University of New England


Rosemary Williamson


The case of the writer, the academic and the magazine

 

Abstract
Australia has a lively and robust special-interest magazine market. Special-interest magazines are potentially an area of employment for graduates of creative and professional writing programs, a subject of instruction for writing teachers and an object of study for researchers in the discipline; however, there is little scholarship that sheds light on the generic characteristics, production processes and industry contexts of Australian special-interest magazines. This article draws attention to this gap in scholarship and uses it as an example of a field of study that, while traditionally considered the domain of other disciplines, can be positioned within creative and professional writing to enrich teaching programs in the discipline. In doing so, the article advocates an expansive and flexible view of research, and it continues ongoing discussion in the Australian Association of Writing Programs and
TEXT about the discipline's research base.


 

Bleak cautionary tales and dire warnings haunt those who strive to earn a living by the pen: '[t]he world has enough books and enough writers already, so unless you find writing satisfying you might as well do something else' (Grenville 1990: 190); '[i]t has to be said that Australia has to be one of the worst places in the English-speaking world for writers who want to live off their writing and write what they want to write' (Methold 2002: 11). While memorable and discouraging, such statements are also necessarily pragmatic: the profession of writing has some highly competitive niches, and it is important that leaders and teachers in creative and professional writing apprise aspiring writers of the facts of industry life and the breadth of genres and styles that writers may need to embrace in their careers.

The discipline of writing in Australian higher education has grown strongly over the past decade and remains robust (Williamson & Brien 2007: 4). As a result, many accomplished and, perhaps, pragmatic, writers have moved into academia and are able to give students valuable insights into industry life. In doing so, they may, however, find themselves drawing dismal parallels between the world of the writer and the world of the university academic, each of whom must navigate tensions between creative output and industry (or institutional) realities. Like writers, academics may face limited opportunities for continuing employment, remuneration that is not commensurate with hours worked and frustration caused by limited time for favoured projects. Added to that, for the writer-academic, is the need to accumulate the research publications that are critical to establishing and advancing an academic career. Even though the nexus between the core activities of teaching and research has long been accepted within Australian higher education (Zubrick, Reid & Rossiter 2001), the academic who conscientiously meets the immediate demands of developing and delivering teaching programs may fail to establish a solid research base recognised as such by the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST - now the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations: DEEWR).

Complicating matters, of course, is the vexed issue of what constitutes 'research'. The translation of the products of creative practice into research outcomes quantifiable by DEST has been topical within the writing discipline and TEXT (see Webb & Krauth 2005; Webb & Brien 2006; Haseman 2007), and the themes articulated for the 2007 AAWP conference prompt reflection on the permutations of core disciplinary concerns. This article aims to contribute in a concrete way to this continuing dialogue. Rather than discuss the relationship between creative practice and research outcomes, however, it provides an extended and illustrative example of a gap in scholarship that could be explored fruitfully by researchers within the discipline of writing.

The gap in question concerns Australian magazine writing in general, and special-interest magazine writing in particular. The article suggests that analyses of this writing and its contexts can make a distinctive and original contribution to scholarship that will benefit the discipline of writing, primarily in a research context but also bearing in mind the applicability of such studies to teaching. In so doing, the article complements the call made by Webb and Brien (2006) for academics in writing to think flexibly and strategically about developing research outputs that strengthen the discipline's standing.

 

The special-interest magazine market in Australia

Central to the discipline of writing is the way in which genres are crafted, presented and produced for the consumption of defined audiences. For postgraduate students, this commonly involves writing an extended creative work of high literary quality within a defined genre, supported by an exegesis. So established is this model that the Australian Qualifications Framework cites it as one of the forms of 'substantial and original contribution to knowledge' for which the Doctor of Philosophy is awarded (AQF nd: online). Graduates seeking employment as writers then confront the challenge of translating this level of academic achievement into remunerative options within the cultural sector, a sector in which practitioners typically shape careers that are, as Bennett (2007: 135) observes, non-linear, self-managed and protean. Magazine writing is one possible choice in this context; it can represent a popular, and even utilitarian, manifestation of the genres taught within the discipline, particularly some of those genres encompassed by the term 'creative nonfiction'. This is particularly so in the case of special-interest magazines, those magazines that 'encourage readers to conceive of themselves as members of a distinct group linked to certain modes of consumption' (McCracken 1993: 257). Special-interest magazines are potentially, therefore, an area of employment for graduate writers, a subject of instruction for writing teachers, and an object of study for researchers who themselves may or may not have a background in magazine writing.

