I almost canceled my Newsweek subscription in 2008. That’s when its monetary and subscription travails hit the fan, and the magazine decided to buy out most of the “back of the book” writers who were the main reasons I was still reading it.
Newsweek has never had “back of the book” writers equal to Time’s, going back to the 1940s when James Agee was Time’s movie critic. It was at Time – not Newsweek – where you found movie critics Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss; it was at Time where you could read the late, great Australian cowboy art critic Robert Hughes. It was at Time where you found rock and countercultural agitator Jay Cocks.
But what Newsweek did in 2008 was a wholesale devaluation of some of the things it did best. Who wants to go to baseball games anymore if your team has decided to get rid of every hitter batting over .300, knocking over 40 balls out of the park and getting season RBI totals in the 100s? Especially if all the pitchers with low ERAs and high strikeout totals are leaving with them?
I stayed with Newsweek, though. Its ship was clearly sinking in the digital hurricane, but it seemed to me that was the time for all of us lifelong subscribers to pony up the dough, thereby casting our vote for its survival.
My whole heart wasn’t in it. But I stayed, anyway. It wasn’t exactly a major expense and it felt like the right thing to do, even though Time is the weekly newsmagazine I still read most often.
Newsweek announced last week that it was giving up the fight. The magazine is canceling itself. After Dec. 31, it will no longer be available on paper. It is going 100 percent digital in order to survive and will only be available online, like the Huffington Post, Salon, Slate and its current partner, the Daily Beast.
I haven’t yet bought a Kindle or an iPad or any of their relatives. But I know I will soon. (Christmas is coming. I may give myself a present. Don’t noise it about. I’m keeping it a secret.) I’ll freely cede all of the advantages of the technology. But the old paper technology we inherited from Gutenberg still seems splendid to me. When you’re on a plane, no one will tell you to stop reading your magazine so the plane can take off. Internet access is never an issue with paper. You can take a magazine or newspaper or book with you anywhere.
That doesn’t mean that I’m not a voracious digital reader, because I am. I’ve gotten used to reading all sorts of things online, even if I still derive greater pleasure from things made out of paper that I can hold in my hands. There’s no question that some of the kinds of writers I used to look for in newspapers and magazines (especially) are now found at Salon, Slate and the Huffington Post.
That doesn’t mean the disappearance of Newsweek magazine on paper isn’t going to be a tragic milestone.
Newsweek was No. 2 from its very birth – which means it almost always seemed to “try harder” (to borrow the old Avis slogan).
It did great things in its time. It still may next year. When the finances hit the fan, the Washington Post Company sold Newsweek, and Tina Brown ran the joint as a blood brother of her Internet magazine, the Daily Beast. She brought with her all of her customary skills in the current era that some insist is a kind of journalistic “Apocalypse Now.”
I’ve never been a peevish, knee-jerk Tina-basher. She may never have represented the noblest elements of our calling (she’s a one-woman “trending” list), but in her neurotic, zeitgeist-worship and gift for intellectual sensationalism, she could always provide plenty of horseradish for your informational beef on weck.
To get mail delivery of a Newsweek whose cover proclaimed the necessity of defeating Obama and featured that contention inside in an essay by Niall Ferguson was not exactly a moment I ever thought I’d see in mag-world. As a bit of political sensationalism, that Newsweek cover certainly startled me.
Which was, of course, Brown’s point. And often has been in the past.
To keep a print version of Newsweek going, though, she would have had to be a real magician, not just a consummate nouveau vaudeville magic act.
What it means is that the Digital Hurricane has caused its biggest shipwreck yet. No one can look at Newsweek’s disappearance from the physical world and future residence in cyberspace as anything other than a landmark in media history.
My subscription will, no doubt, entitle me to the cyberspace version for a while. I’ll see what’s there, obviously, before deciding to renew or not. The trouble is my allegiance to Brown’s Newsweek hasn’t been all that dedicated, as freely as I’ll grant her Frankenstein gifts.
I’ll leave all the announcements of falling skies to the bloggadocious Chicken Littles of the Internet. The survival of a paper technology of “information” all these centuries has reflected the incredible utility and excellence of it, neither of which is going to disappear utterly despite new technologies and radical generational changes in habits.
In the middle of all those prophecies of seas going dry and stars twinkling out, something small and essential cries out for reaffirmation: There are still readers in love with the things that words bring them. And there are still good writers who love writing for them.
I can’t imagine the genius of American capitalism not figuring out prosperous ways to bring them together.
No matter what.