In The New Republic, Michael Kinsley, who knows his way around a magazine, dissects the underwhelming new Newsweek.
In his editor’s letter–one of many traditional newsmagazine features that have survived the scythe of change–Jon Meacham says, “We are not pretending to be your guide through the chaos of the Information Age,” which concedes a lot of ground from the get-go. Why not at least pretend? Why else would people pick it up, let alone subscribe? The newsmags face a choice. Actually, they’ve faced it since long before the Internet. Should they try to provide a complete picture of what happened last week? Or should they stop worrying about that and hope to find appeal in trends, service pieces, fine writing, muckraking exposes, provocative argument, and other traditional non-news magazine fare? Whenever they have an existential crisis–and this is not the first–they always make the wrong choice.
Meacham–a very smart and thoughtful guy, which in my experience is not necessarily true of all newsmagazine editors (all two, that is)–actually says that his model is “the great monthlies of old” like Harper’s and Esquire. He says the building blocks of the new Newsweek will be “two kinds of stories”: the “reported narrative” and “the argued essay.” So what’s wrong with that? Well, to start, those grand old monthlies at their primes had a smaller paying readership than Newsweek has at its supposed nadir. So duplicating their greatness could be a pyrrhic victory. Furthermore, while it’s not impossible to get readers by peddling sheer enjoyment, it’s a lot easier to peddle necessity, or at least usefulness: You need this magazine to sort out the world for you and to make sure you haven’t missed anything. In short, you need it to be your guide through the chaos, as Meacham so eloquently describes what he intends to avoid. And when something like the Internet comes along to make the chaos even more chaotic, you need your trusty guide more, not less. Possibly the dumbest slogan ever for a newsmag was one used briefly by Time a few years ago: “Make time for Time.” Make time for Time? Who has that kind of time? If you can convince people that reading Time will save them time, then you may have a deal.