Some Ideas for Research on Magazine Journalism

Some Ideas on
Magazines, Journalism and Research

Gerald Grow
Florida A&M University

These are ideas I do not plan to develop. I offer them here for anyone who wants to take them, develop them, use them, disprove them — in the interest of continuing the conversation on journalism education.

The Role of the Online Editor in the Age of Clicks

I think there is a good idea for a panel discussion somewhere in the following essay.

Magazines traditionally offered this bargain to advertisers:

“Advertise with us and, through our high standards and editorial integrity, we will provide you with a guaranteed number of highly qualified, demographically selected, high-quality, loyal readers who have a vital interest in the subject of this magazine.  If you target ads to the kind of topic and demographic we attract, your ads will receive a responsive reading.”

In this approach, ads made a supportive marriage with the editorial content of magazines — typically helping readers find the products needed to carry out the activities featured in the magazine’s content.  For example, think of a computer magazine: Articles describe how to do things, ads tell where you can find what you need to do it.

Under the contemporary paradigm, however, online advertising systems say to online magazines:

“Just bring us visitors who will click on the page. We will match ads to the profile of each visitor and hope the visitors click on the ads. The demographics of the clicks are irrelevant to what we do. Your content is irrelevant to what we do. Your editorial integrity is irrelevant to what we do. Reader loyalty is irrelevant to what we do. We do not want quality readers, we want clicks.” (Perhaps I exaggerate. Slightly.)

I wonder if this doesn’t change the traditional function of editors — which was to survey a broad range of trustworthy information and select items they believe their readers need to know about.

Totem Pole, Field Museum Chicago

What will editors do in an age when content is influenced (or determined) by how many people think they want it, and where that information itself is being influenced by what  Web publishers think readers want and rumors about what bloggers think other bloggers think readers want?  The current scene seems at times to be going down a whirlpool that is in danger of becoming mostly buzz with little content — all in the name of sucking in more clicks. Journalists used to have a name for this pursuit of readership without attention to quality — tabloid journalism — and they condemned it. Now, it’s the new big thing.

Major publications now comment willingly that they hire people to get their articles mentioned on Digg, Twitter and elsewhere, to drive more clicks to the site. At AEJMC 2008, an online editor from a major newspaper told how they use Google Analytics to identify the hottest search terms of the moment (literally), which they use to reposition stories on their Web page and to rewrite headlines to include more of the hottest terms.

Who is thinking about the implications of this quest for clicks? If advertising systems need only clicks, and not demographically selected, highly qualified readers, why do advertisers need magazines at all? What can magazines do for advertisers in the age of click advertising? And, in the age of analytics-driven click-statistics, who needs editors to think about readers’ needs, create content, and plan issues?

Let me register the old-fashioned response, which is surely one part of a conversation we need to have.  I left one session at AEJMC 2008 feeling that, more than ever before, we need editors who are able to take on the role of selecting high quality material that is relevant to the lives of their readers, rather than editors who gather the swirls of transitory curiosity and promote it as the news.  The training of high-quality editors must surely include a wide and deep liberal arts background, a profound curiosity about how the world works and what makes people human, and a solid grounding in journalistic standards.

Can Google Analytics do that kind of editing?

Chicago Waterfront
Chicago Waterfront during AEJMC Convention, 2008

Is Inconsistency as Bad as Copy Editors Think It Is?

As one of its fundamental assumptions, copy editing asserts that consistency is essential. If you abbreviate a term, you must abbreviate it the same way everywhere. If you use the serial comma, you must use it always. The argument claims that a publication loses credibility with readers if it is not consistent.

Has there been any research to demonstrate that this is true? I have not seen any mentioned in books on copy editing. So, I’d like to suggest that someone research the question.

Here’s why.

The Internet encourages users to jump around from site to site, and different sites use different conventions of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, citation, and other usage. Online readers, I suggest, have become habituated to making quick changes among different grammatical conventions. Instead of noticing inconsistency and being disturbed by it, they simply read for meaning and skip past the changes.

