Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Newsweek, RIP

Well, it's official: Newsweek is dead.

OK, not quite. But it was sold for the princely sum of one whole dollar, which does not bode well at all.

Newsmagazines have been in a bit of a crisis lately. I used to subscribe to both US News and World Report and Newsweek (I couldn't get past Time's overt bias back in the early 90's). I enjoyed both immensely, but even back then I knew that US News was the RC Cola of the media empire: Always there, always minorly significant, never respected. It was thin on news and even less on analysis, and I am not surprised that a few years ago it effectively became a quarterly, with an emphasis on those sorts of things that are still newsworthy but essentially ended up being tabloid information--Mysteries of the Egyptians, Secret Societies in American History, that sort of thing.

Newsweek revamped itself with more analysis and commentary than actual news--a portent to the changing times. The entire news industry is getting shook up, so it's not surprising--though not exactly welcome, for either consumers of news or the journalists covering it.

I, for one, liked Newsweek enough--it seemed solid in its reporting, but it rarely offered anything I couldn't get from online sources and cable news. I remember looking forward to its Conventional Wisdom and Perspectives pages--fluff, to be sure, but it was fun. I always hated the "My Turn" essay, which was usually some sanctimonious prick prattling on about something emotional and with very little context about their problems--and, in the last year or so I actually subscribed, was usually some think tank policy flack instead of a "man on the street" essay as it was originally intended for.

Of course, I suppose I'm part of the problem--I stopped my subscription years ago, even though the cost was very low for what you got. I rarely bought off the rack, even. There was just...no longer a need for a newsmagazine anymore.

At one time it may have made a lot of sense. Newsmagazines never really went for what the daily newspapers did--they would generally go for longer, more in-depth essays that were still quite journalistic in nature. Somewhere between the morning edition and a general interest magazine like Atlantic Monthly, it provided people with news after it was sorted out and thought over.

I still think there is a place for newsmagazines, but I'm not sure what it is. I am continuously baffled by the media industry; I would assume having a crack staff of maybe a dozen reporters, shored up with a bunch of international stringers, and some paid columnists would provide much of what the public is looking for. The journalists may not like how they're effectively becoming independent contractors, but the nature of the media has changed drastically, and journalists (and editors and their owners) have been highly reluctant to change. The eternal struggle of the media has always been integrity versus profit, since the news the people want often do not coincide with what fills out the bottom line. Media moguls and editors have managed to balance this for decades, and the Internet has completely changed everything so much that newspapers are dying and magazines are folding left and right.

I don't know what the solution is, but I have a few predictions. News as we know it is gone. Newspapers, magazines, and all other print media are going to change from newsrooms full of typewriters and editors with pencils behind their ears to a core business board membership and a bunch of stringers. Online news is here to stay, and everyone is going to have to figure out how to make it profitable.* Google may end up being the savior; we shall see.

I'm certain Newsweek will be back in some form or another, but the media have a significant number of problems, and they can either drag it out for decades in the wilderness, or some form of shock therapy will jumpstart everything.

The Pledge: Some day I will write about the media's bias--I'm surprisingly forgiving of it--but for now, journalists have to realize and come to terms with the fact that they are paid a salary, and that salary has to come from people who pay them. The people who pay them are rapidly disappearing. The newsroom has changed very little in the last 15 years, pretending that the internet does not exist, and that is why journalists are losing their jobs. The sooner new models are developed--which may involve pay cuts and comprising ideals--the sooner stability will come.

*For those who don't know or haven't figured it out, it's not the fact that news is effectively free on the internet that is causing the death of the media. It's just that in the past, the classified ads and the big obnoxious car circulars paid for something like 70% of the operating costs of the newspaper--basically, people holding yard sales and selling used Escalades paid for that reporter in Kabul. Craigslist and eBay has killed the classifieds, and car dealerships (and other big-ticket ad buyers, like consumer electronics and appliances) aren't in a position to buy those ads anymore, and the method just plain isn't as effective as it used to be. This isn't some shortfall gap of 10% that needs to be plugged, this is effectively the entire cash flow of an entire industry literally disappearing in one decade (or less). How this problem is to be solved, I don't know, but the Google article linked above has some interesting if not guaranteed ideas.

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