Narrative Newsweek?

The newsmagazines’ having-it-both-ways blend of newspaper-style objective conventions and jarring rabbit-punch opinions in their news columns always made me queasy. As a friend said, “I feel like I need to take a shower after reading Time or Newsweek.

But I was a Newsweek man, and hung in there through frequent redesigns. Alarmed at first , I soon accepted the Newsweek1new layout and features because I valued the in-depth and reflective coverage, the trend stories, and some of the columnists. Now comes the weekly’s newest and truly radical conception: the magazine has dropped news for “the reported narrative” and the “argued essay.” Wow! But I hate it. Newsweek was an important news source for many of us with poor local newspapers. (Besides, a highly perfected magazine is already doing what Newsweek aspires to; it’s called The New Yorker.) And the new design, with a font that makes the entire magazine look like an advertisement, by a firm pretentiously called Number 17, leaves me cold.

Newsweek’s trying to capitalize on the word “narrative” is an interesting cultural signal in itself. But terror and desperation are likely more responsible for the rebirth than is the magic of narrative. Newsweek’s response to a drop in circulation reminds me of my favorite media theory, which is that each medium—radio, newspapers, broadcast TV, etc.—has its moment in the sun as a mass force before being displaced by a new technology. Here’s the key: the medium does not die but just drops back to an appropriate niche. Before accepting this Darwinian reality, mangers go through guilt and angst: We drove our audience away by doing (or not doing) XYZ and must become more like the gorilla that’s killing us.

I wonder how many readers they will lose as they fruitlessly chase the audience that abandoned them for the Internet. The new Newsweek feels a lot like the current blogosphere, except with longer pieces. Their tiresome attack essay on Oprah in a recent issue was perverse: it was like bringing a battalion of Army Rangers into a high school to depose a popular but silly student leader. The subset of Newsweek readers who view Oprah surely can judge her parade of nutty health advisers for what they are without the magazine’s heavy-handed help. Narrative means telling a story, which really means showing, not going on and on and on with an argument.

Radical media makeovers are fueled by such companies’ legendary greed. Yet it does go against human nature and the reality of American business to happily settle for an audience of only one million when you had grown fat and important on a much larger market share. I remember going to our town’s movie theater as a boy and seeing signs in the lobby urging people to sign a petition (how quaint) against the looming monster of cable TV because they were going to make you pay for what you’ve been getting for free! I was in a newsroom in the 1980s when the newspaper designers were chasing the light-and-bright look of USA Today, which seemed to be aping television in print form.

Admittedly, as the Internet metastasizes, we live in interesting times. With entire publishing companies converting from physical books to digital, writers are worried about getting only a lousy digital contract. In a few years they might be bragging, because digital means their books are big and hot—Kindle worthy—rather than art house objects. So it goes. I might even become fond of the new Newsweek in time. I find myself trying to figure out and read the new issues lying around. But my wife is miffed too, and we are going to let our subscription lapse before I change my mind.

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7 Comments

Filed under honesty, journalism, narrative

7 responses to “Narrative Newsweek?

  1. John

    I tried to drop my subscription and now they send it to me for free. You’ll never get rid of it.

  2. Agree with you 100%

    My susbscription is running out soon and I have no intention of renewing it!

    Newsweek says they are targeting a savvy, upmarket readership. Guess I am not one of them.

  3. John Silvestro

    Having just finished four years of “Magazine-Journalism” education, I was able to separate the quality journalism teachers from the bad journalism teachers based on your media theory. The bad teachers always had at least one homework assignment where we were to think of “new” way to make print or TV more like online; while the quality teachers simply told us to figure out our audiences (Ex. Aging Hipsters, aged 35-50 for Rolling Stone) and write and design the magazine specifically for them.

  4. theexile

    It’s frustrating to see so much redesign in print publications with the obvious hope to draw readers away from online sources. It seems they become gaudy.

    That cover with Oprah is just awful, and clearly meant to convey what sounds like a bad hatchet job inside.

    You’re so right that every medium loses its audience to a new technology. But, those media really don’t fully fade away. The best adapt, as radio and TV seem to do. Print seems to really be struggling with adaptation, when the Net and other hi-tech media outlets could be allies in reaching an audience.

    Plus it is a shame that a news organization such as Newsweek is trying to revamp using “narrative” or argumentative essays. While it’s nice to read a news feature that incorporates narrative techniques, readers are still interested in news. And old-fashioned reporting.

  5. Surely Newsweek tested this extreme makeover and got a positive response? It would be great to hear from someone who loves it. I feel that we paid for one product and another has been substituted. But, as I imply in my post, I am slow to warm up to redesigns and usually do. This is both a redesign and a reconception, though.

  6. John Silvestro

    To my surprise I have found Newsweek refreshing. Its new focus on opinions over facts and “hard-reporting” provide me with an insight I simply don’t get from the local newspapers and the national websites (cnn.com being a fine example.) The more bite-seized nature of the articles have also allowed me to dip my toe into the water’s of a story, instead of forcing me to commit to several paragraphs and pages of mindless anecdotes (yes, we get it, the brutal Dictator has a human-side as well) before the actual topic/thesis is present. I get the facts and then the opinion, nothing more, nothing less.

  7. Thanks for an update on your evolving perspective, John. I find myself reading the new essayistic Newsweek with less anger myself, and frankly with increasing pleasure, then remember I still miss my news magazine!