Structuring the News: The Magazine Format in Public Media

Precedents: Newsmagazine Firsts

The American Archive of Public Broadcasting holds significant material related to the pioneers responsible for shaping the newsmagazine format during the 1960s and 70s. The people and programs highlighted here reveal the origins of the newsmagazine in documentary news reporting, the development of a program structure combining multiple features, and the impact specific producers had on popularizing this unique form of news presentation. These precedents, when brought together through AAPB, establish a newsmagazine genealogy that begins with American broadcasting icon Edward R. Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly, who later became an important force in public television.

See It Now and Public Broadcast Laboratory

In December 1950, Murrow and Friendly, both employed at CBS, together launched a radio program envisioned as a “Life magazine of the air.”6 Entitled Hear It Now, the weekly news show transitioned to television the following year. Its new iteration, See It Now, blended investigative journalism with lighter human interest topics, often featuring multiple segments per episode. The show became highly influential for its documentary-style coverage and is equally notable for Murrow and Friendly’s partnership. Both figures would eventually leave CBS and critique the commercial television system for its perceived lack of informational programming. Murrow expressed these views in a 1959 episode of WGBH’s The Press and the People, while Friendly later spoke on behalf of the Ford Foundation (an early public broadcasting supporter) in the Senate hearings on the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. That year Friendly conceived of a new weekly proto-magazine show called Public Broadcast Laboratory (PBL) to be broadcast live over National Educational Television (NET), the precursor to PBS.

Public Broadcast Laboratory logo, 1969

AAPB contains footage from the very first PBL program, which premiered on November 5, 1967, just two days before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act. The segment, a profile of Boston politician and desegregation-opponent Louise Day Hicks, underscores PBL’s mission to “offer two hours (maybe more) of incisive reporting, examinations of the arts and sciences, live dramas, strong opinion and probing comment.”7 A second PBL segment, in which then-governor of California Ronald Reagan visits Yale University amid student protests, further exemplifies the tradition of television documentary reporting that Murrow and Friendly prefigured. Both programs expose PBL’s magazine-like design and presage later popular newsmagazines like 60 Minutes.

Beyond 60 Minutes

60 Minutes debuted a year later in 1968 and is frequently credited as the forerunner of the broadcast newsmagazine. Yet many other important precedents, especially within the domain of public broadcasting, deserve recognition for contributing to the rise of the format. What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?, an experimental series written and hosted by Tufts University professor David Silver, tested the boundaries of the magazine format in a controversial episode from January 1968. To address questionable comments Silver made during the broadcast, WGBH aired a follow-up episode the week after, in which Silver, along with producer-director Fred Barzyk, explains his decision to move towards magazine presentation.

"We're naturally moving more and more towards this kind of magazine presentation." - Fred Barzyk, Director and Series Producer of What's Happening, Mr. Silver?, 1968.

Another first found in the archive is the premiere of Black Journal, an early NET newsmagazine series hosted by Lou House. Black Journal aimed “to report and review the events, the dreams, the dilemmas of black America and black Americans” and was created in response to the relegation of African Americans as only appearing on television through breaking news coverage. Black Journal instead addressed “everyday issues, from health to family and culture to politics,” and its magazine structure enabled producers to tie-in different stories into one hour-long installment each month.8

Black Journal with Tony Brown, 1971

KQED’s Newspaper of the Air was an influential experiment in television news that aired during a San Francisco newspaper strike and mimicked thumbing through the various sections of a newspaper. The success of the short-lived Newspaper of the Air led Fred Friendly and the Ford Foundation to award grants to KQED for continued news programming and to WJCT in Jacksonville, Florida, KETC in St. Louis, and the New Hampshire Network to develop newsmagazines in 1968.9 KQED came up with Newsroom, which prompted other stations to follow suit. The KERA-TV Newsroom in Texas hired newspaper reporter Jim Lehrer in 1970, whose later show, the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, would explore the newsmagazine format in the 1980s.10

The Great American Dream Machine and The 51st State

If there’s one thread that weaves these narrative strands together, it’s PBS’s first magazine show, The Great American Dream Machine. Though not a newsmagazine per se, Dream Machine, like What's Happening, Mr. Silver?, was a variety show that combined political commentary, skits, and topical satire through a multitude of entertaining and innovative forms. Alvin Perlmutter, who initially had produced Black Journal, was Dream Machine's executive producer. James Day, general manager at KQED during the Newspaper of the Air days (and afterwards the president of NET), greenlit the show. David Silver of What's Happening, Mr. Silver? appeared in two of the show's segments that Fred Barzyk helped produce. A two-part WNET seminar in AAPB features Day, alongside Perlmutter and another newsmag pioneer, Jack Willis, reminiscing about the format’s development. Coming full circle, Willis ended up producing a later series entitled The 51st State from 1972-1976. The program is a perfect example of the fusion between the probing documentary journalism of Murrow and Friendly and the short, successive segments of shows like The Great American Dream Machine. All of these experimental programs would precipitate later mainstream production of newsmagazines into the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

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The 51st State, 1974

Courtesy of Thirteen WNET