by Justin

It should come as no surprise that declining readership for newsweeklies has driven one of the principle three to put itself up for auction. Many news sites and a number of bloggers I read paid special attention to what it portents for the field of journalism that Newsweek may become no more. The newsweekly launched in 1933, in what was a remarkable era for news in general. In the midst of Depression and in the wake of a world war the United States could boast a more concerned citizenship than many chapters in history. Local newspapers covered what they could, and the giants like the New York Times hadn’t begun to circulate nationally. Radio was rising in popularity but not yet a significant source of international news, and broadcast television didn’t find any momentum until after World War II. Someone had to cover national and international stories and spread the word throughout the country.

For that initial decade and change Newseek (and before that Time) built popularity and interest because they could provide information that other mediums could not. Both publications managed to increase readership and fulfill a valuable function in the news world for nearly seventy years. I can remember, in a vague sense, there being a sort of battle between the Time and Newsweek covers when I was a little kid in the ’90s. There was something definitive about what they chose to cover.

Cable and network news changed the game. Absolutely. My uninformed reckoning, though, is that the difference in consumption between television and print didn’t hurt the newsweeklies all that much. Wider circulation of the major newspapers may have presented a challenge, but people still like the idea of a weekly encapsulation. So the mags did just fine up until (can you guess it?) about 2000 when the internet hit its stride and obliterated every existing model for media consumption. This is, of course, history in the broadest of strokes – a little legwork and any curious reader can flesh out that story.

What interests me most was best articulated in this bit from the NY Times coverage (incidentally, Charles Whitaker will be one of my professors next year):

“The era of mass is over, in some respect,” said Charles Whitaker, research chairman in magazine journalism at the Northwestern University school of journalism. “The newsweeklies, for so long, have tried to be all things to all people, and that’s just not going to cut it in this highly niche, politically polarized, media-stratified environment that we live in today.”

That’s really the trick, you know, that mass appeal in news is nearly impossible. Everyone can find the right preacher for their choir, the right expert for their particular field of interest, the Glenn Beck or John Stewart to tickle them with insanity or humor. I think, for the most part, that this is a bad thing. Yes, availability of information to anyone is spectacular and empowering – my last post touted some of the goodness of the current landscape. But once upon a time most conservatives and liberals alike got their news from the same handful of sources – meaning that extreme polarization and so-called ‘informed ignorance’ were difficult. The demand for crossover appeal is great. And I wonder how possible that is these days. How long can legitimate reporting hold to its ethics while the flagrant partisanship and deceit of Fox News keeps making money and driving competitors under?

Anyway, that’s pretty well-tread territory. That same NY Times article points out that magazines like The Economist were on the rise during other newsweeklies’ fall from grace. Part of this likely has to do with the fact that it’s always relied on analysis as its selling point rather than new information. And quality analysis is the one thing that the internet’s accessibility hasn’t guaranteed. James Fallows of The Atlantic pointed out some interesting economic/readership trends about how such a shift was impossible for Newsweek:

I bet that most people who read the Atlantic, in print or online, thought that the new approach made Newsweek edgier, more provocative, more thoughtful, more original, and so on. More essay-type articles and cover stories; much less summing-up of the news. The Atlantic’s audience would like this version of Newsweek better, because it has been more like the Atlantic — or the Economist, or the New Yorker, or the NYT Week in Review, or the New York Review of Books.  These are all great publications. But none of them is going to have three million or more subscribers, which Newsweek’s business model has historically been based upon. Newsweek became a “better” magazine – but a kind of magazine whose natural audience is smaller by definition. It would be as if McDonald’s or Applebee’s became a tapas bar — yet still needed to fill the same number of seats.

So my sense of things is this: you can’t hope to capitalize on information-gathering, not the way you used to. It’s out there for anyone who wants to grab it, immediately and from a dozen sources. General analysis and opinion, intelligent and well-researched as it may be, is now relegated to specifically interested parties. Most people get uncomfortable when their belief system is challenged, so they’ll just avoid publications with which they might disagree. So what next?! How does one lend a liberal, informed voice to the cacophonous ignorance-mongering of Fox? And at what point does quality journalism buckle under the economic pressure to be partisan and entertaining?

It’s about getting back to Thomas Jefferson: “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all avenues of the truth”. A functional democracy hinges upon an informed public – informed as in exposed to the truth. I read once that ol’ TJ meant that the government should subsidize news organizations because the quality and caliber of reporting was essential to its own mission. I recognize that government-funded journalism could be questionable and that the public would understandably challenge its content – but wouldn’t that be good? That accountability? And reporters with secure jobs with editors beholden only to the truth?

Really, though, it’s about the fact that perjury is illegal. Slander and libel are illegal. Organizations like Fox News are lying constantly, pretending that it’s ‘Fair and Balanced.’ At a certain point, with full awareness of its implications on freedom of speech, I wish the government would shut Fox and other lying agencies down and demand better. Unsubstantiated lies, rumors passed off as news, opinions conveyed during ‘news’ programming should be met with huge and crippling fines. Yes, there’s room for legitimate mistakes. It happens. Whatever committee oversees the authenticity and nobility of journalism would account for that. But affronts to truth would never be acceptable.

I just don’t know how to dislodge the unthinking demagogues leading a great many Americans right now. Is it even possible to legislate truth-telling? Gods, is it possible to even have that discussion on a Capitol Hill where so many politicians are owned by lobbyists or driven by panic about their next campaign?

This entry got away from me a little bit. What I meant to say is: I hope someone awesome buys Newsweek and swoops in on its readership to do something great. Ideally a forum for brilliant and biting point-of-view journalism, with big names from both sides of the spectrum covering the same issues. A one-stop shop to hear multiple sides of the argument.