Classism & Newspapers: Critical Vs. Basic Literacy, NY Times Vs. LIFE Magazine

Professor of communication and historian of mass communication in the United States, Michael Schudson, outlines in his book Discovering the News, the rise of dichotomous news media in the late nineteenth century. During the 1890’s, William Randolph Heart and Joseph Pulitzer, with their respective printed news outlets, the New York Journal and the New York World, dramatically influenced the formatting of journalism. The Journal and the World became notoriously known as ‘popular’ news agencies, emphasizing the journalistic story mode of entertainment. Dissimilarly, Adolph Ochs and the New York Times took upon the informational mode of factuality in journalism, counteracting the story mode in New York’s news media industry thus creating a dichotomy in journalism and consumption. Classist dichotomies and differentiation in newspaper consumption accompanied the journalistic modes of story and information with those critically literate consuming factuality and those basically literate consuming entertainment. (Schudson 139).

With Schudson’s theorizations of classist consumption of news, one will examine the similarities and differences between newspapers of different modes. A Nov. 23 1936 issue of the New York Times versus LIFE Magazine’s first issue with the same date, are to be retrospectively analyzed with one another. As for a contemporary analysis, online issues of the Washington Post and People Magazine will be examined. The news agencies classified as information modes are the New York Times and the Washington Post. The news agencies classified as story modes are LIFE Magazine and People Magazine.

One must define the boundaries of reason used in examining New York’s news agency history to analyze news examples in 1936 and contemporary times. The analytical methods to be used will revolve around economic theory of consumption, social classism and literacy, and, finally, comparing and contrasting the aforementioned news issues of 1936 and modern times.

News media in accordance with literacy, given the analysis of New York’s history of news agencies, have different yet fixed consumer bases. Socioeconomic backgrounds, the identity defining classes of modern human society, are the general sources of literate capabilities and levels. People along the higher steps of the social ladder, those on top of the food chain with both wealth and education, are proportionate in their power with literacy; upper class men and women have the monetary and educational proponents that allow them the power of critical literacy. On the other side of the spectrum or in the middle, the middle classes within their respective position in the social ladder, possess less wealth and therefore less means of acquiring education. Along with the lower level of power in accessing literacy, critical thought is not as encouraged or consumed as their upper class counterparts.

Be it at the turn of the twentieth century with the rise of New York’s news agencies or in contemporary times with online media consumption, the modes of story and information journalism are greatly consumed by their respective middle and higher classes. In relation to economic theories of consumption, income and class, the social classes will most likely consume the news format in accordance with their literacy levels. The higher class will consume news media that revolves around the information mode with factuality as the backbone, whereas the middle and lower classes will consume the story mode with entertainment as the backbone.

How much money and economic leverage an individual has will place them in the appropriate social slot. To underline the relationship between economic power and social advantages such as higher education, better health and, in the case of news consumption, higher interest in the information mode of journalism, we must address the economics behind the idea. As referenced in the economic website, Investopedia, John Maynard Keynes, founder of Keynesian Economics explains the relationship between consumption and income. In the Consumption Model, Keynes and modern day economics both argue that higher income yields higher consumption; the more money you have in your pockets or in your bank account will determine how much you consume and the quality of the products consumed. In relation to literacy, the upper classes in the late nineteenth century consume the New York Times given the newspapers abundance of information and the class’ educational advantage. Whereas the working class, the middle class, consumes the New York World or New York Journal as it requires a less critical level of literacy in accordance with the income and consumption powers of the middle class. (Consumption Function, Investopedia.com).

The concept of class differences determining literacy is further illustrated through the revisiting of Jean Anyon’s Social Class and School Knowledge by literacy researcher Allan Luke. Both Luke and Anyon argue that within different school systems of different social classes, literacy is emphasized in different formats. For upper class and wealthy households, children are encouraged to use the scientific method with reading; reason and critical thought reign supreme. As for middle class families, the children are given basic and constrained formats of reading where the student is expected to worry about and learn the logistics rather than the analytics. (Luke 171).

In contrast, Luke, using Anyon’s rhetoric and studies, argues that upper class “school ethos and stated curriculum stress analytic thinking and reason” further urging the individual to be critically literate. This is an individual who, in 1936 or now, would be reading the New York Times and the Washington Post rather than LIFE or People. (Luke 173).

Comparing the NY Times and LIFE Magazine in November 23 1936:

In the New York Times issue, content and delivery extremely varies from that of LIFE Magazine. The Times demands of its audience critical thought, factual interest and a higher level of education through the mode of information. LIFE Magazine utilizes the story mode with intense usage of narrative writing and an excess of images. Both news outlets having their corresponding target audiences of critical and basic literati.

As for the New York Times, heavy emphasis is placed on national and international affairs within the format of factual reporting. The front page of the Nov. 23 issue portrays a minimal array of domestic issues: mass theft, armed robbery and union strikes. The portrayal on international and foreign issues is quantitatively more emphasized with issues containing: pre-World War II affairs in Europe, Chinese affairs, women’s affairs in Brazil and other European political affairs. The issue is reliant on advertising, however most of the advertisements are pushed toward the back of the issue in the later pages after the reporting and journalistic elements are exhausted. The clear priority is information and facts with minimal story-telling and advertisements. (New York Times 1).

LIFE Magazine’s Nov. 23 issue, the magazine’s debut in 1936, is greatly different. LIFE is abundant in advertisements as it is in imagery; the debut issue almost begins with a barrage of advertising using automotive and clothing ads. In contrast with the information mode of the Times, LIFE utilizes a table of contents, as a book would, whilst having little importance to foreign affairs and much importance to domestic, American, affairs. LIFE Magazine’s story mode usage may be best illustrated in the debut issue’s The Camera Overseas segment where images are blown up to control most of the page where the writing, often in colorful narrative, is used for complimentary story-telling in little caption form. Clearly, LIFE from the news agency’s debut excessively uses images and narrative style writing to inform the masses of basic literati through story-telling, opposite in technique and execution to its factual opponent, the New York Times. (LIFE 56).

Comparing the Washington Post online and People Magazine online: 

Using the Washington Post’s website’s front page, the generic information mode newspaper layout is the first thing staring back. The Post’s page, similarly to the upper classism design of the New York Times, incorporates a word dominant set up with sufficient images meant to compliment the articles. The Post, on the front page’s top right hand corner, has the options of viewing the layout of ‘U.S. & World’ news or ‘Regional’ news, maintaining a standing as a domestic and foreign news service to the elite informed masses.

Conversely, People, using the story mode design of journalism, has a front page to the magazine’s website consisting of massive imagery reigning over the page. The online page then slowly weeds out the news to the bottom of the page with, not necessarily less prominent individuals, but less shock factor and sensationalism, keeping the highest on top.

A case study involving both online publications of the Washington Post and People to address is the case of Harvey Weinstein and sexual harassment. The Post titles their report on Weinstein using more objective and factual words such as “the Hollywood mogul accused of sexual harassment”. Whereas People, using speculation methods and sensationalism, titles the report’s headline as “Bridget Jones Actress Says She Lost Job After Refusing to ‘Screen Test in a Bikini’ for Harvey Weinstein”.

Both publications report on the issue of Weinstein and his alleged sexual harassment history yet the Post illustrates the news in an informational fashion whereas People has already chosen its narrative given the title. People’s sub-heading on the Weinstein matter is a leading question with scandalous connotations in predicting Weinstein’s near future. The sub-heading reads “Will Harvey Weinstein Be Forced Out of His Movie Studio? ‘No One Wants Him There,’ Says Source”.

In contemporary terms, specifically Oct. 6 2017, the Washington Post and People uphold the very same dichotomous relationship of story and informational modes of journalism. Similar attributes and patterns were discerned in the case of the 1936 publications of the New York Times and LIFE where the tactics of reportage were respectively one of information and one of story.

To reiterate, one’s social class will most likely determine one’s consumption of the news. Social classes lump people into different educational standards and levels, enabling some to possess critical literacy and disabling others. Inversely, one could also argue that middle class families and educational opportunities may also be perceived and appreciated as they enable individuals to consume story mode journalism which demands basic literacy.

A last point to highlight is to address the mottos of the aforementioned news agencies; to examine in relation to their respective social class consumer base. LIFE’s first motto was “While there’s life, there’s hope” whereas the New York Time’s motto is “All the News That’s Fit to Print”. The Washington Post’s motto, similar in its connotations with the New York Times, is “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. These mottos, the slogans in which the entire news agency is summed up to be in matters of value and work, immensely underlines their roles in society and their target audiences. The Post for instance is arguing with its motto that without the journalistic efforts of the Post, democracy itself will crumble. Whereas LIFE, lays out a short and sweet humanistic motto of hope and human perseverance.

The news agencies of old and the news agencies of now may not behave similarly in matters of content and journalistic quality of the writing, however the consumption remains. The matters of social class, with the continuation of classist differences and wealth-based access to higher education, and news media consumption are not likely to change without a shocking factor to the economic model and industry.

Finally, one believes there is a superior news medium to the others if superiority is measured by the desired mode to be consumed. For entertainment and sensationalism, New York Times and Washington Post cannot compete. Similarly for People and LIFE, if they are to be put in the realms of higher objectivity and information mode journalism, they will fail.

If there is a superior news agency above all agencies, it would have to be one that combines both the story and information modes. To combine and conquer, if one will. A news agency that would fight for both democracy of the whole and the democracy of the one. A news agency with the possible motto of “By The People, For All People”.

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