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The Press in Petticoats

ISSUE:  Autumn 1932

It seems unlikely that the staff of the New York World-Telegram fully appreciated the significance of a little notice that was posted on their bulletin board during the agitated early days of March, 1931. The death rattle of Joseph Pulitzer’s great World still echoed horribly in the ears of some of them; and everyone was busy about the strange task of producing a newspaper that would be neither the Telegram nor the World, but a combination of the two, “retaining the best features of each.” At that time a managing editor’s instructions that news stories should be written from a “woman’s angle” whenever possible and that headline writers should strive to interest women in their captions, no doubt seemed of minor consequence, for a new journal was being created in the dowdy old building at Dey and West Streets, and everyone was a bit uncomfortably aware that the ghost of the great Pulitzer was looking quizzically on. But that bulletined demand for a newspaper which would appeal to women brought into the open a tendency which perhaps will have a greater influence upon the course of American journalism than even the fact that a good deal of the writing in the offices of the splendidly fearless World was done in red ink.

Of that tendency many publishers and editors had been conscious for some time. The note on the bulletin board of the World-Telegram is placed in the spotlight because the World-Telegram is a great paper in the largest American city, and because its managing editor felt the time had come to speak quite frankly to his staff about the advisability of increasing the paper’s appeal to women readers. Its appearance was an important milestone in the feminizing of the American press.

This feminizing process is now going on rapidly, and if the present pace is maintained, the petticoated press ultimately will be forced to don hair nets and long gloves as well, and may be expected to pursue the women with all the determined coyness of an unmarried lady pointing a silken leg at a group of eligible males. But, before developing this theme, a retrospective glance at advertising as a factor in journalism is necessary.

Newspapermen are fond of recalling, with the wistfulness of an adult remembering the innocence of childhood, Lord Northcliffe’s boast back in the ‘nineties that his Daily Mail was easier to read than the London Times because it carried fewer advertisements. In those days a newspaper could exist and make money with no revenue other than that supplied by its subscribers. Into this simple economy came complicating factors, including an appalling rise in the cost of newsprint as wood pulp became scarce, and publishers were forced to seek other sources of income. Mass production and large-scale selling, twins that grew to symbolize an age, required a trumpet for their wares; and industry and newspapers reached for each other’s bootstraps. The twins attained a powerful maturity, and Lord Northcliffe lived to direct a large and eager army of advertising solicitors and to realize that the survival of his publications depended on them.

The entrance of advertisers into the newspaper world brought to publishers the temptation to suppress or exaggerate news and to offer dishonest discussions of economic and political problems, in order to win business favors. The theme that this temptation is frequently yielded to, with the corollary that the value of newspapers to their readers diminishes as their value to advertisers increases, has buttered the bread of so-called liberal writers for years. To the informed newspaperman the theme seemed absurd. It was granted that advertisers occasionally brought about the suppression of news or the coloring of editorial comment, but the argument ran that this never happened on newspapers of size or dignity, and that it would not happen at all if publishers possessed a minimum of courage or even the shrewdness to perceive that merchants advertise not because they have been done favors, but because advertising sells merchandise. And only the most grossly uninformed seriously believed that capitalists had any organized philosophy which they tried to force upon editors. As a counterblast to the so-called liberal writers, newspapermen argued that advertising, far from being a curse, was a blessing to their trade. Its revenues had made possible a welcome expansion of news facilities, and had permitted newspapers such luxuries as interpretative articles from men like Wells, Shaw, and Churchill, whose rate per word would have been prohibitive to newspapers which carried little or no advertising. These gains were not lightly to be valued, the argument went on, and against them there was little to place in the scales. The argument sounded good, it was sincere, and no one rose in successful refutation. But of recent years unexpected developments have caused realistic newspapermen, if not to change their tune, then at least to sing it with less fervor and conviction. They still do not consider advertising the ogre depicted by writers of the Upton Sinclair school, but they regard it with far less than the favor of other years. The scales have a little more nearly approached balance, and a major reason is that an important discovery has been made.

