By Fredric A. Emmert

SUMMARY: This is the first in a series of three articles exploring the media of the United States in the 1990s. This first installment includes an overview plus a more detailed discussion of American newspapers and magazines. Subsequent installments treat the broadcast media and the interplay between the media and society.

NOTE: This article is in the public domain. Credit to the author should appear on the title page of any reprint.

By Fredric A. Emmert

The print and electronic media in the United States of the 1990s offer the widest news and entertainment options available anywhere in the world. The media are a pervasive element in American society: the average American worker, according to a study by Veronis, Suhler & Associates, devotes about nine hours a day to the media. This figure includes four hours and nine minutes for television and three hours listening to radio, mainly in a car. Recorded music accounts for 36 minutes, and reading of a daily newspaper consumes an average of 28 minutes. In 1991, the adult consumers of all this amusement and information spent some $108.8 billion -- about $353 a person. Advertisers spent an additional $80 billion to bring their products to the attention of the American public through the media. This is big business, America's ninth largest, ranking just below aerospace and just above electronic equipment and its components.

Americans' lives and economy are affected in many ways. The media are a great engine in the consumer society. They provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of technicians, writers, artists, performers and intellectuals. They shape attitudes and beliefs and put pictures of the world into people's minds. The press, or "Fourth Estate," also plays a vital role as guardian of U.S. democracy. That role is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1789, stipulating that Congress will not enact any laws abridging freedom of the press.

U.S. media have traveled a long road since readers in Boston, Massachusetts, glimpsed the first American newspaper in 1690. Within 50 years magazines also began appearing in several major American cities. The advent of commercial radio at the beginning of the 20th century ended print's monopoly of the media in America, giving nationwide and, later, global audiences unprecedented access to live audio programs. An even more powerful medium, television, entered the scene shortly after World War II, quickly conquering the American public. Defying predictions of their decline, the other media have diversified to confront television's dominant appeal.

The launching of USA Today in 1982, for instance, aided by satellite technology, represented a bold experiment by the Gannett chain to produce a newspaper for the television generation. Although the number of independent U.S. newspapers has declined substantially in the last two decades with increasing concentration of ownership by large chains, overall newspaper circulation has remained remarkably constant over the last two decades. American mass magazines have fared poorly in the same period, but publications targeted for distinct segments of the population have proliferated.

By the late 1980s, FM radio stations had supplanted AM stations for music formats, with AM turning more to "talk radio" and news formats. The birth of Ted Turner's Cable News Network (CNN) all-news TV network began a trend that has seen cable TV rise to be a major competitor with the formerly dominant "Big Three" commercial networks -- the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). A fourth broadcast network, Fox, also started challenging the "Big Three" in 1986, and 1995 saw the entry of two more national broadcast networks: Warner Brothers (WB) and Paramount (UPN).

Investigative journalism, a trend at its heyday during the "Watergate Scandal" in the early 1970s, gave way a few years later to increased attention to "journalism ethics." Faced with polls showing decreasing credibility for the media, newspapers and other media throughout the 1980s placed renewed emphasis on improved ethics, including vehicles such as codes, news councils and ombudsmen. As media choices increased during the 1980s, the Federal Communications Commission, the main government "watchdog," began to relax regulations on U.S. broadcast media, expanding the number of outlets one owner could possess and announcing it would no longer enforce the "Fairness Doctrine" (the assuring of equal air time to contending political views). To further increase competition and access to the burgeoning "Information Superhighway," the Clinton administration in January 1994 proposed eliminating restrictions on cable TV and telephone companies from entering each other's markets.

In the 1990s, the media have continued to play an important role in the U.S. electoral process, with cable networks exerting ever greater influence.

Satellite technology has allowed U.S. TV networks, especially cable networks, to reach overseas audiences anywhere on the globe. Newspapers have also used satellite technology to print international editions, and The New York Times even began printing in 1992 a special edition in Russian in 1992. Foreign participation in U.S. media has been increasing over the last decade, and ethnic publications, especially in Spanish, and Spanish-language television and radio grew rapidly throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

Interactive media, fueled by the advance of digital technology and the growing convergence of the computer, telephone and cable television, represent the principal trend of the early 1990s. Exemplifying this trend is the fiber-optic cable system being installed throughout the U.S. by TCI, the largest American cable TV operator, which plans to offer 500 channels and a variety of interactive services to its customers. The $11 billion 1994 merger between the Viacom Cable Company and Paramount is the kind of new alliance between formerly separate media companies that will increasingly shape the emerging multi-media market of the late 1990s. MCI's May 1995 announcement that it was investing $2 billion in Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation typifies recent efforts by U.S. telephone companies to enter the lucrative multi-media sphere. This growing market offers promising job opportunities to journalists, and, consequently, journalism education has continued to attract large numbers of American and foreign students in the United States.

