The End of Newsweek-ly Journalism

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Newsweek hasn’t been a news weekly for a while now. In this devoted reader’s mind, it’s been a journalistic sham since Tina Brown took over and the magazine had to carry the blogger baggage of The Daily Beast.

In this final edition, Brown does give credit to Christopher Dickey for carrying the journalistic ball, but a single person can do it all.¬†As I read this final print edition, its synopses of the magazine’s finest moments, it’s apparent how far this magazine has fallen. My 40-year subscription ended with this issue, and in a way, I’m glad it’s no more. It will now be dropped into one of Dante’s hells – the one in which something insignificant happens every five seconds, whether it be Elton John’s latest sunglasses or a cat-fight between two bloggers, the two selected so that the sum total of their education, life perspective, and the cause(s) they espouse adds up to nothing.

 

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NEWSWEEK and Journalism’s Burdens

I've said it before: I haven't been a big fan of NEWSWEEK since Tina Brown became its editor; still, it's better now than the royal mess it was. Its limitations remain those of a society with a thirty-second attention span and a blogosphere with cranky, sensationalistic rants.

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Why do I read it? For the occasional good article. That good one comes, in the June 27, 2011, issue, in the form of an op-ed piece by former Prez Bill Clinton. One never knows, but I suspect Clinton wrote this piece (It's Still The Economy, Stupid) himself. It has all the bubbly optimism and down to earth assaying he's always been known for. In this piece, he lays out what he believes are 14 ways to "put America back to work." Nine of his talking points are no-brainers, the others need the concise explanation Clinton gives. In the end, he's still thinking like a president, not an ex-prez. 

On the down side, NEWSWEEK gives us an article (The Triple Agent) that promises an inside scoop on the suicide bomber attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan in 2009 that killed seven CIA operatives. The writing here is skillful; it opens as if a real-life, suspense novel look at this attack. We do get an eyeful of the perp – Humam al-Balawi. Otherwise we get little more than we could have GOOGLED a year later. 

Journalism, even the weekly kind, has to bear the burden of a reading audience that wants only the bottom line, and wants it NOW! NEWSWEEK, TIME, and U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT have survived as weeklies because they follow journalistic trends. Hopefully, now they can lead a trend back to objective journalism that informs, not titillates.

Digging Deep with NEWSWEEK

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Note: I first feel obliged to give my sketchy view on the metamorphosis of popular media. To skip to my bottom line, scroll down to the picture of Tina Brown, NEWSWEEK's editor. 

I've subscribed to several news weeklies over the years, but the one I've held onto the longest is NEWSWEEK. Since something like 1968, I've seen the magazine morph to fit the times. Back in the day, i.e., the 'sixties, NEWSWEEK – as with other such weeklies – maintained a stable of reporters searching out the stories of the day, gathering information on them, analyzing their data, and then reporting. Back then, we trusted the veracity of such reportage, much as we trusted Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, and others on TV.

Then, as life became more global, hence complex, readers seemed to ask for escape – hence a preoccupation with disco, Dennis Rodman, Donald Trump, and, even later, American Idol. NEWSWEEK and the other mags began to suffer losses in readership as magazine prices went up, corporate bean-counters ruled over journalism, and finally, the digital world of blogs and e-books began to threaten. For a while it became hard to tell NEWSWEEK from People or US.

By then, television had exploded from the three primary networks of the 'sixties to hundreds. That made it possible for news and politics junkies to select channels that fit their own biases, without much in the way of rational debate and analysis. NEWSWEEK had floundered into the world of FOX, MSNBC, CSPAN, Huffington Post, and CNN – and their separate variations on reality.

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So where does this leave news weeklies – and news reportage in general? For the conscientious news consumer, it's possible now to graze from magazine to magazine, from channel to channel, blog to blog, sampling opinions. Now, it seems, readers and viewers must make up their own minds as to the truth of events – and that requires digging.

NEWSWEEK recently went through a radical change of structure and heart in order to escape going under financially. The magazine hired Tina Brown as its editor and merged with the blog-news entity, The Daily Beast. What has this meant to their reportage? They are now a microcosm of FOX, MSNBC, CSPAN, CNN, et. al. For example:

In the mag's March 28, 2011, issue, we have a personal essay on Japan and its recent catastrophe by Paul Theroux. Niall Ferguson is carving out the same sort of irascible territory as George Will, his essays lightly populated with facts obfuscated by opinion – the sort of column you read because you hate the man's playing fast and loose with facts.  An op-ed piece on Obama and No Child Left Behind. Perhaps the most incisive piece is on NPR's lack of political savvy in rescuing itself from congressional budget cuts. It's most intriguing piece is on a possible discovery on the ancient city of Atlantis. These, and a double handful of blog-like snippets, along with enough pop culture to hold the trendiest of us faithful, and NEWSWEEK is back in the game.

The common thread through these pieces is a marked lack of analysis. NEWSWEEK is now giving its readers a mosaic of the world, much as TV does. But unlike TV, where you can opt to say glued to FOX or MSNBC, a session with an issue of NEWSWEEK now requires the thoughtful reader to dig into these sometimes cranky, myopic pieces – and then to pan outward until the mosaic makes sense with the multitude of detail. 

This then is modern culture in a nutshell: seeing the big picture in the details. NEWSWEEK apparently understands this dynamic and, as such, has forced itself to be reborn from the ashes of the 'sixties.