This is something I've been curious about for a while, and there's little public or explicit information about it. It's obvious that some journals are considered very prestigious and other journals something less than that. It seems most seasoned professors have quite specific opinions on the matter. But how did things get this way? It seems that almost all journals superficially look and operate about the same. I work in mathematics, but the question of course applies to all fields.
In some cases it's understandable. For example, the "Journal of the American Mathematical Society" would be expected to be a top journal since it's the flagship journal of a major mathematical institution. On the other hand, there are journals that are considered "top journals" without being attached to an important institution, having a long, distinguished history, or any other obvious reason. How did such journals acquire their reputation? I'm hesitant to start naming specific journals in this question, though it would be interesting to see some representative examples in the answers.
Reputation seems very much set in stone in the short term. And yet, over time, some journals rise in reputation while other ones decline. What causes this? One possibility is that a journal hurts its reputation by behaving in an unethical or irresponsible way, but this would not be the norm.
To phrase this another way, I imagine just about every journal wants to improve its reputation. So what are the tools in the toolbox that a journal, or a community of academics who are invested in its success, can use to achieve this?
I'm sure part of the answer is "the editors". But what do they do? Is the work of a journal/editor deeper than "wait for papers to get submitted and then accept the best ones"? I'm sure having a prestiguous editorial board helps, but in my experience even the "pretty good" journals still have top mathematicians as editors.