U.S. government media efforts overseas, carried out since the 1950s mainly through the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the Board for Foreign Broadcasting, have placed renewed emphasis on democracy-building in the wake of the Cold War's demise. The fall of the Soviet Union and budgetary restraints prompted the Clinton administration in mid-1993 to propose a consolidation of all U.S. Government international broadcasting programs under a single board of governors within the USIA. On April 30, 1994, President Clinton signed a law which put those provisions into effect and called for the creation of a new Radio Free Asia.


In 1990, the U.S. press celebrated its 300th anniversary as an institution and guardian of democracy. The first U.S. newspaper, Publick Occurrences: Both Foreign and Domestick, lasted only one day -- September 25, 1690 -- before it was suppressed by British colonial authorities. However, other newspapers quickly sprang up in the American colonies, and by 1730, the colonial press had gained sufficient stature to seriously challenge British governors. In that year, the governor of New York brought a seditious libel suit against Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal. The verdict in this trial, the acquittal of Zenger, significantly shaped the course of press development in America, bolstering the principle of press freedom without censorship. After the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), this concept found a home in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press . . . ." These 14 words made it possible for a free press to develop over the next two centuries as one of America's strongest watchdogs over government actions and protectors of individual rights.

By the 1820s, about 25 dailies and more than 400 weeklies were being published in the United States. Horace Greeley founded the New York Tribune in 1841, and it quickly became the most influential newspaper in America. Other important dailies, such as The New York Times, Baltimore Sun, and Chicago Tribune were founded in the 1850s. Two media giants, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, began building their newspaper empires after the Civil War (1861-1865). Their fierce competition produced "yellow journalism" -- sensational and often inaccurate reporting aimed at attracting readers. "Chain" newspapers under the same ownership became a dominant feature in the early 20th century. In addition to the front-running Hearst chain, the Scripps-Howard and Cowles chains grew following World War I. That trend accelerated after World War II, and in 1990, a total of 135 groups owned 1,228 daily newspapers, accounting for about 75 percent of all U.S. dailies. In 1971, there had been 66 cities with two or more dailies owned by separate companies, while in 1995 there were only 36. The top five U.S. newspaper groups in terms of circulation in 1994 were the Gannett Company, Knight-Ridder, Newhouse Newspapers, Times Mirror Company, and the New York Times Company. In mid-1993, the New York Times Company added another major newspaper, The Boston Globe, to its chain in a $1.08 billion purchase, the largest in U.S. newspaper history. Under the purchase agreement, The New York Times agreed to allow The Boston Globe full editorial freedom through 1998.

In spite of the serious competition from television after World War II, the number of dailies dropped only slightly, from 1,763 in 1946 to 1,534 in 1994. However, the number of Sunday papers rose from 497 in 1946 to 889 in 1994, bringing total daily and Sunday papers to 2,423. This figure represents the highest number of newspapers with the highest total circulation -- 135 million -- for any country in the world.

More than two-thirds of American adults read a daily newspaper on an average weekday. The top five daily newspapers by circulation in 1995 were: The Wall Street Journal (1,823,207), USA Today (1,570,624), The New York Times (1,170,869), Los Angeles Times (1,053,498), and The Washington Post (840,232). In all, there are 41 newspapers with more than 250,000 daily circulation, and 68 medium-size regional dailies with circulations of 100,000 to 250,000. Sunday circulation has been a bright spot, climbing from 49.2 million in 1970 to 62.4 million in 1994. At the same time, afternoon papers have dwindled steadily in number: from 1,429 in 1970 to 947 in 1994.

The newest of the top five daily newspapers, USA Today, was launched in 1982, after extensive market research by the Gannett chain. It marked a bold experiment to create a truly national newspaper aimed at a mobile urban population interested in short news "bites" rather than traditional news analyses. Nicknamed "McPaper," USA Today has prospered by adopting successful television techniques in a newspaper format -- accentuating visual images with lavish color photos, drawings and graphs. USA Today vending machines even look like television sets.

