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The cooling world of Newsweek

graph from Newsweek

This is either (a) a graph from Newsweek's famous "The Cooling World" article of 1975, or (b) a Newsweek sales graph

“He [Jon Meacham] ignored the truth that the old newsmagazine editors lived by: journalists who write to satisfy people like themselves will soon run out of readers.”

An excellent piece at commentarymagazine.com by Andrew Ferguson looks at the slow, lingering death of Newsweek, once an almighty titan in the newsmagazine stakes, a serious, heavyweight rival of Time and The Economist.

It’s a story of  greed, unbridled ambition, lust for glory, journalistic narcissism, the unprincipled forgetting of basic first principles and lots of sweaty, kinky sex.

Actually, I lied about the sweaty, kinky sex bit in a hopeless attempt to boost my Google rankings, but all the others pertain.

In May, Newsweek’s publisher, Donald Graham, of the Washington Post Co, announced the rag, first published in 1933, was up for sale. By all accounts, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham didn’t see this coming.

This follows relentlessly falling sales, and despite an overhaul last year “refocusing its content and using higher-quality paper, to target a smaller and more ‘elite audience’ and to identify itself as a ‘thought leader'” (thanks, Wikipedia!).

“Thought leaders” aren’t two a penny, of course, so they also bumped up the cover price to $6 an issue and (where have we heard this before?) laid off staff. Unfortunately, readers decided they didn’t want to pay to be led into these particular thoughts.

Fiddling

But as Ferguson notes, the rot really set in over 30 years ago, when the first of a series of Newsweek editors started fiddling around with the magazine’s successful formula, of whom Meacham is merely the latest.

That formula, of course, was a straight rip-off of Time (Newsweek founder Thomas J.C. Martyn had worked for Luce’s lucrative organ): encapsulating the week’s news, national and international, into one easy-to-carry, easy-to-digest, one-sit read for the busy businessman (not so much woman in them days).

The formula was – still is – a hugely successful one, and the journalists were paid huge sums accordingly. However, working in a news sausage factory isn’t the most “fulfilling” work for journalists, fulfilling in the modern sense of “I want to do what I like for as long as I like and have everyone notice how fabulous I am and pay me lots”.

But in the same way that Evelyn Waugh considered himself a craftsman rather than an “artist”, back then there were plenty of journalists prepared to cut their cloth according to the coat and take the money. Because there is a real craft to cutting the cloth in this manner, as Ferguson notes:

“Cashing their checks, newsmagazine people agreed to write short and write snappy. They banished unconventional or discomfiting thoughts from their copy. They resisted any stylistic flourish beyond an occasional cheekiness of tone. And they restricted their subject matter to last week’s news.”

And it was a coat that many, many readers wanted to wear. Alas: along came a succession of editors who thought they knew better than the readers. Like so many fashion editors from the Sunday supps, they proceeded to dictate to readers what’s in and what’s out:

“…each turn of the ratchet moved the form further away from the kind of magazine that people want to read and closer to the kind of magazine that journalists want to write.”

I think my analogy to the fashion catwalk is apt. No one in their right mind expects people to wear some of the ludicrous outfits that are annually on parade at the world’s top fashion shows – not even the designers themselves, who have a more realistic, if cynical, eye on the resultant publicity that ensues (indeed, what people will end up actually wearing they keep back for the more humdrum, and thus less publicised, ready-to-wear shows).

Newsweek editor John Meacham

"A different kind of news": Newsweek editor Jon Meacham on The Daily Show

Meacham, like a lot of journalists today, lives in some bizarre haute-couture dream world where they think they can impose their baroque fantasies on the great unwashed, forgetting that, as Ferguson says, “readers are different from journalists, with different expectations, tastes, and, often, views of the world and what it should look like.”

Twitterings

There are an awful lot of journalists who have forgotten this, not only in the dead tree media (which has generally seen sales slumps as a result) but also in the electronic media. Ferguson rightly points out that the mass of humanity leading their lives of quiet desperation (ie, potential readers) do not live in a world of endless twitterings, Facebook updates and suchlike Web 2.0 cuckoo-clouds that journalists and the associated political class have set up their nests in.

There can be no doubt that the rise of the internet has got publishers spooked by all manner of shadows. Ferguson’s article is an excellent analysis of what happens when publishers try to embrace those shadows and forget first principles: what they did that made them successful in the first place and how can they use the web – which, let’s face it, is just another media outlet – to keep doing that.

◊ The graph is from the famous Newsweek article about eminent “global cooling” which appeared in its April 28, 1975, edition. If you’re interested, you can download a copy of it from this page.

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  1. August 4, 2010 at 2:24 pm

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