Some statistics give a sense of the magnitude of the special-interest market. The magazine industry in 2005 generated $1.06 billion in Australia. Mass-market titles (those that sell over 100,000 copies annually) made up 70% of total sales, with 30% of sales taken up by special-interest magazines (MPA nd: online). The newsagency industry website More Magazines boasts that some 6,000 magazine titles are currently available in Australia (National Title Tracker nd: online). More Magazines organises titles in broad categories, with sub-categories that illustrate the high level of segmentation and specialisation in the market. 'Women's Interest', for example, includes over 300 titles in sub-categories such as healthy living, bridal and parenting; 'Craft and Hobbies', which has sub-categories that include collectables and photography, comprises almost 400 titles. A type of miscellaneous 'Special Interest' category has close to 1,000 titles under such subjects as astrology, electronics, rural, and travel and tourism, to name but a few (National Title Tracker nd: online)

 

Studies of Australian magazines: popular and scholarly

Despite the relevance of the special-interest magazine market to those involved in studying, teaching and researching creative and professional writing, there is a dearth of scholarship that sheds light on the magazines' generic characteristics, production processes and industry contexts. However, recent signs that magazines are increasingly entering the academic spotlight in this country bode well for the discipline. An article in PMLA identifies Periodical Studies, 'a new area for scholarship ... in the humanities and the more humanistic social sciences' (Latham & Scholes 2006: 517), as an emergent field characterised by interdisciplinarity. It was used as a focal point for discussion at the 'Magazines and Modernity in Australasia' conference (hosted by the Australian Studies Centre, University of Queensland, 8-9 December 2006), where papers were presented on Australian magazines (including some special-interest magazines) ranging from the iconic to the largely forgotten, and from various disciplinary points of view. Interest is also revealed by the development of an Australian magazine database under the auspices of Austlit (see Austlit 2006). Outlines of research projects on magazines are available online through the The Australian Media History Database set up by the ARC Cultural Research Network to support research in areas that include the creative industries (see ARC Cultural Research Network 2007). Against this background, it is timely to exploit the potential for research in this field, focussed through a disciplinary lens.

The notion of a disciplinary focus here warrants clarification. Webb and Brien (2006: 5) have observed, citing TEXT and the AAWP as evidence, that the discipline of writing in Australia has been widening its interests to include fields other than creative writing (composition and rhetoric, for example). While Australian magazines have indeed been the objects of studies, typically within cultural, media or communication studies, they have not necessarily been explored in ways that position writing as the central concern. Moreover, there are glaring gaps in the literature, discussed later in this paper, that should they be filled would shore up research and teaching efforts not only in writing, but also in cognate disciplines. A survey of publications on Australian magazines demonstrates these points, draws attention to some possible research directions and projects, and may also give, for those unfamiliar with magazine studies, an orientation to the range of resources that may be drawn upon to inform teaching programs.

Generally, publications dedicated to Australian magazines fall into two broad categories: large-sized, easy-to-read and handsomely illustrated books that lend themselves to casual perusal; and scholarly books and journal articles that explore aspects of magazine content or production within various disciplinary contexts. For the scholar and teacher of magazines and magazine publishing, the former provide a useful, if limited, overview of magazines and their social contexts, and present primary source material in a way that can inspire and suggest more extensive scholarly work. The latter generally fall into three categories: overviews that provide historical or other selective insights into the industry; explorations of the relationships between commercial magazines and literature; and studies of individual magazines, particularly the iconic, mass-market women's magazines. In surveying representative publications from these categories, it becomes clear that further research and study could serve two purposes: to position and analyse special-interest magazines as a distinctive commercial endeavour within the creative industries, and to equip those teaching about or entering the writing profession with information about special-interest markets and possible content or skills specialisations within these markets.

