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Chapter 1 (part 4)

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Pictures in Transit to Modernism


A key element in the move toward modernism in American culture was the development of illustration (Part II). We next examine how illustration broke the monopoly of typography after mid-century and what role pictures played in making news an expression of the larger transformations occurring in American culture. Scholars usually see illustration, especially photography, as naturally modern and as one of the key forces producing the modern. The technology, the very tools of illustration, supposedly drive its cultural impact. As the consummate modern device, the camera couldn't help but turn anyone using it into a modern as well. Such an account, however, elides a half-century of practice, a very non-modern interregnum running from the point when illustrations entered news (circa 1850) from the point when photographic reproduction dominated news illustration (circa 1900).


To understand the older regime of illustrated news we looked at the two leading news weeklies, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and Harper's Weekly (Chapter 4). Initially, news illustration adopted the conventions of portraiture and storytelling, meant to reinforce then-traditional notions of civic culture. Far from transcending the order of words, these civic pictures remained integrated into it. Publishers found pictures useful as curiosities, to attract readers as much as to inform them. Pictures at first provided the background scenery upon which reporters' stories would unfold. The imagery pointed back into the text, still the primary mode of news. In design terms, images provided respite from the flow of text but were always interlopers. Custom came to require a clear separation between images and text, most often accomplished by framing illustrations with frilly bric-a-brac that, more than mere decoration, indicated a conceptual boundary. In sum, the strategies of representing the real during the second half of the nineteenth century followed a distinct visual regime: Illustrated journalism underscored the author, dedicated itself to storytelling and observation, promised vicarious experience to its readers, and embraced a republican ethos of citizenship.


The regime continued until the late nineteenth century but was already entering decline by the time half-tone reproduction became common (around 1900). A new regime of modern photojournalism replaced illustrated news just as modern forms of cultural authority replaced the republican ideal. The advent of photo-realism robbed illustrated journalism of its claim to authenticity and deprived pictorial reporting of much of its storytelling arsenal. The demise of civic picturing had a larger consequence: the loss of the republican mission of news. Operating by different rules from its predecessor, the photojournalism that dominated the twentieth century replaced any civic responsibilities for imagery with a commitment to populism and realism.


Replacing the older with the modern regime involved a complex interaction between text and pictures. We trace the triumph of daily photojournalism by examining how the New York Times and the Chicago Daily News covered the deaths of sitting presidents (Chapter 5). These events allow us to monitor techniques of covering a core aspect of news - the unexpected - at roughly twenty-year intervals from 1881 to 1963.


Text and picture changed in a dialectical fashion. We found an initial repertoire of verbal techniques for presenting visual information, including dramaturgy, depictions of demeanor, and the presentation of visual detail using the technique we call walking description. These fell largely into disuse as photographic depictions arose. Instead, news analysis came to dominate the verbal report, as many of the tasks of reporting shifted to pictures and as photojournalism replaced the older regime of illustrated news. Pictures acquired immediacy, conflict, prominence, and other news values, heightening the emotional register of news while replacing simple picture narratives with complex episodic arrays of multiple images.


Changes in the practice of news gathering and styles of news presentation marked the transition to modernism. Modern newspapers presumed a more autonomous reporting function, encouraging a stance of objectivity and expertise. Modern reporters, who as professionals are neither gentlemen nor waged workers, took on the task of authoritatively classifying and prioritizing events. Modern photojournalism, in a departure from the conventions of Victorian illustration, complemented that primary task of professional reporting, providing a sense of visual immediacy to go with the formally structured text. In both text and image, the emergent modern newspaper required the effacing of the persona of the journalist, who might have a name (registered in a byline) but who did not have a point of view, a set of values, or (usually) a style of writing. The modern journalist and photojournalist became experts, not authors. The photojournalist is sometimes still a scavenger - a throwback to the Victorian newspaper - although the reporter is not.



Modernism Arrives


Pictures reveal only one dimension of the rise of modernism, and the form of news includes a great deal more: typography and text, other imagery and graphic design, and production processes. We next turn to these dimensions as accretions of broader cultural movements during the twentieth century, when newspapers adopted the visual vocabulary of modernism (Part III).