Space Age technology made USA Today possible and is helping U.S. newspapers to expand their national and international audiences. USA Today, for instance, is completely edited and composed in Arlington, Virginia, then transmitted via satellite to 32 printing plants serving major market clusters around the country and to two printing plants serving Europe and Asia. The Wall Street Journal began transmitting its daily edition by satellite as early as 1975, and currently transmits four U.S. regional editions, and European and Asian editions. The New York Times transmits a national daily edition, and The Washington Post transmits a national weekly edition.

The International Herald Tribune, owned by The New York Times and The Washington Post, is truly a global newspaper, printed via satellite in 11 cities around the world and distributed in 164 countries. Aided by satellite technology, The New York Times began publishing in April 1992 a biweekly Russian edition in Moscow with an initial circulation of 100,000. We, a U.S.-Russian joint venture newspaper with 50 percent ownership by Russia's Izvestia Publishing Group and 50 percent by the Hearst media organization, began in February 1992 with a print run of 350,000 in Russian and 100,000 in English. We carries both hard news and feature articles and has attracted such international advertisers as Estee Lauder and McDonald's.

Newspapers' share of 1992 advertising revenue in the United States still outstripped all other media by a substantial percentage, but American newspapers in the 1990s face competition not only from network TV, but from a whole spectrum of targeted and specialized media, including personalized computer information services, local cable programming, movies on demand, special-interest publications, catalogs and other direct-mail pieces.

Newspapers are relying on new technology to meet the challenge. More than 600 daily American newspapers, for instance, offer a variety of voice information services, from voice mail enhanced ads that let advertisers and readers talk to each other, to 24-hour free call services offering consumers information on everything from stock prices to local calendars of events. These services have become very popular. The Seattle Times' "Infoline" handled more than 5.5 million calls and generated more than 8 million information requests in 1991.

New offset technology has led many newspapers to increase the use of color in their editions. Even The New York Times, one of the most traditional black-and-white newspapers, began for the first time printing colored ads in 1993. Also in 1993, a group of 17 companies announced the formation of a consortium, "News of the Future," to conduct research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on new ways to use computers and telecommunications to transmit news. Members of the consortium, which estimated its investment at $1.5 to 2 billion a year over a period of five years, include Gannett, Knight Ridder, Times Mirror, Tribune Company, Hearst, IBM, Capital Cities/ABC, and Bell South.

The consortium will explore the creation of electronic newspapers transmitted to hand-held computers and the printing of more personalized newspapers on customers' Pcs (personal computers). Such on-line services, including "Compuserv" and "Prodigy," have proliferated in the 1990s. In 1995, eight newspapers -- Gannett, Knight Ridder, Advance Publications (Newhouse Newspapers), Times Mirror, Tribune Company, Cox Newspapers, Hearst, and the Washington Post Company -- collectively owning 185 dailies with combined circulation in the neighborhood of 20 million -- announced formation of a company to create a national network of on-line newspapers. Founders of the New Century Network say it will allow affiliate papers across the country to share information.

The network aims to act as a clearinghouse for transfer of information and fees between providers and users. The network will help newspapers get online as fast as possible, and advise them on everything from hardware marketing to programming. The theory is that member papers will be able to offer subscribers access to a variety of information -- including news, features, sports, electronic mail and home shopping -- from leading news outlets.

In 1992, the Chicago Sun-Times began offering articles via modem over the "America On Line" computer network, and in 1993, the San Jose Mercury News began distributing most of its complete daily text, minus photos and illustrations, to subscribers of "America On Line." The first multi-media news service in the U.S., "News in Motion," made its debut in the summer of 1993 with a weekly edition specializing in international coverage, with color photos, graphics and sound. In 1994, the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service began distributing news to its newspaper customers via computer before their morning editions arrived, and The Washington Post has created a "Digital Ink" subsidiary, providing an electronic newspaper research service for clients, who can buy custom-made reports on subjects of their choice.

The "Baby Bell" regional telephone networks were allowed to enter this lucrative field for the first time as the result of a 1992 judicial decision. However, the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), the largest lobbying group for the newspaper industry, appealed the judicial decision almost immediately, and three bills were introduced in Congress to try to modify it. The NAA carries considerable weight, since it represents more than 1,400 member newspapers, accounting for 90 percent of total U.S. daily circulation. It was founded in 1887 as the American Newspaper Publishers' Association, and changed names in 1992 when it merged with the Newspaper Advertising Bureau. The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) is one of several other important trade associations representing newspaper industry interests.