Magazines as popular social histories
From the 1980s, the popularity and longevity of some Australian commercial magazines prompted the production of a number of visually arresting 'coffee-table' books that commemorate particular magazines and document their history. While more suited to general rather than academic audiences, these books do nevertheless provide important historical, social and cultural overviews of Australian life as selectively gleaned from the pages of widely circulated magazines. Typical of these books is the inclusion of many photographs, illustrations, advertisements and quotations from the magazines to create an impression of, or a nostalgic connection with, Australian life in the past.

Three books typify the genre. O'Brien's The Weekly, published in 1982, is subtitled A Lively and Nostalgic Celebration of Australia through Fifty Years of its Most Popular Magazine. This overt positivism reflects the iconic status of the Weekly by the 1980s, but also the fact that O'Brien wrote the book to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the magazine at the invitation of former editor Ita Buttrose (O'Brien 1982: 6-7). O'Brien takes care to point out, however, that the book 'is not a company history', but rather 'a slice of informal Australian social history' (1982: 6). The casual tone is obvious throughout the book's 160 pages, in which an historical account of the Weekly's publication is enlivened by entertaining excerpts from the magazine and by illustrations.

The Way We Were: Australian Popular Magazines 1856-1969 was published the following year (1983). Written by prolific Australiana author Vane Lindesay, The Way We Were is a heavily illustrated coffee-table book that profiles 22 popular magazines spanning almost a century, beginning with Melbourne Punch in 1855 and ending with the controversial OZ, first published in 1963. In his introduction, Lindesay explains that the magazines were chosen because they are 'typical of their time' and 'importan[t] as social and historical documents representative of general and family magazines, women's magazines, magazines for children, and those produced for soldiers in war time' (Lindesay 1983: 9). Literary magazines were not included, nor were special-interest magazines, which, Lindesay suggests, are 'all subjects for a separate and different study' (1983: 9). Lindesay's comments point to what, over 20 years later, represents largely unexplored territory in the academic and commercial publishing worlds. There has been no 'separate and different study' of Australian special-interest magazines in any published form, nor has there been any detailed study of this vibrant sector of the publishing industry, despite the presence of this type of magazine from the early twentieth century and its popularity today.

The third publication is Oliver's The Australian Home Beautiful: From Hills Hoist to High Rise of 1999. Produced by Pacific Publications (publishers of Home Beautiful magazine), the book records the history, content and influence of another iconic Australian magazine that, in this case, is an early example of a lifestyle magazine. On its dust jacket, the book boasts not only that that it 'celebrat[es] the success of the magazine', but that it 'is a unique record of home decoration from the 1920s to the present'. Once again, magazines become the medium through which social history can be conveyed in an attractive and accessible way.

What these books have in common is their explicit recognition of magazines as social history, and their attempt to impart a flavour of the magazines and their times. Interesting to note, and possibly the subject of a study in itself, is the way that these publications interpret, exploit and reconfigure one form of print publication (the magazine) into another (the book), while attempting to retain the high level of visual appeal that is characteristic of the magazine and critical to its success. The derivation of magazine content from television programs (for example, magazines based on programs such as Gardening Australia) and the repackaging of magazine content to the World Wide Web (most higher-circulation magazines now have online presences (Bonner 2006: 207)) could be valuable lines of inquiry to the researcher and teacher exploring magazine writing in a contemporary, new media context.

