Newsweek’s Demise Leaves Me With Mixed Feelings

As an editor at a fellow print publication, I should be more sorry for Newsweek.

The demise of a print publication that (along with Time magazine) defined news for decades does certainly leave me feeling a bit wistful. I’ve been reading Newsweek off and on since I was in my early teens (though my father subscribed to its main competitor). And unlike Time magazine with Henry Luce, Newsweek didn’t have an out-there eccentric owner fixated on Christianizing China.

Now, the magazine is not fading into oblivion. It is instead converting into a subscriber-based all-digital publication. Editor-in-chief Tina Brown is trying to put the best face on the change.

“We are transitioning Newsweek, not saying goodbye to it,” she stated in an e-mail to the magazine staff. “We remain committed to Newsweek and to the journalism that it represents. This decision is not about the quality of the brand or the journalism. That is as powerful as ever. It is about the challenging economics of print publishing and distribution.”

Brown was a major problem at Newsweek. In a desperate attempt at keeping the magazine in the spotlight, she made it more and more sensationalist. This resulted in some awful recent cover choices.

“In the Tina Brown era, supposedly the dawn of a new attitude, Newsweek has gyrated through a series of increasingly embarrassing attempts to goose its traffic by trying on different attitudes like cheap suits,” writes John McQuaid for Forbes. “There was the ‘if Princess Di were alive’ business, Niall Ferguson’s error-ridden attack on Barack Obama, Andrew Sullivan’s Obama hagiography, and most recently, a piece purporting to prove that ‘heaven is real,’ repeating about 50 bestselling mass-market books and Parade magazine covers of the past decade, but of course doing no such thing.”

But the worst culprit was a “Muslim rage” cover piece by Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Ferguson’s spouse) that in response to the recent Middle East protests engaged in the most tendentious and reductive analysis. Brown should be ashamed.

Brown’s gimmicks at Newsweek were a pity because I kind of liked her work at Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. She made Vanity Fair a fun mix of the serious and the gossipy and let out some of the stuffy air from the New Yorker. Her Newsweek stint has been lamentable, however.

The death spiral at Newsweek started when it was sold by the Washington Post after almost half a century of ownership to Sidney Harman, a multimillionaire who seemed dedicated to keep the publication going and merged it with the Daily Beast website. Unfortunately for the magazine, Harman was ninety-one years old and died soon after. His family decided to pull the plug.

“Pairing stock images and incendiary statements at random and slapping them on the cover did not, in the end, turn out to be a business-saving publishing model,” Vanity Fair snarkily commented.

Newsweek has exemplified another disturbing trend in the media: the lack of attention to facts. After Ferguson’s inaccurate hit job on Obama caused an uproar, the magazine admitted it did not fact-check its pieces.

“Newsweek's avoidance of fact-checking is just one example of a larger erosion of journalism, led by shrinking newsrooms, layoffs, and more,” the watchdog group Media Matters comments. “The erosion of the structures of journalism in turn fuels a growing lack of credibility for the media in general, and offers an opportunity for the conservative echo chamber to fill the gap.”

I’m not too sentimental about the pre-Tina Brown Newsweek either, though. In an attempt to be “with it,” much of its focus was on fluffy pop culture or lifestyle issues.

In the Internet age, the problem for both Time and Newsweek has been figuring out their purpose. The recipe for such publications to get readers’ attention is to smarten and deepen their content. Wallowing in sensationalism, as Tina Brown has done, isn’t the way to go. That’s why I bid farewell to the print Newsweek with not a completely heavy heart.

If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Pakistan’s Heartening Response to Hideous Attack."

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