The discovery is that women purchase eighty-five per cent of all the merchandise sold in America.

To readers not engaged in business the figure may seem excessive, but its accuracy is attested by the most exhaustive surveys and analyses, and a moment’s reflection shows that it is not unreasonable. Women constitute practically the entire body of retail purchasers in many fields of merchandise—food, children’s and women’s clothes, furniture, house furnishings, and toilet articles, for instance—and they have a good deal to say about the selecting of motor cars, real estate, musical instruments, and other purchases not exclusively in their sphere. They even, as haberdashers will tell you, buy much of the clothing worn by men. That average man so pointedly described by a national organization as John K. American is quite willing to let his wife or mother buy his shirts, underwear, and socks. If he makes shift to pick out for himself those garments that have to be tried on—suits, overcoats, and hats—he is likely to be bewildered by the haberdasher’s assortment of colors and styles, and to resolve to take his wife along with him the next time he goes shopping. Whatever the exact ratio of the woman’s purchases to the whole, it is obvious that she buys a great deal more than the male.

Elementary logic builds up to a conclusion: newspapers must have advertising; advertisers spend their money in the medium which produces the greatest results; women, since they buy most of the goods, are the most avid readers of advertisements: hence advertisements must be surrounded by reading matter which interests women.

Some heckler in meeting may rise to point out that women have always enjoyed shopping, have always devoured the ballyhoo of advertisers; and he may inquire why the feminizing of the press in order to make women read newspaper advertisements is a development of very recent years. A part of the answer is that the constantly rising costs of newspaper production have forced publishers into extracting more gross revenue from their advertisers in order to keep the net from declining—but this is a small part of the answer. The important reason is that newspapers currently find themselves in a life-and-death battle with such competing advertising media as the now powerful women’s magazines, the movies, and, deadliest foe of all, the radio. All three of these agencies for reaching the public are devoted frankly to entertainment—not to comment or information which might interest the man—but to entertainment for women. The women’s magazines describe themselves in their titles, and the occasional programme variations of the radio and the movies—book reviews on the air and the skepticism of Will Rogers on the screen—are only the traditional exceptions that prove the rule. Since radio broadcasting in America would not exist but for the advertisers, and since advertising is addressed to women, it follows inevitably that radio entertainment should consist chiefly of offerings comparable to Cecil and Sally and the Hollywood Newsreel Reporter. As for the movies, it is an axiom among theatre managers that a picture is sure of success if it exhibits enough costumes that are interesting to women. Every Hollywood mogul realizes that his business is supported chiefly by women, and he realizes that it will survive only as long as he can entertain them. Men attend the movies, of course, though in smaller numbers than do women, but many of them go because their wives and sweethearts insist on being taken. In some respects the male does not have as much imagination as his sister: he cannot bring himself to believe whole-heartedly in the reality of silhouettes moving in two dimensions and talking in horrible mechanical voices, and he somehow doubts that most dialogues between intelligent adults consist of one person offering a banal remark and the other saying, with a fake English accent, “Not really?”

Last year in this country scores of millions of dollars went into radio advertising, and a vast amount of this necessarily would have been spent in newspapers if Marconi had never lived. It was a dreadful blow to the newspapers, whose woes were increased when the money bags of the advertisers drew the yearning eyes of the movies. In the early days of the industry the movies picked up many an extra dollar by flashing advertising slides on the screen between Alms, but finally the audiences came to resent this practice, and it was a picayune business anyway. And so they refined their methods and at the same time enormously widened their scope. Do you remember a movie in which a newspaper reporter, adopting the traditional reportorial device for telephoning a name correctly, spelled it out and gave a word to stand for each letter? And do you remember that when he came to “1” he paused for a word beginning with that liquid, happened to see a bottle of antiseptic on the shelf, and cried triumphantly, “L for Listerine”? And have you noticed that movie scenes sometimes happen to be photographed with billboards in the background? Yes, the movies are getting their slice of the advertising pie, too.