Scholarly studies of Australian magazines
Insights into the Australian magazine industry
Other good, more up-to-date starting points for those wishing to familiarise themselves with magazine publishing in Australia are Cunningham and Turner's The Media and Communications in Australia, which gives an overview of the industry (see Bonner 2006), and descriptive guides to the writing industry (see Methold 2002: 106-8 or Ricketson 2004: 7-8) or aspects of it (see Flann & Hill 2006, on magazine editing), although the latter tend to cover the special-interest magazine market only briefly. For industry watchers, data are published (by, for example, the Audit Bureau of Circulations or the Australian Newsagents' Federation) that give snapshots of the Australian commercial magazine industry. Statistics and commentary on mass-market magazine circulations and readerships are regularly included in the media supplement of the Australian newspaper, although these do not extend to specialised, lower circulation magazines. From time to time, articles that announce launches of new magazines or describe the fortunes of established special-interest magazines appear in the Australian or in the advertising, marketing and media magazine B & T Weekly.

Taken together, these sources are enlightening to a degree, but there is as yet no comprehensive overview or history of Australian special-interest magazine publishing that reaches into the twenty-first century and that provides a solid foundation for the researcher, student or teacher in this area. An account of the magazine industry up to the mid-twentieth century appeared in 1947, with Greenop's History of Magazine Publishing in Australia. Over 30 years later, the bibliography of Spearritt and Walker's Australian Popular Culture noted that Greenop's book was 'still the only history of this subject' (Douglas & Spearritt 1979: 235). There have been no further book-length publications on Australian magazine publishing that chart its development, although Griffen-Foley (1999) published a detailed history of the Packer media empire that encompasses magazines in the Australian Consolidated Press stable, and Denholm (2006) published a history of specialised art and craft magazines to 1996. Some quantitative, industry-based summaries or analyses of magazine publishing in Australia have been included in volumes that explore the range of media industries in this country, such as Windschuttle (1988), Cryle (1995) and Bonner (2006) cited above. Yet there are no industry profiles of the magnitude of, for example, Braithwaite's Women's Magazines: The First 300 Years (1995), which gives a comprehensive industry history of women's magazines in the United Kingdom, or of Zuckerman's A History of Popular Women's Magazines in the United States, 1792-1995 (1998).

Magazines and literature
Magazines' contribution to literary culture and production has been of continuing interest to Australian scholars, particularly the roles played by little magazines and the Bulletin (see, for example, Tregenza 1964, Bennett 1981). A call was made through the Austlit website for article-length studies of the Bulletin from a range of perspectives, including not only literary, but also journalistic, historical, political, cultural and others (see Austlit 2007). This illustrates an awareness of the interdisciplinary potential of magazine studies and perhaps prompts those in writing, or the creative industries more generally, to consider the relevance of magazine studies to disciplines other than those for which literary or textual analyses are central.

Women's magazines
Since the 1960s, women's magazines have been of continuing interest in the humanities, particularly in cultural and gender studies, and several seminal books published in the UK and the US, some with feminist orientations, analyse mass-market women's magazines and aspects of their production, reception or effects (see, for example, White 1970; Ferguson 1983; McCracken 1993; Hermes 1995; Gough-Yates 2003). Women's magazines have a 63% hold on the Australian magazine market (Bonner 2006: 207), and, not surprisingly, the mass circulation magazines that dominate sales (most notably the Australian Women's Weekly) have preoccupied scholars for some time. The Australian Women's Weekly was the subject of a conference paper as early as 1969 (see Sampson 1973: note 9) and a study by Wilson and Butterworth in 1980 reported on, among other things, women's magazine ownership and circulation, and formed the basis of a chapter in Bonney and Wilson (1983).

Researchers and teachers gathering information on Australian women's magazines will detect patterns in scholarship that are linked to the efforts of particular researchers or groups, but they may be frustrated that some territory remains largely untouched, including lower-circulation specialised women's titles. Journal articles on Australian women's magazines appeared more regularly through the 1990s and into the 2000s, parallelling a surge in the production of books on American women's magazines during that time. Most of the Australian articles use mass-market women's magazines as their primary sources, and some foci of interest emerged, particularly in relation to discourses and representations of health (Saywell & Pittam 1996; Bonner, McKay & Goldie 1998; Bonner & McKay 2000; Bonner & McKay 2002). Other interests were representations of women's ageing (McKay 2003), migrants (Sheridan 2000a) and food and cultural identity (Sheridan 2000b) in the Weekly, and the role of the Weekly in shaping women's attitudes towards higher education (Ryan 2001).

