential subscribers to their print and online products. 

Chapter 13 contains a table comparing the 1990 and 2021 circulations of 25 leading magazines. Only six of those lost print circulation, while the remaining 19 gained. Martha Stewart Living, Men’s Health, Health, Entertainment Weekly, and The New Yorker doubled their circulation during those 30 years. Readers can look at these leading magazines to discover what they’re doing right.

S.H. :  Anything else you would like to add?

D.S.: The Magazine Century is the only book containing information about the history of American magazines in the last 30 years. Those have been turbulent years and understanding what happened is crucial to understanding the state of publishing today. I am proud of the work we did, and I think it will become a standard magazine reference for many years.

S.H. :  My typical final question is, what keeps David up at night these days?

D.S.:  On New Year’s day: I wrote on my Facebook page: “I am not making any resolutions this year. I’ve done most of the things I wanted to do in life, and what I haven’t done, I don’t care anymore.” Of course, I stay busy with writing projects; I go to the gym to run and work out; I’m active in my church; I’m always reading a book on Kindle, usually about American history. But there’s not much that keeps me up at night. I’m very fortunate.

S.H. : Thank you

You can order The Magazine Century, second edition, by clicking here.

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