The new Newsweek

Jon Meacham, who’s won a Pulitzer for his Andrew Jackson biography and who is, grumble grumble, younger than me, relaunches Newsweek. It’ll be on newsstands tomorrow, or as we say in Canada, “Thursday.”

I’m damned curious to see the thing. Both of the big U.S. newsmagazines have been struggling, to use a gentle term, and they’re trying to be more audacious and surprising, but especially in Time‘s case it’s really not in their DNA. Their recent “100 Most Influential People” was a stultifying exercise in mass hagiography, complete with so many blandly gorgeous posed studio photos of the subjects I had an almost physical reaction. People don’t look like this! Stop telling me people look like this!

Meacham has about him some of the liberty of desperation: his magazine can’t survive as a mass-market newsweekly. So he’s trying to retrench, which I’ve long considered an interesting strategy (one I’d recommend for, for instance, the Ottawa Citizen): stop trying to be all things to all people, at the risk of being not much to anybody. Pull back to a publication that offers a richer, more valuable experience to a smaller but potentially more loyal (and affluent) readership. It’s a high-risk proposition. (It’s also different from what the boss has been trying to do here at Maclean’s, with considerable success: hang on to the broad audience while providing a richer experience in a few subject areas. That takes resources, and my pet theory is that we were lucky to be able to relaunch Maclean’s while the economy was still strong.)

I’ll be really happy if Newsweek can change its game. Frankly a cover interview with Barack Obama doesn’t strike me as a particularly dashing first step. But it’s good to see somebody in this business trying something.