Sheridan's Who Was That Woman? The Australian Women's Weekly in the Postwar Years (2002) was the outcome of a major research project on the Weekly that involved the compilation of an index of selected issues of the magazine from 1947 and 1971 (see Department of Women's Studies nd). While the product of extensive research, the book resembles the 'coffee-table' books of the 1980s in its large format and its visually arresting reproduction of material from the magazine. Yet the depth of its analysis and careful observance of referencing conventions clearly mark the book as a scholarly work. The crossover between academic and commercial production is also seen in the funding that supported the research for the book: the ARC, Flinders University and Australian Consolidated Press.

Other studies
Some articles published during the 1990s and early 2000s hinted at the potential diversity of the field, and by 2002 Bonner noted that '[t]he almost exclusive concentration on women's magazines, so notable previously, has diminished' (2002: 199). While no attempt is made to be exhaustive here, some examples illustrate this point. Magazine representations are viewed through legal and Indigenous lenses by McKee and Hartley (1996). Scott (1998: 75), who studied letters to the editor of popular women's magazines in interwar Australia, advocates readers' contributions as a means of extending or even correcting content analyses based on the editorial and advertising content of magazines. Men's magazines were studied, with Laurie (1998) discussing the depiction of women in 1950s men's magazines, and Cook (2000) exploring representations of masculinity in selected Australian men's magazines. Some studies of special-interest magazines began to be published, although they have been sporadic and limited to a small number of journal articles (for example, Ring 1999 writes about cosmetic surgery magazines, Henderson 1999 about motorcycling and surfing magazines, and Wilding 2006 about wedding magazines).

At this point, my own research perhaps rates a mention. It resembles the previously mentioned examples of studies of special-interest magazines in that it selects and analyses a particular type of publication (in my case, craft magazines). My primary interest, however, is with the rhetorical conventions employed by the magazines as persuasive texts, drawing particularly on branches of rhetoric concerned with genre, narrative and style. While something of an unusual approach within the discipline of writing in Australia, the application of the rhetorical framework enables a sustained and illuminating analysis of the conventions of texts that blend aspects of professional and creative writing.

 

Possible directions in magazine research

Recent trends in (women's) magazine research indicate an opening up to inquiry about the processes by which magazine texts are constructed, and point to the potential for those in writing to engage in studies that shed light on the collaborative and contextual determinants of the published text. Sheridan, in placing magazines in the context of women's historical writing, observes that '[t]here has been a shift in the focus as well as purpose of historical studies using women's magazines, with the magazines themselves becoming objects of analysis, both as texts and as aspects of the media industry' (2005: 608). In accord with this orientation is prominent magazine scholar Gough-Yates, who advocates research that acknowledges the complex and vicissitudinous processes of production within the culture industries that result in published text: 'A study that went beyond the text to the publishers, advertisers and design professionals of the industry might indicate how magazine texts themselves are viewed as sites of multiple, uneven and sometimes conflictual practices' (2003:157).

While Gough-Yates' approach is of relevance to academics in the creative industries, there are also ways of studying the written components of magazines that are germane to writing. To again use my own research as an example, tracing the history of specialised craft magazines in Australia has revealed that writing in these magazines shares characteristics with writing in other craft-related publications; the magazine writing, therefore, developed within in a much wider stylistic and generic context. In discussing the purpose of producing a history of mid-twentieth century magazines, Carter notes Guillory's (1993) emphasis on developing histories of writing, rather than of writers, and extends Guillory's argument to magazine studies: 'A history of magazines ... should also be a history of writing' (2001: 13). The application of Carter's statement to the discipline of writing is thought provoking.

