Structuring the News: The Magazine Format in Public Media

Quintessential Newsmagazines

By the 1980s, newsmagazines had become a staple of American television news broadcasting. The undercurrents set into motion by public broadcasting and the mass appeal of commercial bellwether 60 Minutes contributed to the widespread production of magazine shows across the country. Independent stations from the Aleutian Islands to New York City began adopting the format, and both larger production centers like WGBH in Boston and smaller, regional studios like WCTE in Cookeville, Tennessee, were airing their own newsmags on a regular basis. Hundreds of magazine shows are represented in the AAPB, forty-two of which are showcased here. These quintessential programs illustrate how public broadcasting stations adapted the format to address different newsworthy topics, audiences, and themes in the decades following early newsmagazine experimentation.

Soft News on Newsmagazines

Newsmagazines increasingly favored soft news reporting during the 1980s and 1990s. “Soft news” is characterized as “coverage which focuses on individuals, personalities and feature content more than ‘hard news,’ which is straight reporting of events.”11 Many of the shows in the archive followed this trend. For example, Grass Roots Journal, a local interest magazine based in Pullman, Washington, was dedicated to covering vernacular topics in Eastern Washington and Idaho. This installment from 1984 covers a model train exhibit at the Prichard Gallery in Moscow, Idaho, the Spokane Junior Symphony, and a Spokane-based craftsman specializing in Irish folk harps. A Gulf Coast Journal, an Emmy award-winning series that aired monthly by WEDU in Tampa, continued this trend into the 2000s, highlighting West Florida culture through stories on local cuisine, artisans, and businesses. Jack Perkins, the host and creator of A Gulf Coast Journal, gives a nod to the magazine format in this 2009 episode, stating, “A Gulf Coast Journal has variety. In this edition, for example, we have . . . a man who does magic with wood, we have a wild animal act, and we have some very good food.” Assignment Iowa, an early newsmagazine begun in the late 1970s, similarly profiled various communities in the state and explored one topic per episode, such as the Greene County Fair in Jefferson, from multiple local perspectives.

The decision to structure some broadcast magazines around one particular broad topic area can be seen in themed magazine shows found in the archive. The Connecticut Broadcasting Network ran the Fairfield County Business Report, a newsmagazine about the state’s economy, in the early 1980s. Maryland Public Television developed MotorWeek, “television’s original automotive magazine,” in 1981, a series still broadcast on the majority of PBS stations today.12 Newsmagazines with a specific focus on the arts and entertainment were another popular choice for delivering community content, as demonstrated by episodes of Thirteen WNET’s City Arts in New York, PBS Hawaii’s Spectrum, and Marquee, produced by KCPT in Kansas City.

North Carolina Now and Lousiana: The State We're In

While many programs treaded into soft news territory, other series collapsed entertaining and more serious subject matter, such as the ongoing debate over capital punishment, into single, cohesive episodes. In its first anniversary broadcast from 1995, anchors for the UNC-TV series North Carolina Now explained how the show was “a brand new concept for UNC-TV: a nightly news and magazine program that was to become the best source of information for you, our audience, about the state we live in.” By 1997, producers of the show had pivoted away from their original emphasis on “back of the book features,” or lighter stories, toward weightier subjects in an effort to respond to viewer feedback.13 The new North Carolina Now led with “extended issues stories, but went light for the end of each show.”14

Likewise, Louisiana: The State We’re In, the longest running statewide newsmagazine in the U.S., was originally designed to provide coverage of the state’s legislature. Beth Courtney, the show’s creator and eventual executive producer, decided on a magazine format to accommodate soft features, which she thought would assist in attracting new viewers and punctuate the show’s in-depth reporting about government law-making and policy.15 AAPB holds many episodes of this 40-year-old program, including its pilot episode, as well as a more recent episode from 2016 that reviews the top stories from the previous year.

Louisiana: The State We're In, pilot episode, 1976 Louisiana: The State We're In, 2016

Community Coverage

Despite differences across topics and themes, all of the newsmagazines in "Structuring the News: The Magazine Format in Public Media" demonstrate an interest in prioritizing local news and communities. This local emphasis is representative of the broader public broadcasting ethos established by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. The act states, “public television and radio stations . . . constitute valuable local community resources for utilizing electronic media to address national concerns and solve local problems through community programs” and that,

“it furthers the general welfare to encourage public telecommunications services which will be responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States.”16

The newsmagazines in the AAPB embody these principles and challenge the critique that PBS and NPR programming can be elitist or overly centralized. Upper Cumberland Camera, produced by WCTE in Cookeville, Tennessee, for example, specifically positioned itself as a program for the Cookeville community. The series aired weekly segments on "local government, local schools, local cultural affairs and local business."17 This episode from 1993 covers a "Kindergarten Community Helpers Day" at Park View Elementary School in which students, school administrators, and participating officers are interviewed at the event. The radio newsmagazines Warm Springs Program and Our People and Mother Earth provided a platform for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Oregon (CTWS) to develop and curate community content in Warm Springs during the 1990s; both programs are still on the air today. Twin Cities Public Television’s NewsNight Minnesota, helmed by magazine pioneer Jack Willis of The 51st State, resisted the impulse to sensationalize graphic content (a choice often taken by commercial counterparts) and instead opted to “look into things that people are not paying attention to.”18 The featured episode in this exhibit, for example, includes a story on the imminent closure of a charter school in Dakota. The result of these productions is a remarkably diverse and stimulating output of content that faithfully reports the American experience.

Tour Our Resources:

Newsmagazines in the 1970s:

Newsmagazines in the 1980s:

Newsmagazines in the 1990s:

Newsmagazines in the 2000s:

Louisiana: The State We're In, pilot episode, 1976

Courtesy of Louisiana Public Broadcasting

Louisiana: The State We're In, 2016

Courtesy of Louisiana Public Broadcasting

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