Mini-Quakes in the News Landscape

Sunday night, a 4.7 earthquake here in L.A. Then Monday morning, a shaken-up news landscape. Today the world gets to see the first issue of a new Newsweek — revamped by editor John Meacham and his team to try to be less of a populist sprawl over the week’s news, more in tune with a […]

Sunday night, a 4.7 earthquake here in L.A. Then Monday morning, a shaken-up news landscape.

Today the world gets to see the first issue of a new Newsweek — revamped by editor John Meacham and his team to try to be less of a populist sprawl over the week’s news, more in tune with a smaller, more educated, upscale audience. The goal is to be choosier, tighter, smarter and celebrity-free.

 

He thinks the weekly schedule is ideal for a mag to go after the choicest fish in the news pond, and he has a point. As Meacham puts it in his introductory note:

“Counterintuitively, perhaps, the weekly cycle is a promising one in a world running at a digital pace. The Internet does a good job of playing the role long filled by newspapers, delivering headlines, opinions and instant analysis. Many newspapers have long been forced into a traditional newsmagazine model, with longer-form reporting and more big-picture thinking, but they still have to do it every day, and there is only so much wisdom one can summon in a few hours.”

If you ask an average educated-upscale reader what magazines they still bother to read in print every week, you’ll most likely get some combination of three weeklies: the New Yorker, the Economist, and the Week. They've become a kind of entree to the educated professional class and its thinking.

 

Is there room for another? Well, all three of those publications have a formula that works, but that — being a formula — can seem rigid and unsurprising.

 

I take it as a good sign that this first issue of Newsweek is long on both Barack Obama and American Idol.

Meanwhile, over at the New York Times, Maureen Dowd, superstar op-ed columnist, has been caught lifting a paragraph from Talking Point Memo’s Josh Marshall in Sunday's column about torture. It's now corrected so that the paragraph starts, "As Josh Marshall said in his blog."

 

As she explained to both the Huffington Post and the Nytpicker blog, she was “talking” to a friend who expressed this thought, which she admired, and she wanted to “weave it in” to her column.

Given that the paragraph in question is exactly the same down to the commas (the only subsitution she made was “the Bush crowd” for “we”), it seems likely that by “talking” she means “emailing, then copying and pasting."

Dowd’s woes are just another reminder that newspapers, and the people who work for them, just can’t catch a break in the Internet era. Not that they're victims: It’s hard not to see newspaper people’s own bullheadedness and strange lack of pragmatism as the cause.

 

There’s no reason the fundamental shift in sensibility and mission that Meacham is outlining for Newsweek — with the aim of being in tune with the reality of how the Internet and the economic crisis has changed things for both readers and advertisers — can’t be done at, say, the New York Times, or any other newspaper.

Another sign that the future belongs to news organizations that are nimble, that take into account what readers can and can't get on the web, and that are willing to try new ingredients and flavors for the fundamental stew of news, analysis and opinion that readers expect everywhere now: AOL’s new PoliticsDaily site, up just a month, has hired a correspondent to go to Afghanistan, David Wood, formerly of the Baltimore Sun.

 

The site’s editor, Melinda Henneberger, told me in an email that Wood does not represent “a Kabul bureau or anything,” since he’ll be in and out, but that he’d be filing “a combination of New Yorker-style essays and on-the-ground reports.”

In the battle for mindshare that all these publications are in, it doesn’t seem to matter much any more whether a news-oriented publication is defining itself as a weekly or a web magazine or a newspaper — they all are hunting after the same basic animal, reporting enlivened and grounded by point of view. As Henneberger described to me why she hired Wood, it’s hard not to see the similarity between what PoliticsDaily is doing and what Newsweek is doing.

“I think his stories will mesh perfectly with what we already do at Politics Daily because we have the freedom to express our opinions, but our one shared bias is in favor of reporting; there's never any substitute for that.”

And here’s Meacham’s description of the goal for Newsweek:

“There will, for the most part, be two kinds of stories in the new Newsweek. The first is the reported narrative — a piece, grounded in original observation and freshly discovered fact, that illuminates the important and the interesting. The second is the argued essay — a piece, grounded in reason and supported by evidence, that makes the case for something.”

 

If only newspapers could find a way to convey the kind of fresh-start idea to readers that these publications are managing — both of them, it must be said, saddled with brand names that scream, your great-aunt at the dentist office (or in her sewing room with a dial-up connection).

 

Whether PoliticsDaily or Newsweek will be able to deliver on the promise is another story. But Henneberger told me the site had made its first month numbers in the first six days.