News weak

Paul Wells takes a run at the now-for-sale Newsweek magazine

Here’s the table of contents of this week’s Newsweek magazine. Right there is the best explanation for why the Washington Post put the storied franchise up for sale yesterday: because if you cannot hope to sell the sucker one issue at a time, sooner or later you are going to have to put the whole wheezing enterprise on the block. And maybe the only buyer will be the editor who has been busily flying it into the nearest mountain.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Back to that table of contents. Let’s see, what have we got? Five columns (published in a row, one to a page, bang-bang-bang-bang-bang in the front of the magazine) from dour ’70s-vintage Ivy Leaguers offering their considered 30,000-foot take on their sectors of particular interest. The guy who wrote a book about Bob Rubin thinks Bob Rubin’s a pretty swell guy. The religion lady has found a topic she can say nice things about Catholic bishops about.

From there it’s on to the “feature well,” the middle section of most magazines, the issue’s meat. This week we’re talking about “Why Men Love War,” featuring…: An excerpt from a book about the Afghanistan war. An essay about wars in general, from a guy who has a book about wars in general to peddle. A review of a book about war. An article about war games.

Finally the back of the magazine features the light stuff, including a book review, a discussion of Martin Amis’s books, and two trend stories, one by Roger Ebert, who’s led a fascinating life lately but I need you to know that if you follow Roger Ebert on Twitter you’re going to get 6,000 words a day from him for free.

Well. It’s rather bookish, isn’t it? Certainly, if anyone asked me what happened last week in America or the world, one piece of advice I’d offer is, “For the love of God, don’t look in Newsweek for the answer.” As a kind of bonus, the layout of Newsweek is so awesomely twee and precious, with acres of white space and elegant little button-down twill fonts for the tiny perfect Niles Crane headlines, that if you try to read the thing on paper your eyeballs will physically eject themselves from your cranium and run hiding under the nearest sofa for protection.

It’s not clear who all of this is supposed to impress, but what it’s kind of obviously not supposed to do is tell you what’s going on.

But then, that’s the sophisticated take on weekly newsmagazines, after all, and has been for decades: times are changing, the news business is changing, the internet changed everything, 24-hour news changed everything, readers are busy and sophisticated and they’re a fragmented, frazzled bunch who already know what’s happening within an hour after it happened, and it’s a waste of anyone’s time to actually bring them the news. So the two big American newsweeklies have been circling back on themselves in an enormous super-sophisticated post-post-modern what-does-it-all-mean ball of meta, with Newsweek leaping ahead of Time in its crisis of faith because Newsweek is smaller than Time, more scared, and because it’s fallen into the hands of a fusty 40-year-old Pulitzer-winning historian, Jon Meacham, who (uh-oh) has decided he’s on a Mission.

Meacham rather famously freaked out during a visit to Columbia journalism school two years ago and started interrogating the students about why they read The Economist instead of his own magazine.

“I’ve got four people in Baghdad who could be killed at any moment who are trying to tell the truth the best they can of that story. We have people in 13 different countries. We have a guy in Afghanistan who has Taliban sources who the federal government has asked about because we have better intelligence than government does—he’s risking his life.

“And how to communicate that we have things to say that are both factually new and analytically new and to get you under the tent is a fact that scares me—not The Economist per se. It’s an incredible frustration that I’ve got some of the most decent, hard-working, honest, passionate, straight-shooting, non-ideological people who just want to tell the damn truth, and how to get this past this image that we’re just middlebrow, you know, a magazine that your grandparents get, or something, that’s the challenge. And I just don’t know how to do it, so if you’ve got any ideas, tell me.”

In some online journalism forums, readers actually did offer Meacham ideas. A few pointed out that Meacham’s “people in 13 countries” might as well take long vacations, because most weeks if they were not in Baghdad they were not going to get a comma into his magazine. Meacham’s career can best be understood as an obsession with The Economist coupled with the most elementary failure to understand The Economist. It is the consummate “what happened last week” magazine. It has people in a lot more than 13 countries, and most weeks they are, every one of them — the guy in Warsaw, the lady in Ottawa, the Wall Street writer, the European Union hand, the eye on Lula’s Brazil — expected to file the latest news. Very few of them are risking their lives. Reporters almost never risk their lives. They just go to where something is happening and then write down what happened so you can read it. To Jon Meacham this whole process is an awesome mystery.

Anyway, sometime after his Columbia meltdown, Meacham decided the clever thing to do would be to give up. He unveiled his drastic redesign, stopped bothering to report most news stories and launched the prim little literary salon we see today. His redesigned Newsweek is the consummate “what does it all mean” magazine, if by “what does it all mean” you mean “what do the same stable of a half-dozen Appropriate Voices think it means in the broadest and least offensive terms.” Reporting… it’s so passé. The events of last week, in that stupendously rich and crazy country of a third of a billion people, still and for a while yet the most astonishing nation on earth, are in Meacham’s mind already so well-covered by today that it is none of his business to try to cover them any further. When an earthquake the size of God rose up and smacked Haiti, Meacham put a hungry young reporter on the next flight and brought his readers devastating first-hand accounts of the carnage. Just kidding! No, he called the White House and got them to cough up some wheezy we-are-all-in-this-together bromides the magazine could run over the signature of Barack Obama. He followed that up with some wheezy we-are-all-in-this-together bromides over the signature of Bill Clinton. Editors tell themselves this sort of thing is “value added.” To paraphrase Clinton, it depends what the meaning of value is.

Anyway, I’ll stop. Usually when I write about another news organization somebody writes in the comments that it’s self-interested of me to run down the competition, but in Canada Newsweek is no competition of ours and hasn’t been for a while. Time used to be — I wrote for their Canadian edition for a few years, before the Maclean’s resurgence helped kill off their Canadian edition — but in both cases, our magazine’s robust health won’t be affected much either way if our bigger Southern neighbours live or die. I just like a good magazine. We’ve had a good few years here putting out a publication that views the events of the day as surprising, funny, maddening, and worth passing on to our readers. To watch Jon Meacham crater Newsweek is a bit hard to take.