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Must-Read on the End of Newsweek

Newsweek’s announcement that it would cease its print publication was shocking even though we’ve become accustomed to rapid changes in the publishing industry. Newsweek and its counterpart Time have been shells of their former selves for well more than a decade now, but the loss of one of our most storied publications is not something to be taken lightly.

Why did these magazines last so long before finally falling apart? Alan Brinkley, one of America’s best historians and media scholars (his book on the life of Henry Luce is required reading for anyone interested in journalism or modern American history), explains why in a new piece at The New Republic:

Newsweek was always the second “news-magazine”—in circulation, advertising, and prestige. But the Newsweek editors liked the competition, and the new magazine was always scrappy and innovative. Unlike many Time editors during the Luce years, Newsweek editors had some freedom —making a magazine that felt young and often adventurous. Unlike TimeNewsweek allowed editors to use their own bylines. It began running opinion columns long before Time did. They called it “an indispensable complement to newspaper reading, because it explains, expounds, clarifies.”

Newsweek was a relief for some readers after the overpowerful, mostly conservative Time. A few readers (and a few editors) liked to throw Time dramatically in the trash, so infuriated were they when Luce published his own, idiosyncratic conservatism. Newsweek became the magazine for liberals. But more important, starting in the 1950s and 1960s, it was also the magazine for good writing, especially for those who were put off by the strange Time language that Luce and Brit Hadden had created. Martyn and his successors turned the magazine into the anti-Time. Years later it still was. In 1970, Richard Smith remembered calling his editors “the noble guerrilla band, fighting the ‘panzer division on Sixth Avenue.’  We took pride in our speed and flexibility and occasional irreverence.”

This was the model that made Newsweek a stunning success for much of the 20th century. But as Brinkley notes, things began to change in the 2000s, and the problems began at the top:

But the good times began to deteriorate in the early years of the twenty-first century. It wasn’t the writers and reporters who weakened the magazine. It was Newsweek’s owner, the Washington Post, that began its demise. The Post itself was in financial trouble—just as many other periodicals and newspapers declined as information moved steadily into the Internet, leaving publications without enough advertising. And it has weakened, too, by the many readers who no longer look at traditional news and find it wherever they find it on the web.

Both Time and Newsweek transformed themselves over the last years into magazines filled with opinion and a few large essays. Time has survived so far, in part because it is supported by one of the most powerful corporations in the America. Newsweek has no such support. Sidney Harman, who bought it from the Post for a dollar, generously kept it going in the last months of his life, but even his efforts has been unable to stem the deterioration.

Brinkley’s piece is excellent and should be read in its entirety. But while his analysis and history are first-rate, he seems to be holding back at the end. Brinkley is much too nice a man to say this, but both Time and Newsweek had already shifted from being vehicles for serving readers by bringing them news into ones for serving journalists as platforms for elite opinion. Undoubtedly, the writers and editors believed they were creating something great, when they were in fact their own audience. But ultimately the masses stopped buying the product.

Via Meadia, hopes that this and other blogs will be able to replicate the best aspects of these publications while learning from their mistakes. For all their recent faults, at their best, Time and Newsweek made valuable contributions to the national conversation, and it would be a shame to see this mission disappear along with them.

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