Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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A Torrent Suspended in Midstream: The Short Life and Long Death of McClure’s Magazine
Alexandra Hitchcock

Last modified: 2017-11-25


This paper assesses the factors leading to the 1906 staff schism at McClure’s Magazine and the magazine’s diminishing fortunes in the 1920s as Samuel McClure attempted to recover his publication’s elevated status in investigative journalism. It relies largely on primary source documents, particularly letters between McClure and his colleagues and family, to assess the financial and logistical stresses the magazine endured that eventually caused its demise. It argues that three distinct groups of magazine stakeholders –at the grassroots writer level, the editorial level and the publisher level – held frequently varying priorities when it came to finances, creative choices and the limits of personal investment. These competing concerns led to instability in the magazine’s larger infrastructure. Through the specific example of McClure’s, this research significantly brings to life the historical forces tying early twentieth-century publications to periodical publications today, highlighting the difficulty faced in attempting to reconcile the objectives of a range of constituents with the business imperative of keeping the publication financially solvent.

This study exposes the structural issues behind the magazine’s failure, not confining its consideration to the vicissitudes of funding and reputation but also to the differing views that McClure, his managing editor, and his writers held about them. Furthermore, the extension of these issues over multiple decades, from the immediate restructuring of McClure’s in the aftermath of the schism through aborted attempts by McClure in the 1920s to restore the magazine to its heyday success, demonstrates that these issues and conflicts were cyclical and not dependent on the responses of or interactions between particular individuals.  The magazine’s stakeholders, in the years spanning 1906 to 1929, repeated the same mistakes and fell into the same struggles that had first caused the 1906 schism. Drawing primarily on correspondence between McClure and his staff and associates over a 26-year period, this study attempts to illuminate vividly the competing agendas that precipitated the dissolution of this highly regarded and groundbreaking journal. While underscoring the historical status of McClure’s Magazine as the foremost purveyor of muckraking journalism, it highlights the journal’s persistent vulnerability to diverging objectives among journalistic stakeholders, an all too common condition among media outlets then and now and frequent obstacle to representing accurately, completely, and meaningfully the news of the day.

These problems of attempting to serve and satisfy a variety of stakeholders are now more than ever important for an interdisciplinary community of scholars to analyze as they reflect similar issues in modern journalism. Reporters and editors have a massive burden of breaking hard-hitting news while supporting publications financially, and they must answer to multiple layers of stakeholders and constituents. These lessons from McClure’s demonstrate that these problems are not new, nor are they by any means easy to answer. Muckrakers and investigative journalists may find great success in breaking a story, but matching that success over a span of time – and satisfying wide audiences while attempting to do so – is, and remains, a challenge that merits close examination.

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