Writers and editors represent another aspect of magazine studies that could be explored within the discipline of writing. The worth of such studies has been long recognised (see Jolliffe 1995), and some examples illustrate the breadth of this specialisation: Ouellette (1999) writes about the work and influence of bestselling author and Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown; Harris and Garvey (2004) discuss magazine editing as a profession for women in the nineteenth century; and, in Australia, Pearce (1997) describes Louisa Lawson's editorship of Dawn, and Pender (2007) explores the careers of 1920s Vogue editor Dorothy Todd and fashion journalist Madge Garland. Such research could be extended to the professional development, practices and roles of writers and editors within the Australian magazine market overall, or within segments of that market.

 

Conclusion

Webb and Brien (2006), in discussing the importance of research to the discipline of writing in Australia, place their comments in the context of contemporary federal and institutional imperatives. They point out that 'much of the research into the creative sphere focuses on other arts practices or on the mass media. Writing has largely been neglected in the work undertaken on social understandings and realities' (Webb & Brien 2006: 4). While in the realm of mass media, magazines provide an example of a product that combines professional and creative elements and that has been neglected in scholarship from a writing perspective. This is particularly so for the special-interest market, in which the producers of content for magazines with relatively low circulations face the challenge of appealing to and maintaining highly defined readerships in a competitive environment.

In addition to the individual and collective benefits of disciplinary forays into such areas as magazine studies, there are benefits to teaching programs. Irreplaceable in the writing classroom is the practitioner-teacher who is able to impart first-hand industry knowledge to students and alert them to the rewards, pitfalls and conventions of such specializations as writing and editing for the special-interest market. Those teachers who lack that experience can, of course, point their students in the direction of guides and handbooks that offer overviews and practical advice, such as those by Methold (2002), Ricketson (2004) and Flann and Hill (2006). They can also draw upon sources such as Bonner (2006) or the Audit Bureau of Circulation's statistical data. However, as the literature survey in this article shows, comprehensive studies of many aspects of the market and its products have yet to be done.

Magazine studies provide an example of a field traditionally dominated by other disciplines that can, through a shift in focus, be placed firmly within creative and professional writing yet contribute meaningfully to other, cognate disciplines and broad research directions. In the spirit of continuing dialogue in TEXT and the AAWP about the evolution and consolidation of the discipline, this article advocates an expansive and flexible view of research. The possibilities for research raised in the course of the article are intended to encourage discussion of projects of different magnitudes and at different levels, with different practical applications within the discipline. To conclude, and at the risk of sounding like an advertisement for magazine studies, I will venture one more: higher degree programs could look to magazine writing by extending the creative work / exegesis model to the production of specialised writing intended for commercial magazine markets, supported by exegetical analysis of that writing.

A visit to any Australian newsagency shows that the magazine market, particularly the special-interest market, is a diverse, segmented, dynamic and lucrative sector of the creative industries. Such an optimistic view will undoubtedly be tempered by the cautionary tales and warnings of those who have been directly involved in the industry. For researchers within the discipline of Writing, however, these magazines represent a rich, exciting vein of inquiry that could extend and strengthen the research foundations of the discipline and enrich its teaching programs.


Acknowledgments
My thanks to Associate Professor Donna Lee Brien for drawing my attention to the possibility of integrating magazine writing into higher degree research (creative work / exegesis) projects. My thanks also to the anonymous reviewer, whose constructive comments were much appreciated.

 

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Webb, J and DL Brien 2006 'Strategic directions for research in writing: a wish list', TEXT 10.1 (April) <http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/art/text/april06/webbbrien.htm> return to text

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Williamson, R and DL Brien 2007 'Rescue from the deep end: the case for postgraduate awards in teaching writing', and is papers: proceedings of the 12th conference of the AAWP, http://creative.canberra.edu.au/aawp/conference_proceedings.html (accessed 7 January 2008) return to text

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Rosemary Williamson has taught in rhetoric and writing at the University of New England, where she is completing a PhD in the School of Arts. Her research interests include special-interest magazine publication in Australia, particularly quilters' magazines, and the ways in which the magazines foster the personal and professional development of their readers as individuals and as members of extended communities.

 

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TEXT
Vol 12 No 1 April 2008
http://www.textjournal.com.au
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb
Text@griffith.edu.au