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 new 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.