Totem Masks, Field Museum Chicago

If this hypothesis is correct, online readers may have recalibrated their cognitive processes so that they no longer expect every change in format to indicate a change in meaning. This assumption seems to be the intellectual underpinning beneath the argument for consistency: When readers see a change in form, they expect it to signal a change in meaning. It is a reasonable assumption, and it appears to have been true for the normal run of well-edited print publications.

But has the Internet changed that expectation? Do readers still expect a change in form to signal a change in meaning? If they encounter inconsistent use of conventions of grammar, usage or spelling in the same passage, does this cause them to find the material less credible? (Is this sentence less credible because it omitted the serial comma, whereas an earlier sentence used it?)

That sounds like something you could test for. Here’s a place to start thinking about how:

Take a well-edited article of, say, 750 words that contains the kind of conventions in grammar, usage, and spelling that copy editors normally address themselves to. Create a second version of the article that uses grammatical conventions inconsistently. I am not talking about introducing grammatical errors,  but about using grammatical conventions differently within the same article.

For example, the changed article might abbreviate the street name in one complete address, but, later in the article, spell it out. It might capitalize a person’s title in one place, not in another. It might use commas inconsistently. And so on. In each case, the local usage would be “correct” according to some standard (though not by the AP Stylebook), but inconsistent with the same usage in another part of the article.

The question.

Do readers find the inconsistent article less credible? Do they notice the differences? Which ones bother them, if any? And which readers respond in which way? Do younger and older readers respond alike? Is there a generational difference? Do readers’ evaluation of the article’s credibility correlate to any demographics? How many inconsistencies does it take before readers find the article less credible?

You might well come up with some better questions to ask and better ways to test for them, but here’s the idea if you want it.

The Invasion of the Term “Narrative”

Over the past few years, I have been hearing the word “narrative” more and more on TV interviews and reading it in feature articles.

Sue, the T Rex in Chicago's Field Museum

I hear and read about things that I might label explanation, theory, account, idea, recollection, version, argument, ideology, report, article, performance, plot line, poem, painting, etc. But often it all gets reduced to the label “narrative,” and this happens so casually, so easily, so naturally, that I am really perplexed.

How can so many different and valuable things in the human world get reduced, without calling attention to it, to being labeled “narrative”? How can writers and commentators just pop out the word “narrative” to account for so many diverse human activities?

To see if I was right, I looked up “narrative” on the NY Times and CNN sites, and, sure enough, there are many uses of the word that have little to do with narrative as I understand it.

I want to raise the question of what  the world thinks “narrative” means, what educated media commentators and writers mean by it, and what relationship does the widespread use of “narrative” have to do with the use of the term in narrative journalism?

Here are a few examples of “narrative” from NYT and CNN, with my remarks:

[In a music review] Finally, here was the narrative tension the set seemed to promise from the beginning. It’s generally unwise to play a set made entirely of ballads, but it would be fascinating to see this trio try. [The sequence of songs on a set is a narrative?]

When Hindus kill Muslims it’s not a story, because there are a billion Hindus and they aren’t part of the Muslim narrative. [The quote goes on to be about Israel: The relationship between Muslims and Israel is a narrative? Islam is a narrative? The political nexus of the Middle East is a narrative?]

“I would say from my examination of the wounds on the victim and also the narrative that I got about how the attack happened that this almost certainly was a great white shark,” said Richard Rosenblatt, professor emeritus of marine biology at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. [OK, maybe a reconstructed sequence of events is a narrative. But it might also be a list on a page, or a folder containing several interviews, or a box of video tapes. Where, exactly, does the “narrative” come into being here?]

The narrative about our presidential candidates being just regular folks is a tired myth that gets repeated each and every day. [A myth is a narrative? The spin on a political candidate is a narrative? Is the campaign a narrative? Are fund-raising dinners part of a narrative?]

Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling and other authors of children’s books have signed an open letter calling for more support for the children affected by the bloodshed. “It is time to change the narrative,” the letter reads. “It is time to tell a different story. This April many children in Darfur will be reaching their fifth birthdays without ever having known peace.” [The suffering of children in Darfur is a narrative, and one that can be rewritten?]

It turned out that maybe the New York Marathon time wasn’t completely legit, either; a freelance photographer came forward with the revelation that she had definitely been with Ruiz on the subway during the race. Soon, a narrative formed: it seemed that Ruiz had cheated in the New York Marathon, and cheated so well she’d posted an outstanding sub-three-hour time and qualified for Boston, a major achievement for any marathon runner. Her boss was so excited about this triumph that he offered to pay her expenses to run Boston. [Do narratives “form” as stated here? Or is this kind of narrative a theoretical explanation a writer or storyteller or policeman made from a collection of information from a variety of sources and advocates as the truth?]

The Obama campaign needed to turn things around fast. Yes, the polls still show a tight race with maybe a slight edge. But a narrative was starting to emerge, of McCain as the comeback kid and Obama as the man who couldn’t live up to his own hype. And those narratives can be deadly. [Narratives “emerge?” Nobody makes them up? How did the visual metaphor of political “image making” get replaced by the verbal metaphor of political “narratives”?]

From a Scientific American article: Stages [of development] are stories that may be true for the storyteller, but that does not make them valid for the narrative known as science. [How can you call the Schroedinger equation a “narrative?” Many stories have been invented and metaphors devised to communicate quantum theory, but is the multidimensional, mathematically expressed theory itself a narrative? Notice, too, how this quote (unintentionally?) reduces the whole scientific enterprise to the metaphor of competing storytellers. Weird!]

From a Newsweek article: When Mohler and I spoke in the days after he wrote this, he had grown even gloomier. “Clearly, there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society,” he said from his office on campus in Louisville, Ky. [If fewer people are identifying themselves as Christians, does that necessarily mean they are actively motivated by some competing worldview, let alone a competing, ahem, “narrative”? Again, the thought suggests that people are motivated by stories, and that these stories are somehow less in dignity and value than what people used to call “ideas” or “visions” or “worldviews” or “philosophies.” Is Christianity a “narrative”? As one who finds the heart of Christianity in music and art, I hardly think so. And, hey, don’t start telling me that music and painting are “narratives.” If so, you may as well call them all “things” and be done with distinctions!]

I am puzzled by what looks like a tendency to reduce events in the world that can mean life or death (e.g., men with guns, big storm, food shortage, job lost, clash of cultures, core beliefs) to the terms of literary criticism (narrative, story, margin). In many cases, I would expect some term like theory, explanation, understanding, picture, biography, motive, version, alibi, etc.

What is going on? What does it mean to conflate so many useful and content-filled distinctions into the vague theoretical term “narrative”? Calling so many types of discourse “narratives” is rather like referring to both wood pulp and voters as “biomass.” Where did this reductionistic use of the term “narrative” come from? Who is promoting it? Who benefits from it? Why do so many articulate, educated people so easily slip into using it when they are trying explain something? To question this devil in its own terminology: What is lost when the term “narrative” colonizes public discourse?

Grammar: Correctness vs. Convention

A major difficulty in teaching language skills to journalism students is that there are at least two distinct things to learn:

  • What is grammatically correct
  • What is a convention used in AP style but used differently by other stylebooks.

Buddha at The Art Institute of Chicago

Some things in grammar are (at least in this time and place) right or wrong. There is no question that, in the standard English of public discourse, subjects and verbs normally agree only in certain ways, sentences require certain parts, words have specific public meanings and cannot be used to mean other things without endangering comprehension, and so on.

