The Interplay of Editors' News Values and Business Values: A 50-Year Case Study of The Washington Post Sunday Magazine
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How do editors of a Sunday newspaper magazine, a section first developed in the late 19th century to increase circulation, manage the interplay between editorial values and business values in producing a weekly publication for a daily newspaper? How did these editors' values change when other newspapers began eliminating their own Sunday magazines due to high costs and low advertising revenues? This project answers these questions through a 50-year case study of The Washington Post's Sunday magazine, from 1961-2011. In particular, this study examines the attitudes, perceptions and motivations of Sunday newspaper magazine editors in producing a section that is unlike any other.
Sunday newspaper magazines "challenge classification," writes magazine historian William Howard Taft (1982), because they blend the aesthetics and editorial packaging of a magazine, but are produced in newspaper newsrooms that are rooted in traditional journalistic values such as objectivity and public service to society.
This study accomplishes three things. First, it provides a broad history of Sunday newspaper magazine sections, including their technological, economic and cultural influences on the newspaper industry. Second, the case study of The Washington Post's Sunday magazine, starting with the founding of Potomac in 1961, illuminates for the first time the various business strategies, editorial opportunities, challenges and personalities that defined the publication over a 50-year period. Finally, this qualitative study reveals that Post magazine editors' pursuit of positive recognition and professional acceptance by the daily newspaper's most respected reporters and editors largely informed their professional values, which often included a strong distaste for the business of publishing. Moreover, Post magazine editors often sought to protect or bolster their internal status by copying the editorial approach of the most highly regarded Sunday magazine in the industry, The New York Times Magazine. Through the lens of institutional theory, such actions can be seen as highly irrational given that the Times serves a distinctly different audience (namely, national) and enjoys a much broader advertising base.
Newspapers across the country have been eliminating their locally produced Sunday magazines over the past 30-plus years due to economic reasons, as opposed to a lack of reader interest. High costs and weak advertising revenues often receive the blame from publishers who announce the shuttering of their magazines. For the once venerable Sunday magazine to survive, and perhaps even enjoy a resurgence of sorts, this study shows that editors will need to reevaluate their professional motivations and find a better balance between the application of editorial and business values.