Thursday, August 02, 2007

Re: The 51 Best Magazines Ever

BoSacks Speaks Out: Peter Hutchinson is a long time reader of this newsletter and has sent in many excellent responses published in the Bosacks Reader's Speak Out. Now he has taken his submissions to the next level, and is hereby granted the title of BoSacks Cub Reporter, with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities therein. To the best of my record keeping there are only three other official Bosacks-Cub Reporters.

The note below is a response from yesterday's article "The 51 Best Magazines Ever"
"In time of difficulties, we must not lose sight of our achievements"
Mao Tse-Tung (Chinese statesman, the key figure in China in the 20th century, 1893-1976)

Re: The 51 Best Magazines Ever
BY Peter Hutchinson

After I saw the original "51 Best Magazines" article in Good magazine I jotted down the following thoughts. I'm sure this is too long for republication, and I know your other loyal readers will have a few comments of their own, but I thought you might be interested.

It's human nature to believe that products improve as they go along-that the latest version is the state of the art. This may hold true for cars and computers, but it doesn't apply everywhere, and it certainly doesn't apply to magazines. Good magazine's list of the "Best Magazines Ever" does a great job of covering the era of the postwar Baby Boom. But ever means "always, at all times," according to my dictionary. That's more than just 50 or 60 years. And if best encompasses enduring importance and lasting influence, almost every magazine on the list has a couple of ancestors that could run rings around it.

The very first magazine, Edward Cave's Gentleman's Magazine (1731), launched a medium that's lasted more than 275 years. Isn't that enough to earn a spot on the list?

Granted, Cave was a Brit. If we're sticking to this side of the water, there's the first magazine published in America, Andrew Bradford's American Magazine (1741). It couldn't have been easy to get the drop on Benjamin Franklin . . . whose General Magazine (also 1741) doesn't seem to have made the list either.

What about the first American magazine published after the Declaration of Independence, Brackenridge's United States magazine (1779)? New magazine . . . new country . . . sharing the brand name should count for something. Besides, it was a pretty good magazine.

The list includes Portfolio from 1950. Its namesake, Joseph Dennie's Port Folio (1800), lasted a lot longer than three issues, and had a long reach. When Ross launched the New Yorker 125 years later, it bore an uncanny resemblance to Port Folio.

In addition to pushing the creative boundaries of magazine formats, the owners of Brother Jonathan (1839) and the New World (1840) also published America's first paperback books-in other words, invented a whole new branch of the publishing industry. They held to high standards for their content, too, even if they did steal most of it.

The New York Ledger (1850) never ran a single advertisement, but its publisher, Robert Bonner, redefined American advertising in his own promotions. He also produced an astonishingly successful periodical that demonstrated the enormous potential of the U.S. magazine market and inspired dozens, maybe hundreds, of imitators.

No question, Vogue is great. But it's a mere stepchild of the highly influential Godey's Lady's Book (1830). People are still framing the hand-colored illustrations from Godey's. Will anyone be framing pages from the current issue of Vogue 177 years from now?

Another 19th-century women's magazine, the Delineator (1873), was equally revolutionary in its own way. By publishing sewing patterns of the latest fashions, the Delineator brought affordable couture into thousands of U.S. homes. Theodore Dreiser, of all people, was one of its editors.

I'll agree that Highlights is a fixture in every pediatrician's waiting room. But compare it to any issue of St. Nicholas (1873) or the Youth's Companion (1827), and Highlights can't hold a candle.

How the list can include the Atlantic and barely mention Harper's (1850) escapes me. But to leave Harper's Weekly (1857) off the list altogether is just as bad. It was a groundbreaking American icon.

The Little Review and the Paris Review are great literary journals. But they both owe a deep debt to the Dial (1840), founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller (and relaunched repeatedly). Speaking of good writing, the North American Review (1815), which undoubtedly influenced Emerson and Fuller, set the bar pretty high-and still does.

Comfort (1888) was the first magazine to reach a circulation of one million, no small achievement . . . and was also the first American magazine to have a four-color cover. That started a trend!

