The definition of magazine that we most commonly understand the term to mean today is worded by the Oxford English Dictionary Online as, "A periodical publication containing articles by various writers; chiefly , a periodical publication intended for general rather than learned or professional readers, and consisting of a miscellany of critical and descriptive articles, essays, works of fiction, etc." [See writing.]

The Britannica Student Encyclopedia Online further distinguishes magazine from other well-known forms of publications, the journal and the newspaper, in terms of readership and intervals of publication. The term "periodical," under which both the magazine and journal is classified, is not applied to the newspaper, which is published at daily intervals while the periodical is published at less frequent but regular intervals. In terms of readership, the diversity of magazine subjects caters to all types of readerships, from the general to the esoteric, while the newspaper is for an even more general audience, and the journal is intended a more scholarly, and hence more exclusive, one.

The difference between the journal and the magazine has not been explicitly distinguished or expressed. When the BSE Online holds that, "There is no readership, however small, that does not have a magazine published especially for it," Encarta Encyclopedia Online somewhat contradictorily asserts that "Periodicals that are aimed at a general audience... are also called magazines. Those with a more narrow audience... can be termed journals." If the range of readership is the only factor distinguishing the magazine from the journal, it is certainly not a definitive determinant. Both of these sources, however, consistently associate the journal to be scholarly. One may tentatively consider the type of written material, and hence the type of readership as key determinants. So while a wide variety of subjects may be covered by both the magazine and journal, the journal offers a more scholarly aspect on the subject. It is less intellectually accessible than the magazine. The magazine is a medium for other mediums. The magazine today is a presentation of any combination of articles, poetry, reviews, fiction, artwork, photography, etc. Not only is the magazine a presentation of different mediums, it is also, arguably more apparent than any other periodic material publication, a presentation of itself. In terms of graphic style, aesthetic arrangement, the artists and photographers it chooses to employ, and even its "vibe" or "feel," magazines are less restricted from focusing on its own presentation. Even if this is true, the magazine is not ultimately in control of its own presentation.

The listed examples of mediums above are only the mediums that the magazine intentionally assimilates into its own medium. There is another medium that assimilates itself into the magazine, and which the magazine relies on: the advertisement. The advertisement, loosely defined by OED Online as, "A public notice or announcement," is one of the most prominent mediums of the magazine. It is not uncommon nowadays to find that advertisements take up a majority of pages. There is no question that they contribute to the presentation of a magazine, to its "vibe" and "feel." Yet the combination of advertisements in juxtaposition to each other and to other mediums constitutes a final presentation that cannot be completely accounted for by either advertisers or magazine editors and publishers. The invention and spread of the magazine and journal was precedented by the invention of the printing press, and the spread of literacy and economic prosperity in Europe. The printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, while it was only until the late nineteenth century that significantly heralded literacy and economic prosperity. The first magazines, appearing in the mid-seventeenth centuries, were thus publications with an exclusive scholarly readership. The classifications of magazine and journal were tenuous from the beginning of their inceptions. The first periodicals appeared almost simultaneously in Germany, France, and England. What is unaccountably attributed to as the first magazine by BSE Online, Edifying Monthly Discussions , appeared in Germany in 1663, started by poet and theologian Johanr Rist, in almost coincidence with similar scholarly publications in England and France. Not long after, periodicals aimed at a less scholarly audience began to appear. In 1672, the French publication Le Mercure gallant was founded. It featured news of the royal court, anecdotes, and bits of verse.

The written word of the phonetic alphabet, as twentieth century media theorist Marshall McLuhan asserts, allows the individual to become "emotionally free to separate from the tribe and to become a civilized individual...who has uniform attitudes, habits, and rights with all other civilized individuals" (McLuhan 82). McLuhan does not intend that the written word encourages individuals to become independent people from others; rather, the family is simply replaced by "an association of men homogeneously trained to be individuals" (177), and the printed word, with the property of the consistent uniformity of typography as well as its ability to grant the written word intense availability, magnifies that phenomenon. "Socially, the typographic extension of man brought in nationalism, industrialism, mass markets, and universal literacy and education" (172). The print, according to McLuhan, is an enforcer of the mass homogenization of people. Based on figures attesting to magazine consumption today, the magazine could be considered one of the most affluent forces reinforcing this phenomenon.

Ulrich's Periodicals Directory lists approximately 98,000 periodicals in publication for the United States. Although this is a count of the total number of periodicals, including those on the Internet, and not exclusively magazines, magazines are commonly cheaper, printed and distributed at frequent intervals, not as intellectually inaccessible, and therefore more convenient to consume than either a book or a journal.

If this phenomenon, derived from McLuhan's ideas, is true to some extent, it is also unintentional. What makes the magazine accessible today, in various senses, is the support of advertisers. Until the late nineteenth century, magazine publishers generally themselves with the quality of the reading material they were providing. It was most obviously with the mass industrialization after World War I that it became inevitably attractive to yield to advertising because it reduced costs for both the readers and for themselves, while increasing circulation. Advertisers in turn tried to verify the increasing circulation that publishers claimed, while publishers grew interested in circulation statistics. The establishment of the field of market research resulted from this desire for consumer information.

Today, it is a primary concern for magazines, especially mass magazines, to cater to the interests and whims of public readership rather than to cater to providing quality reading material. In this way, it is able to solicit advertisers and fund itself. McLuhan's prediction of homogenization may be evidenced in this, to an extent. The consequence of catering to the common denominator of mass sensibilities does encourage mass homogenization. Several magazines of the same genre today converge in similarity in terms of their content, aesthetics, and presentation.

Advertising should be considered one of the most notorious influences of the magazine. The difficulty and intimacy of the relationship between these two is apparent through their intertwined histories. The question follows: How does one conceive of the magazine without advertising? Can there be a severance? What would it look like?

Perhaps a part of the answer can be found in the zine. It has been noted, in recent years, that a new type of publication, an offspring of the magazine, has been gaining increasing popularity. The zine, initiated in the 1970s and 80s, predominantly differs from the magazine in that it is commonly related to little or no commercial advertising. It is a small-scale publication published at irregular intervals, often by an individual or a small group of people, to relatively limited distribution. It generally caters to a limited readership in various subcultures. Some readily apparent characteristics of the zine include indications of divergence from the precedented format of the magazine, particularly with its lack of aesthetic formality and polish, with somewhat idiosyncratic subjects. They are often informal and personal in tone. What the characteristics of the zine suggest is a desire to treat the subject without the limits that advertising imposes.

There are signs of zines trying to compensate the problem of limited circulation and distribution, a problem that would otherwise be answered by advertising. Factory Direct is a subscription service that sends handpicked collections of what it considers to be the best zines in the country to subscribers four times a year.

The problem of circulation and distribution may be annihilated more efficiently with the advent of Internet magazines. In such a case, advertising plays no role in circulation and distribution, although the cost of production and the cost to readers may be negotiable. Several mainstream periodicals have been releasing Internet versions of their publications, often at no charge to the reader, while other magazines exist solely on the Internet.

With more and more magazines developing on the Internet, one may reasonably anticipate an increased severance of the magazine from the advertisement, but it remains to be seen. The major consequence of the advent of net-based magazines is that it eliminates the practical functions that advertising fulfilled, along with the limits that it simultaneously imposed, thereby entitling the zine increased circulation and the magazine more license in its presentation.

Ling Ma
Winter 2003