“Yesterday I lay down for a nap” is correct. “Yesterday I laid down for a nap” is incorrect. A sentence makes “sense” not “since.” “It’s” always means “it is” and is never a possessive pronoun like his or hers.  Even if you don’t hear it, there is a “d” in “I used to read more.”

On the other hand, AP style requires a large number of conventions — things that a different stylebook might handle differently.

Conventions are neither right or wrong. They represent an agreement that we will all do certain things in a certain way — for example, using the spelling “adviser” instead of “advisor,” which dictionaries list as another correct spelling.

In teaching language skills to journalism students, teachers must, of course, teach both correct grammar and the conventions of AP style. Both are important, and both matter. But they matter at different levels of reality.

I’ll cheerfully admit that “correct” grammar itself might be considered a convention. Anyone who has read Shakespeare knows that the conventions for using effective English do change over time. But still, at this time, early in the 21st century, there are grammatical rules that virtually every stylebook agrees upon, and there are other conventions that many stylebooks handle differently.

It could be valuable to separate those two strands of a language skills course, in order to teach certain things as “correct and transferrable” grammatical knowledge and other things as “AP style specific.”

To start, won’t someone please make a list of the important grammatical rules that are universally agreed upon (or close to that) in Standard Written English? A language skills course could (should) place most of its emphasis here first. These are the foundations of English usage. Public discourse depends upon them.

Then, it would be helpful to have a second list of the conventions of AP style that every journalism student needs to learn with the full knowledge that “this is how AP style does it.” In English class or psychology, students may meet a different set of stylebook conventions.

Is my assumption correct? Is there a core of correct usage shared by all stylebooks? Can this core be isolated, identified, and taught separately from AP style?

A second, more subversive question: Which errors in grammar lead to errors in understanding? And if an error in grammar does not lead to an error in understanding, might that be considered a less important error than an error that does lead to a misunderstanding? How many instances might we collect where the misuse of grammar leads to problems for readers — and not just problems for copy editors?

How Many Grammatical Terms Do Students Need to Know?

Anyone teaching a language skills course for journalism students faces this question: How many grammatical terms do students need to know in order to use grammar correctly?

Clearly, students do not need the full complement of terms taught in a textbook of advanced grammar. Most copy editors have happily applied their skills without this terminology, and they have clearly explained to others why they change certain sentences.

It might be interesting to conduct a couple of surveys to ask

  • Which grammatical terms teachers insist on in their language skills courses.
  • Which grammatical terms copy editors find essential to their tasks.

Naturally, you would be curious how answers from these two groups compare.
Native American Pot, Field Museum Chicago

It might also be interesting to ask teachers (and editors) to identify the minimum number of grammatical terms someone needs to know to write and edit well. Perhaps you could get at this by having respondants rank a list of such terms in order of importance. Again, it could be interesting to compare responses from the two groups.

Is there anyone else whose opinion matters? It just might be worthwhile to see if you could get a few highly successful reporters to respond, to be able to compare their answers. This would help in thinking about whether all students need to know the same things about grammar in order to be successful.

The Fate of Branding in a Contracting Economy

The current economic situation (2009) might provide an opportunity to study to what extent the concept of “branding” in magazines was effective, and to what extent it was an overly optimistic byproduct of an overheated economy.Popular Mechanics cover

As you know, in the past 20 years or so, magazines have widely talked about “extending their brands” by creating ancillary publications, products and services that carried the magazine’s name. “Branding” became one of the buzzwords of this period, represented by such “brand extensions” as Teen Vogue, Maxim cologne, Popular Mechanics tools, and Martha Stewart house paint.

How are brand extensions holding up in comparison to the magazine that created the brand? In a time of economic contraction, will consumers remain loyal to such brands? Or will a shift toward thrift demonstrate that support for such brands was illusory?

This will be an interesting development to observe, and it might make a worthwhile study for someone in search of a research project on magazines.
Photos (except the Popular Mechanics cover) by Gerald Grow
Last revised 4/12/2009

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