Hardly anyone I know – other than Hilde Maeckle, my mother-in-law – subscribes to the print edition of Newsweek anymore. On the rare occasion when I happen across a waiting room copy, its anemic content proves to be a keen disappointment.
Yet working at Newsweek in the 1980s, when circulation topped three million, was my ticket to see the world and meet some of the most interesting and talented people I still call friends today. That made it a sad day late last week when the magazine’s last editor, Tina Brown, announced Newsweek will cease print publication, effective December 31.
We no longer read it, but we will miss it. That kind of nostalgia disguised as loyalty will kill you.
Email traffic was brisk along a vast network of far-flung correspondents I once worked with at 444 Madison Avenue in New York, during the civil wars in Central America, the township uprisings in South Africa, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the end of the Cold War breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall in a still-divided Germany, and at many other turning-points in history. All lamented the magazine’s inevitable demise, but most had moved on long ago to life in the digital era.
After finishing a tour in Central America that started in the early 1980s, I served as the magazine’s chief of correspondents from 1985-89. At that time, there were more than 30 domestic and foreign bureaus, not counting the substantial Washington bureau, its own journalistic stronghold. Bureaus in London and Paris and Los Angeles and Chicago boasted multiple correspondents, while many a lone correspondent served from Nairobi to Rio to Sydney. These were the magazine’s many dozens of first-rate reporters. Then there were the editors, writers, artists, photographers and all the others that made the magazine a weekly miracle in the age before cell phones, PDFs and laptops. It takes tens of millions of dollars to produce a magazine with that depth, that talent, that kind of content.
The Newsweek title certainly remains a household name, at least among baby boomers and those even older – so there could be a future for the digital brand, but not likely. If anyone out there can build a dynamic product and package it for sale, it’s Tina Brown. But where will she get the content?
In today’s crowded digital marketplace, a respected, venerable brand name may no longer be enough. Everyone of a certain age still remembers Life and Look magazines, too, but in the world of the Huffington Post, Slate, BuzzFeed, and The Week, one has to ask if there is any room or reason for yet another selection on the virtual newsstand. Some might argue the category could stand some consolidation rather than expansion.
My guess is The Daily Beast will end up going it alone, for better or worse. Spend a few minutes on these sites, and I’m betting you have the same reaction I do: (1) there is an awful lot of repetition, (2) much of the stuff is hyped and superficial or just opinion without any supporting reportage, (3) sex, scandal and celebrity are used shamelessly to drive site traffic and inflate numbers for advertisers.
Years ago, in the dawn of the Internet era, Hearst Newspapers, which owns the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle – among other Texas dailies – organized a conference for an annual meeting of its editors at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York. A couple of very young, early web pioneers sat on the stage and practically sneered at us, as if we were dinosaurs huddling in a suddenly much colder climate. We’d be gone in a year or two, they predicted. That was in the late 1990s. Those guys were really only wrong about the “when,” not the “if.”
Newspapers are still standing, of course, and they are still vital elements in our democracy and in community. They play a watchdog role no other media can match, but they are greatly diminished in reach and size and resources. I’m reading social media tonight that the Houston Chronicle is closing its one-person Mexico City bureau, which also has provided coverage for the Express-News since its Mexico City bureau closed some years ago. All newspapers are still struggling to find a viable business model as advertising flees print for the web. The bottom line: fewer journalists are employed in newsrooms and there has been a corresponding decline in the quantity and breadth of content.
There are new opportunities, thanks to the web, that didn’t exist a decade ago. The cost of designing and operating a website has come way down, and a site like this one can fill a niche role. The web is far more democratic than print, allowing readers to become active participants in both content creation and in winning an equal platform for their viewpoints. Writing your own story is a far more powerful experience than seeing your letter to the editor published.
Boomers and seniors remain devoutly loyal to newspapers, but younger people mostly ignore print publications even when they are free. Social media and peer networks play a far larger role in how Millennials digest and share news and information. Our 20-something sons in Boston stay informed, but if they watched the presidential debates, they did so on their laptops while multitasking.
I started using an iPad within the first year of the product launch, while Monika, my wife, only came around this year. Two years ago, I stopped reading the print edition of the New York Times in favor of the app. I canceled print subscriptions to the New Yorker, the Economist, the Atlantic, and Sports Illustrated; all available as apps. I soon added the Wall Street Journal app and, finally, the Express-News iPad app. I still buy the occasional hard copy of a book, especially if I know the author, but I stopped buying books about 300 books ago, and even my old Kindle sits largely uncharged since the iPad offers a superior reading experience.
We still get morning doorstep delivery of the WSJ, the Express-News and on Sundays, the New York Times. But even Monika is ready to let go of the print editions when they come up for renewal. Now she can join me early in the morning (actually, mostly the night before) reading the news on a tablet.
Still, I’ll miss Newsweek magazine. I’m glad Tina Brown made such a big deal out of the announcement. Otherwise, I might not have heard it is going away.
Want to hear more from Tina Brown? Listen to her NPR interview on her plans to build a Newsweek digital brand. Click here.
Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.