Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Religious Press and Print Culture Conference

Elesha Coffman

I wrote this post early, because today I am at Johann Gutenberg
University in Mainz, Germany, for a conference on Protestants and the
religious press. Logical place for such a conference, don't you think?

The conference, part of a larger project on "Pluralism, Boundary-Making,
and Community-Building in North American Religious Periodicals,"
features a mixture of European and American scholars. Keynotes will be
offered by David A. Copeland (Elon University), David Paul Nord (Indiana
University), Gisela Mettele (Friedrich Schliller-Universitat, Jena),
and Candy Gunther Brown (Indiana).

I was thrilled to be invited to this conference, both because I've never
been to Germany and because I thought the organizers were asking really
great questions in their conference description:

"How do we best approach religious print matter, what questions can such
studies answer, and which new perspectives might they open up? ... What
roles play individuals like editors, writers, and financiers in
religious print culture? What structures underlie and what networks
facilitate the religious press? What can we learn about the internal
workings of religious groups? How do religious identities emerge and how
are they maintained? How is the religious described and communicated?
What strategies are employed to draw boundaries or unite disparate
movements? How do different genres function within the context of the
religious press? By what strategies are events explained and defined and
do they impact the larger culture? What is the interrelation and
meaning-exchange between a society and a religious subculture?"

These were the kinds of questions I tried to address in my book on The Christian Century,
especially all the parts of the book where I discussed circulation
campaigns, staffing concerns, and the magazine's perpetually precarious
financial state. Pleas for funds or new subscribers, I argued, were the
places where the Century editors most explicitly articulated
their (and, they hoped, by extension their readers') religious identity.
I didn't explain this angle as well as I could have, however. I
distinctly recall the members of my dissertation writing group asking,
"Why are we reading about marketing again?" For this conference paper,
I'll pull those parts of the book together and explain why I paid as
much attention to the business side of the magazine's history as to its
editorial content.

Because the conference questions also touch on method, let me offer a
public service announcement to any of you who do periodical research or
advise students doing this type of research: Beware digitization. Yes,
it's really handy to be able to perform a keyword search or pull up a
scan of an article on your laptop rather than on a balky microfilm
reader. But:

1. Digitization is often spotty. There are articles I know ran in the Century that
do not show up when I search for them in the digitized version. Perhaps
those issues haven't yet been scanned, or perhaps the indexing is
faulty. Whatever the reason, the material is not all there in the

2. Reading a periodical via a database and reading it as a subscriber
are radically different experiences. When a subscriber encounters an
article, its context is not every other article written by the same
author or on the same topic. The context is what came on the page before
it and what comes on the page after it, including pictures and ads. If a
periodical research project has any reader-response aspects, the
researcher has to try to replicate the original reading experience. Find
an archive and flip through the actual, crumbling pages.

3. Some qualities of print periodicals simply cannot be captured
digitally. Paper stock matters. Trim size and typography matter. Covers
matter tremendously. These variations reveal branding strategies, as
well as budgetary decisions, all of which link titles to readers with
certain tastes and all of the social class connotations that accompany
those tastes. Without access to any market research, you can probably
tell instantly which airport-kiosk magazines are aimed at readers with
higher or lower incomes, higher or lower education levels, older
readers, younger readers, men, women, and so forth. Periodicals in other
eras might not have been nearly as savvy at branding, but they
generally did try to emulate other titles in whatever editors considered
their reference group.

You may now return to your regularly scheduled AAR. I'll not be joining
you this year, because, as I might have mentioned, I'm in Germany!

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