- Reflexive Pictorial Journalism:Educating Readers in Media Literacy
The last page of the Illustrated London News (ILN) for 18 January 1845 includes an illustrated poem about the magazine itself, titled "The Post Office Van, Calling at the Office of the Illustrated London News" (fig. 1). This item is visually prominent, dominating two of the page's three columns and occupying the lower right-hand portion of the page—the last region of the magazine that a reader would see if browsing from front to back and reading each page from left to right. The illustrated poem's placement, calculated to garner readers' attention, is fitting given its topic: the item celebrates the industrial feats of high-volume production and wide-range distribution that the ILN had achieved only two and a half years after emerging as Britain's first serious news weekly.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Situated among minor news items, the week's chess problem, and advertisements, "The Post Office Van" functions as both an entertaining diversion and a promotion of the ILN brand.1 Its significance extends beyond these immediate material contexts, however. The item contributes to an [End Page 188] understudied genre of illustrated journalism: self-reflexive articles about print production itself. As Andrew King and John Plunkett, among others, point out, nineteenth-century print often showcased its own practices to influence readers' attitudes toward the periodical publishing industry (4). Within the medium of the popular pictorial magazine, as this essay will elaborate, such efforts constituted a distinct genre. Illustrated periodicals combined images and letterpress into articles documenting their own historical and contemporary production processes, often emphasizing the most technologically innovative aspects of production. Such articles simultaneously responded to and fostered readers' interest in periodicals as print objects. In effect, they fostered print media literacy by instructing readers to attend to how the characteristics of an illustrated periodical were shaped by its production and distribution processes. Readers could therefore engage with periodicals as cultural artifacts shaped by the networks of technological and socio-historical agents that produced them.
Perhaps the earliest example from the genre of magazine production history is "The Commercial History of a Penny Magazine," a series of monthly supplements that appeared in the Penny Magazine in 1833. In accordance with the mandate of its publisher, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, this magazine was the first to bring illustrated content about modern technologies to a mass readership. Each month, the supplement described a different facet of journal production, from paper making to printing. Intricate descriptions and occasional illustrations invited readers to recreate mentally the process of printing the Penny Magazine at every step.
As established by the pioneering "Commercial History of a Penny Magazine," the self-reflexive genre of articles about pictorial print varied in its coverage of production and circulation but always described illustrated journalism's cultural and technical history. This genre predictably appeared in step with developments in the press—for example, in the mid-1840s, when the ILN's "Post Office Van" was printed, illustrated weeklies were just starting to emerge. Mason Jackson's 1879 series "Illustrated News: A Sketch of the Rise and Progress of Pictorial Journalism" gave the editor-engraver an opportunity to educate and engage his ILN audience again three decades later, when his paper was battling the Graphic for readers. At the end of the century, an article on the production history of the Strand Magazine simultaneously educated and reassured readers about the change in production methods from wood engraving to photomechanical process. "A Description of the Offices of the Strand" (1896), published five years after the Strand first ushered in a new style of illustrated British monthly, foregrounded the network of human agents that made illustrated periodical production possible (Smith and Hale 682).
"The Post Office Van" demonstrates how articles on magazine-production history instructed their audiences about pictorial journalism's processes while commenting on changes in print culture and technology, equipping [End Page...