The upshot of all this is that the newspaper publisher is forced into competition with the women’s magazines, the radio, and the movies. If they did not exist, he could place an advertisement for washing machines on a page containing a discussion of international finance, and the women would look for it. But they won’t now—they’ll turn the radio dials and listen to the Songbird of the East in Heartwarming Melodies, these melodies being interspersed with ballyhoo for the washing machine.

A good business man, of course, adjusts his tactics to meet whatever competition develops. If the good business man happens to run a newspaper, he decides to increase his paper’s appeal to women, confident that if the magazines, the radio, and the movies can do it, he can too. But first he makes very careful studies to determine what women really want to read.

George II. Gallup, for several years an instructor in journalism at the University of Iowa, conducted one of these surveys two years ago. Mr. Gallup used an impressive survey method of his own invention, and his findings are accepted as eminently trustworthy by editors and trade magazines. Follow some quotations from his summary of the survey:

Only an occasional man reads the serial stories; as high as seventy-five per cent of the women readers of a paper follow them regularly. . . .

Twice as many women as men read health columns; a third more women than men read humorous columns. . . .

A great many women read no news at all. . . .

The following features, and only these, are read by more than forty per cent of the women readers of one metropolitan newspaper—pictures, humor column, love advice, comic strips and continued story.

This, with disconcerting realism, pretty well shows the lay of the land. It offers the solace of understanding to the intelligent reader who is bewildered by the endless procession of women’s features through the columns of his newspaper— health hints, beauty chats, Your Child and Mine, fashions in clothes and furniture, instructions for cooking, advice to the lovelorn, unutterably stupid and sentimental fiction; it will help him understand why one of the most conservative daily journals in the country on a recent Sunday printed “news” for women totaling sixty-eight thousand words. But with the pleasure of understanding why this strange selection of reading matter is offered may come a sudden fear. Are these features supplanting news that the intelligent reader, seeking useful information about the world he lives in, ought to get?

The answer, in the case of many newspapers, is a sad affirmative. The make-up editor’s space allotment has not increased along with the growth in women’s features, and necessarily the news report has been curtailed. A news article on war reparations, if omitted from the paper, will not be missed by the reader, but the omission of the day’s installment of a love story will bring hundreds of protesting and angry women to the managing editor’s office. Features appealing to women not only drive some of the paper’s available news from its columns, but they usurp precious time on the press wires. The Associated Press now includes a fashion story in its service almost every day, so that a telegraph editor, wishing for a longer account of the Imperial Conference at Ottawa, will be confronted with this feature item in his news budget: “Paris. Bows on hats move from back to front. 250.” The “250” means 250 words.

It would be pleasant if one could stop here, with the suggestion that the war has ended in a compromise, a dichotomy of appeal, with the features for the women and the news, albeit a diminished quantity, for the men; but the note on the bulletin board of the World-Telegram recalls the harsh facts. The feminine influence extends triumphantly to the writing, the selecting, and the editing of news as well. And this means that a story about a baby being abandoned is going to be written, not as a factual commentary on social conditions, but as an appeal to the emotions of mothers—and printed even at the expense of leaving out a discussion of the Lausanne reparations settlement. It means that columns will be printed about depressing little women’s clubs, to interest those women who are taken in by such advertisements as “The clubwoman sends her clothes to the Superior Laundry. It leaves more time for culture.” It means that a press association, covering the Hoover acceptance speech, will send a woman to the ceremony, so that the papers may record the details of the political ladies’ costumes. It means that the entire list of winners in a flower show will be printed, even if printing it entails the omission of the roll call in Congress on a bill of importance to agriculture. It means—but the whole thing may be summarized briefly. American newspapers are being forced to sacrifice what is vigorous and informative for what is trivial and superficially attractive. In an age that, in its newspapers, cries for the closest thinking and the most realistic reporting, as in its literature it cries for a dozen Swifts, the American press tends to become merely cute.

And for that boon, as for so many others, we may give credit, in the title words of a popular play of yesteryear, to the ladies.


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