Our examination begins with an overview of the rise of modern newspaper design. A longitudinal study of newspaper design elements from 1885 to 1985 (Chapter 6 ), answers the question, Did a visual revolution in newspapers occur after the founding of USA Today? One explanation usually advanced for such a visual revolution is that rapidly changing technology enabled newspapers to implement design innovations. This argument belittles the cultural significance of news forms, which are seen as merely the accidental result of new technical capacities. In fact, the capacity to change news designs had been available for quite some time, but journalists considered the existing form of news suitable to the social and cultural uses of news at the time.


Another explanation advanced for a design revolution is a perceived need to compete with newer media, particularly television. This argument, like the previous one, attributes design innovation to technological exigency and belittling its cultural significance, and we find it equally unconvincing, at least in its conventional form. Television was hardly the first new medium to challenge the newspaper's economic health, nor was it the first to make the appearance of the newspaper seem staid and uninteresting. Movies and radio, not to mention illustrated magazines, had already produced panics in newspaper land. The design response to these earlier challenges was to streamline the newspaper, to rationalize its appearance - in a word, to modernize.


We conclude that the question of a visual revolution must be answered with a qualified negative. The 1970s saw an acceleration of trends already in place since the 1920s, when modernism established itself in what we call the professional newspaper. Further analysis shows successive design'' phases within modernism over the course of the century, culminating in the current late modern phase, which likely marks the exhaustion of modernism just as design itself achieves its greatest prestige.


The rise of the modern newspaper encouraged conceiving of newspaper design as an autonomous arena. The modern newspaper accommodated artists, from the designers of information charts and graphs and the layout artists for each section to the managing editors and their assistant managing editors, who came to supervise layout, design, graphics, and photography. Organized as professionals, with a system of societies and awards, and often housed in the business offices of newspapers, these graphic designers worked anonymously, as experts, accumulating power through the several phases of the modern era.


The key moment for the rise of modernism came not in the 1970s or early 1980s but much earlier, during the period between the world wars. We next explore that period in depth, examining the record of five newspapers during the key decades of change (Chapter 7). From 1920 to 1940, modernism became the established vocabulary of newspaper authority. A streamlined and rationalized front-page with hierarchical story placement told the reader what mattered most in the world of the news. As newspapers grew longer, they divided internally into sections that further compartmentalized and labeled the news - as frivolous (sports, women's concerns) or serious (the front page, the editorial page, the business section). Design features developed to signify these valuations.


The innovations demonstrate how, during this period, the professional newspaper assumed the crucial modern role of mapping the social world for its readers. The newspaper claimed a new level of ostensibly independent cultural authority, an elevation corresponding to other familiar developments in modern journalism, such as the creation of an ethos of objectivity and professionalism among journalists. Newspapers also reflected the two faces of modernism in the fine arts. At one end of a continuum, the reserved broadsheet adopted the abstractionism of modern art movements, and at the other end the emphatic tabloid adopted modern expressionism.


The timing of the overall cultural shift suggests that its genesis was partly economic. Professional authority for reporters depended on the economic power that accompanied the transformation of newspapers into industrial enterprises and the achievement of local monopolies within newspaper markets. Only when newspapers could believably claim to present the news rather than to represent one view of the news (as was the case in partisan and competitive markets) did the need and the opportunity to assume professional responsibility come into existence. Likewise, only then could the newspaper meaningfully claim to map the social world for its readers. The line from that set of changes to USA Today was a relatively direct one - no further revolution need apply. Visual mapping thus tied modern design to a new agency of cultural authority, modern journalism.


Schematically, we identify three types of newspaper, according to productive processes, since the 1880s: the industrial (which overlaps and continues our earlier designation, publisher's), the professional, and the corporate. We chose these terms partly to connote the larger cultural moment in which each type participated. The industrial newspaper extended until the first World War; the professional newspaper reached its height in the 1970s; and the corporate newspaper is still ongoing. The first two of these types corresponded to specific design phases that we call Proto-Modern, Classicist Modern, High Modern, and Late Modern. The corporate newspaper mixes period references in a self-consciously instrumental fashion, creating a regime with design ideas relatively autonomous from other productive processes. A master metaphor hailed readers into each type of newspaper: a department store for the industrial, a social map for the modern, and an index for the corporate newspaper.«

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