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27 August 2014 10:55 (South Africa)
World

Old news: Newsweek chooses online kingdom

  • Richard Poplak
  • World
C:\fakepath\Poplak on Newsweek

That’s it. An American media institution firmly enters the information age. On 31 December, Newsweek will print its final edition. After that, you can find Newsweek Global online only. Consider this the first of the titans to fall. By RICHARD POPLAK.

It began almost 80 years ago, with a series of swastikas. Newsweek, the weekly created to directly counter Time magazine’s stranglehold on the agenda, exploded into the American consciousness with a cover that has become one of the lasting images of the print magazine era. (Now definitively over.) The cover was something of a mission statement: seven images, each representing a day of the past week. The one that caught the eye of American audiences – this being February 17, 1933 – depicted several youthful Brown Shirts at a rally, waving Nazi flags. For many, it signalled the beginning of the storm that would sweep them into a world war.

There have been many iconic covers since. A close portrait of a black man, right side of his in light, left side of his face in darkness. Headline: The Negro in America. Deck: The first national survey…Who he is, what he wants, what he fears, what he hates, how he lives, how he votes, why he is fighting…and why now? Date: July 29, 1963. Flash forward to a side profile of a GI, draped in the American flag, and scrawled on his helmet: Goodbye Vietnam. Headline: Peace is at Hand. Date: November 6, 1972. A lifetime later, President Barak Obama, rainbow halo hovering above his head. Headline: The First Gay President? Date: May 21, 2012.

That last cover is seen by many analysts not so much as an indication or reflection of American thinking, but another example of the heavy hand of Tina Brown, perhaps the most controversial magazine editor of her generation. Brown, who once ran The New Yorker, and brought Talk to international attention before it faded into penury, bears the responsibility of removing from newsstands an American institution. The question is, did her tenure cause the plummet in Newsweek’s subscriptions, from 3-million five years ago to 1.5-million now? Or was the decline an inevitable result of a fragmented news market, and a steady but unstoppable migration online?

The publication you are reading at this very moment was the result of a similar set of economic, cultural and technological circumstances working in consort to yank from the hands of readers a print magazine. Perhaps “yank” is the wrong verb, for the hold, in retrospect, never seemed particularly strong. The wonks promised us that reading online was a fad, but it is anything but. Newsweek’s sister publication, Daily Beast, is four years old, and now claims 15-million unique visitors each month, an increase of 70% over the past year. This was partly because Daily Beast was synergised to run Newsweek’s reportage, and partly because it effectively understood how the Internet age operates.

Photo: The first cover of News-Week on 17 February 1933 (left); Tina Brown (right)

Newsweek was born in a thoroughly different age. Time had created for itself a unique market: before the advent of television, it quickly came to set the agenda for a people the editors believed were, “for the most part, poorly informed.” Which is to say, Americans. Time was a 1923 collaboration between two Yale alumni, the new-school Briton Hadden and the old-school Henry Luce, hence the faux-Homeric constructions that were so perfectly parodied in a New Yorker profile on Luce, written in 1936. Two of the better zingers: “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind” and “Where it will all end, knows God!”

Time occupied the bottom rung of the middle-brow ladder, whereas Newsweek considered itself liberal America’s serrated edge, which was not entirely accurate, but served as a self-image for almost eight decades. The magazine began as News-Week, under the aegis of a former Time foreign news editor named Thomas J.C. Martyn. It sold for 4 cents, or $4 for an annual subscription. Four years later, it merged with the weekly Today, and the hyphen was dropped. 

It didn’t explode out of the gate in the same way Time did – Martyn didn’t have Britton and Luce’s preternatural ability to read the temperature of the public. But by 1950, like most magazines in America, it saw a subscription boom, and was sending copies to 1.5-million readers a week.

We tend to think of media mergers as a new phenomenon, but the process began in earnest in the ’60s, and has only escalated in place. In 1963, Newsweek was purchased by The Washington Post Co. For the magazine, this turn of events was a boon. With it came journalist titan Ben Bradlee, who was determined to use the magazine’s status as Number 2 to reset the political agenda, chasing down feminism, civil rights, Vietnam and all the other contentious issues ripping America to shreds. While Time soft-pedalled, Newsweek did a survey on the Negro mind. One magazine represented the status quo; the other challenged it. 

Not too viciously, mind. By the mid-’80s the liberal-conservative split in America, agitated by the Reagan years, deposited all of its stridency on cable television, signalling the beginning of the niche agenda and the fragmenting of the news space. While cable presented an existential challenge to Newsweek and like publications, at first the Web did not.  

The magazine veritably leapt online, on the Prodigy server, in 1994, the very same year it humiliated Time by running the O.J Simpson mug shot on the cover, without darkening it the same way Time’s photo editors did. In 1994, Newsweek.com launched, the very same year the magazine decided not to break the Monica Lewinsky story.

That honour was left to Matt Drudge, who in many ways properly ushered in the Internet news era. Newsweek, Time and most traditional media outlets, for the first time in history, followed the Internet. They’ve been following ever since. (In 2006, Time named Drudge one of the 100 most influential people in the world.)

There came a brief online marriage with NBC and MSNBC in 2007, and in 2010, the magazine was sold for a buck to hi-fi magnate Sidney Harman, who promised to revive it and keep it going. He merged with media mogul Barry Diller and his Daily Beast, and the rest is media history. 

Last week, Tina Brown announced that 31 December was the last time Newsweek would be available in a print edition. Brown, since her Vanity Fair days, has been a punching bag for both her successes and failures, but it’s hard to pin this one on her. Folks are saddened, but no one is really surprised. The model has changed, and it’s not changing back—certainly not since advertisers melted away following the crash of 2007. We knew it here at Daily Maverick, and it’s known at every other magazine that runs a print edition. The dice are loaded in the Internet’s favour. Paper is an anachronism Newsweek could no longer afford. DM

Photo: A copy of Newsweek magazine sits on a newsstand in New York October 18, 2012. Newsweek, the venerable U.S. weekly magazine covering current events, will publish its final print edition on Dec. 31 and move to an all-digital format early next year, two top executives said on Thursday. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

  • Richard Poplak
  • World


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