In the golden age of print journalism, during the 1950s and 1960s, magazines were the aristocrats: glossy, sophisticated, used to money and generous to their own. Whereas newspapers were rough and urgent, works-in-progress, the great magazines (Paris Match, Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and Picture Post) were finished like fine furniture–highly polished writing, designing by typographical architects and great platforms for displaying creative talent.
Paris Match, Life and Look went for the photographs, and heralded in a new generation of gifted photographers using the new technology of 35-millimeter Leicas. These picture magazines were the barons; their importance and prestige were unassailable.
Towering over them was Henry Luce’s Life. It was a magazine that thought it was a movie studio. Its principle was simple: seek perfection. For perfect pictures, it used the photographers of Magnum, a Paris-based cooperative founded by photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, among others, to protect photographers from exploitation.
Other magazines carried the foreign-policy debate as much as the newspapers. In The Saturday Evening Post, Stewart Alsop was able to argue the Vietnam War issue in lengthy articles, more thoughtful and nuanced than his brother Joe’s crude advocacy in a syndicated column. Over at Life’s sibling, Time, Luce fought communism, even where there wasn’t any. His magazine had such brio that its excesses were shaken off.
Besides, there was always Newsweek.
Ah, Newsweek: always trailing Time, but getting better all the time. So much so that until weeks ago, it could claim to have become the best of the news magazines.
Time, Newsweek and the also-ran U.S. News & World Report survived the plague of television that ended the reign of the news magazines. Of the great picture magazines, only Paris Match is alive.
Now Newsweek, owned by The Washington Post Company, has decided not to perish at the hands of the Internet, but to take a knife to its own wrists. Under its oh-so-public editor Jon Meacham, the magazine is seeking profitability according to an old and not very effective formula: slash the circulation to save print and distribution costs, and hope for a more exclusive readership sought by select advertisers. The Atlantic Monthly is trying the same solution, and so have many others but without success. In publishing, as in other businesses, shrinking is hard to do.
One thing Newsweek can be sure of is that previously loyal readers will abandon it without regrets. It has been transformed into something that is neither a news magazine nor any other kind of magazine. In appearance, it looks like a catalog for an art gallery. Worse, there are big advertising supplements that blend in so that readers don’t know whether they’re reading advertising or editorial content.
The magazine’s great writers, like Evan Thomas and Eleanor Clift, are clearly being held out of the battle. What remains of the reliable old features of Newsweek, “Conventional Wisdom” and “Verbatim,” are hard to find. It’s all very strange and disturbing.
News is no longer to be found in Newsweek. The new Newsweek is baroque in appearance and eccentric in subject. After the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, a photograph of a very young Kennedy stares from the cover and seven writers–from Bob Dole to Ben Bradlee and, of course, Jon Meacham–weigh in on “Understanding Teddy.” Didn’t he die? He’s not running for office again. A week later the magazine poses this question on its cover, featuring the face of a 6-month-old baby: Is Your Baby Racist?
The golden age has been over for magazines since the 1970s, but the news magazines held on for a quarter century longer. Now they are dying. Television drained the advertising from the picture magazines, now the Internet and the economy are closing in on the news magazines. Time has been the healthiest, U.S. News & World Report has surrendered to the Internet, and Newsweek has resorted to the publishing equivalent of plastic surgery. Shame.