Could Newsweek have pivoted in time for the digital age? If not, then other newsweeklies like Time are probably destined to follow
The passing of Newsweek is really sad. And inevitable.
But first, it’s just sad. I started my journalism career at Newsweek, while I was still a student. (Julius Genachowski, currently the head of the FCC, beat me out to be Columbia University’s first “campus correpondent, “ but I got the job the next year. Ah, the stuff you remember.)
Once a week, I’d head downtown for my internship, get off on 50th Street and walk to Madison Avenue, where the cool glass building felt like the very heart of Important Journalism.
Editors spoke softly and tiptoed into large meetings. On Friday nights, the place buzzed until late as the magazine closed, changing things until the last minute, debating the cover line and often the cover story itself.
Back then Newsweek was its own sovereign nation, journalistically speaking, with a caste system and a particular written tongue. Writers were the exalted few who could pen language with the formal pithiness that marked Newsweek-ese. Lowly reporters — the drudges who gathered the actual information — got taglines at the end.
What Newsweek said mattered. Its covers were milestones on the cultural landscape. During my time there, that included Michael Isikoff’s investigation of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And after 9/11 it included Fareed Zakaria’s piercing wakeup call in his cover essay, “Why They Hate Us.”
But it had been required reading for decades, with the magazine’s deep access at The White House and thorough coverage of foreign affairs. There was a time when it was natural for Paul Simon to write “the cover of Newsweek“ into the lyric of his song “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.”
Although it always trailed Time in money, power and circulation, Newsweek was nonetheless a coveted media brand. Later in my career, I worked for Newsweek abroad, in Europe, when they had a Japanese-language edition along with the international one. Back in the 1980s, reporters and editors had big expense accounts. One of my first meals in a war zone – i.e. in a luxury hotel – was covered by a Newsweek expense account, courtesy of veteran Mideast correspondent Christopher Dickey.
It’s hard to remember when Newsweek ceased to be relevant – relegated to dental office waiting rooms and captive audiences on airplanes – but it was long before Tina Brown came along and put a resurrected Princess Diana on the cover.
For a mass-circulation publication like Newsweek, being essential reading among the cognoscenti in New York and Washington while appealing to a broad readership of tens of millions was possibly an insurmountable challenge.
But the digital age has been its undoing. In this era Newsweek faced the weekly challenge of producing something essential after we’ve seen the news served up in our email, watched it on CNN and The Daily Show, and read the daily paper (online, probably).
Other weekly magazines have managed to thread that needle:
>>The New Yorker offers deep, narrative long-form reporting at a length the digital platform doesn’t favor.
>>The Week, a product of the omniverous news age, does an entertaining digest of everybody else’s content with splashy graphics.
>>The Economist goes way cerebral, in tiny type and makes you feel like you’re visiting Cambridge.
>>New York magazine has attitude in spades, and combines quality, long-form journalism with easy-to-digest pop culture snack food.
Could Newsweek have pivoted in time for the digital age? Will it survive in any significant form as a digital-only offering? It’s very hard to say. But if not, then other newsweeklies like Time are probably destined to follow.