In October, 1893, Munsey's (1889) dropped its price to 10 cents. Competitors like McClure's and Cosmopolitan followed suit almost immediately, quickly building an enormous readership in America's growing middle class. This created a national advertising medium for the many newly-emerging manufacturers of mass-produced, branded goods. At least one historian dates the emergence of American popular culture to Munsey's 1893 price cut. There's a milestone worth adding to the list.

In the early 20th century, Cyrus Curtis and Edward Bok carried the notion of a mass-market, middle-class magazine to new heights with the Ladies' Home Journal (1883). LHJ's influence on American magazine publishing was at least as large as that of the other Curtis magazine on the list, the Saturday Evening Post. And LHJ was the model for equally influential "sister" magazines, like Good Housekeeping, another ground-breaker.

Esquire, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker, made the cut but the Smart Set (1900) didn't. That's like dropping Ruth from the lineup of the '29 Yankees. The Smart Set more or less defined the "smart magazine" of the early 20th century . . . to say nothing of giving H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan their start in magazine publishing.

And by the way, the magazine those two went on to found in 1924, the American Mercury, was no slouch either.

McClure's (1893) raked every bit as much muck as Collier's and deserves more than passing recognition. But when it came to innovative, high-caliber journalism, both Scribner's (1870) and the Century (1881) were consistently outstanding.

I'd submit that maintaining paid circulation of 18 million, as Reader's Digest (1922) did through the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, is a feat worthy of mention. Something that gets 18 million people to enjoy reading can't be all bad. Besides, if People or Tiger Beat belong on the list, we can't go all snooty about the Reader's Digest.

The Nation (1865) is America's oldest surviving weekly, and has published writers as diverse as Henry James, Willa Cather, and Albert Einstein. The New Republic (1914) may be its equal in wielding influence disproportionate to size. W. E. B. Dubois and Ralph Ellison are on TNR's long list of famous contributors.

The Nation was launched to promote abolition, but was preceded by William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator (1831). Garrison closed his prospectus by asking readers to "urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest − I will not equivocate − I will not excuse − I will not retreat a single inch − AND I WILL BE HEARD . . . Say what you will about Ramparts-Garrison had a real commitment to radicalism.

Magazines with a business focus have been remarkably influential. Fortune made the list, but it's arguable that predecessors Business Week (1929) and Barron's (1921) had more impact. However, America's first business magazine, Thompson's Bank Note Examiner (1836) is really the publication that made them all possible. It's still being published as the American Banker.

Other professional magazines with outsize influence include a few that focus on the media-Ad Age (1930), for one example. Its forebear, Printer's Ink (1888), just about single-handedly shaped 20th-century advertising. And the difference between Brill's Content and the Columbia Journalism Review (1962), or Editor and Publisher (1901), is the difference between hollow pomposity and authority. Or, perhaps more obviously, between dead and alive.

More than a few paradigm-shifting inventions were chronicled, spread, and advanced by the American business press. The American Rail-Road Journal (1832) is one of the earliest examples of a trade magazine that helped change the world. More recently, you could say the same of Electronics (1930) or Computerworld (1970). In between there have been hundreds of equally influential B-to-B magazines.

One of the most consistently innovative American magazines has been-really!-Farm Journal (1877). From its rejection of patent medicine advertising at the turn of the 20th century to its astonishingly creative use of selective binding in the 1980s, Farm Journal has consistently led the pack . . . sometimes by decades.

In his introduction, Graydon Carter said that successful magazines must have a point. I'd add that they need passion, too. The best magazines reflect and extend the passions of their readers. And the past couple of generations don't have any monopoly on the passions that transform society, as any textbook on the history of journalism demonstrates.

People who work for magazines have a tendency to look forward: to the looming deadlines of the next issue or the challenge of next month's budget goals. But everyone in magazine publishing stands on the shoulders of giants. An occasional pause to look back and honor the men and women who brought us to the present can be rewarding.

No comments: