Book Essay: What I Learned About Working with Trade Publications

15 Jun 2022 2:50 PM | Erika Pribanic-Smith (Administrator)

by Will Mari, Louisiana State University

I wish I could say that I know what I’m doing when it comes to working with sources in media history. But that’s not entirely true—I’m still learning hard lessons about how to engage with challenging materials.

Case in point: trade publications—including Editor & Publisher (recently digitized by, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Quill, and the UK-based Press Gazette—are rich and complex, sharing the values and beliefs of the journalism trade over the past century, but also its flaws and foibles. I’ve used them (among other sources, including memoirs, textbooks, correspondence, and archival material) to write two books for Routledge and one for the University of Missouri Press.

They are problematic. Editor & Publisher, especially, represented the voices of owners (who were often publishers, as the name implies), as well as senior editors and other “newsroom bosses.” Rare is the presence of lower-level editors, women, and people of color until comparatively recently. As the comprehensive trade journal for the U.S. and arguably most of Canada, however, it is an important resource for any media historian, especially now that its contents are text-searchable from c. 1901 to 2015. What is important is thus not whether or not to use it, but how to use it. By itself, it tends to represent triumphant, majoritarian, anti-union, sometimes classist perspectives. And yet, it’s not quite that simple.

Throughout the 1950s, for example, Editor & Publisher carried out a long crusade against government secrecy during the early Cold War and contained some of the first trenchant critiques of the handling of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist obsessions. Later on, the magazine was also interested, often critically, in coverage of newsroom integration efforts and the adoption of computers and later the internet in newsrooms. It’d be lazy to dismiss it, though perhaps too easy to embrace its managerial advocacy. Instead, it’s a messy, contingent source—in other words, the kind of historical record that reflects the reality of its time.

This is true, too, of SPJ’s Quill, which retains a slightly scrappier, more rank-and-file orientation. Throughout the Great Depression, the publication was replete with how-to stories about how to leave journalism, and generally covered the unionization movement (led by the American Newspaper Guild) more fairly than Editor & Publisher. Many of its writers were college-educated, of course, but it was less worried about making powerful people happy and more interested in advocating for regular news workers.

While it has not been digitized (though it should be!), many public libraries, especially university libraries (such as the University of Oregon) contain complete, bound-volume runs. I would encourage my colleagues to incorporate it in their projects. An added bonus—the tables of contents are fairly comprehensive, meaning that it’s relatively easy to skim. And beginning in the mid-1990s, it is at least partially online for those with university library access.

Similarly, the UK Press Gazette, as well as the Columbia Journalism Review and the American Journalism Review, all have at least some online archives, especially from the 1990s and early 2000s onward, and often bound volumes can be found via interlibrary loan. I’d be happy to help you track down copies—please just reach out to me at my email address (members can find it in the AJHA directory).

No one source is perfect, again, but trade publications tend to showcase the then-current thinking or best practices in journalism at certain points in time, and they can act as important meso-level sources for analyzing particular moments in media or journalism history, checking other, more regional sources, and tracing, perhaps more broadly, big trends in the field over time.

I know from experience that they provide incomplete, or even clouded, pictures of journalism. However, for tracking the development of, for example, the use of radio cars in news coverage (something I talk about in my 2021 book), they are invaluable, and, in addition to stories, contain cartoons, photos, and illustrations. Editor & Publisher has been especially generous with allowing for re-publication of images in either books or articles—something that’s not always a guarantee.

So, in sum, I would encourage folks to use trade publications early and often in their research, almost regardless of topical focus—they are complicated but rewarding sources.

A former chair of the AEJMC History Division, Will Mari is an assistant professor of media history and media law at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. His book The American Newsroom: A History, 1920-1960 (2021) was a runner-up for this year's AJHA Book of Year Award.

He also is the author of Newsrooms and the Disruption of the Internet: A Short History of Disruptive Technologies, 1990–2010 (2022) and A Short History of Disruptive Journalism Technologies (2019), covering the social-cultural history of the American newsroom during the interwar years and early Cold War.

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