The first American magazines appeared a half century after the first newspapers and took longer to conquer widespread readership. Andrew Bradford, a London-born printer, published the first U.S. magazine in Philadelphia on February 13, 1741, but it lasted only three months. 152 years later, in 1893, the first mass-circulation magazines, which cost ten cents at the time, began to appear. Frank A. Munsey, Cyrus Curtis, Edward Bok and S.S. McClure were some of the leading publishers who competed for mass audiences with low-cost magazines from the 1890s well into the 1930s, a period considered the golden age of U.S. publishing.

In 1923, Henry Luce invented the concept of the weekly news magazine, creating Time. It and its major competitor, Newsweek, gradually carved out important niches with their in-depth analyses of national and international developments. The advent of television spelled the downfall for several major American mass-circulation magazines, which steadily lost advertising revenue to the new medium throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Among the general-interest weekly magazines that ceased publishing were the Saturday Evening Post (in 1969), Look (1971), and Life (1972). Life later reappeared as a monthly publication.

Magazine publishers have increasingly tried to appeal to clearly-defined audiences rather than the public at large. Magazines on virtually any subject imaginable have mushroomed, including Tennis, Antiques, Trailer Life and Model Railroading. Computer technology has helped publishers to target special-interest audiences which are not necessarily small in number. Money magazine only focuses on personal finances, but has attracted a large national audience. Many magazines also have sought to target segments within their audiences. TV Guide, Time and Newsweek, for instance, have for many years offered regional editions. In 1963, Time became the first U.S. magazine to offer a "demographic" edition, distributed only to college students. This was followed by special editions for doctors and educators.

There are more than 120 magazines published for children, and Highlights for Children, which has been published for 45 years, has a circulation of 3 million. One magazine, Hopscotch, is specifically targeted for children between 11 and 13.

This specialization caused the number of periodicals published in the United States to jump from 6,960 in 1970 to more than 11,000 in 1994. More than 50 of these magazines had circulations of more than a million in 1994. The top five in 1994 were NRTA/AARP Bulletin (21,875,436), Modern Maturity (21,716,727), Reader's Digest (15,126,664), TV Guide (14,037,062), and National Geographic (9,283,079). Time is the leader among news magazines with a 1994 circulation of more than 4 million. Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report had circulations of 3.1 and 2.2 million respectively.

In late 1990, Time began personalizing its cover by printing each subscriber's name and address rather than affixing a paste-on subscription label, and the magazine also plans to move toward personalizing the content. In September 1993, Time became the first magazine to offer its readers an on-line version by which readers can call up each edition on their computers before it arrives in the newsstands. Through "Time Online," readers can interact with editors and reporters, exchanging ideas and letters to the editor electronically. The service costs $9.95 a month and is delivered through the "America On Line" data network. In October 1994, Wired magazine, which is tailored for computer buffs, introduced "Hotwired," an on-line service via the Internet, blending short articles with a range of interactive features. In December 1994, Washingtonian magazine launched an on-line site on the Internet.

While Time and other large publishing concerns have begun only recently to move toward extreme targeting, it has been for several years the lifeblood of minuscule publishing ventures known as "zincs," a cross between a magazine and a newsletter. "Zincs," which claim circulation bases that range from 25 subscribers to 100,000, communicate a very specific message. Afraid, for instance, is a "horror-story" monthly. Advanced photocopiers and desk-top publishing have enabled as few as one or two people to produce remarkably sophisticated publications, pushing the number of "zincs" up to about 10,000 by 1992.

Like their newspaper counterparts, magazine publishers are taking advantage of new technology to reach international audiences. Time, for example, transmits its entire magazine from New York to Hong Kong and Singapore each week. Time, Newsweek, and several other U.S. magazines print special international editions geared to geographical regions. Cosmopolitan is distributed in 70 countries, and Vogue has had an international following for years. Reader's Digest pioneered in the internationalization of print media, beginning with its first foreign edition in the United Kingdom in 1938 and quickly following with foreign-language editions in South and Central America. In 1990, Reader's Digest published 39 editions in 16 languages, and started a Russian edition in August 1991. In 1990, more than 12 million of its 29 million subscribers lived outside the United States. In the same year, the Ladies Home Journal also came out with a special issue with a 32-page Russian insert that sold 10,000 copies in Moscow.

The Magazine Publishers Association, founded in 1919, continues as the principal spokesman for the magazine industry, while the American Society of Magazine Editors, founded in 1963, acts as the main forum for magazine editors. Fredric A. Emmert is a U.S. Information Agency foreign service officer who has observed and worked with U.S. and foreign media during a 25-year career, including Public Affairs assignments in Latin America, Europe and Washington. D.C.