I’ve Got The Disappearing Magazine Blues

The current edition of Newsweek dropped into my mailbox right on time this week. For as long as I’ve subscribed – which is most of the last thirty-five years – the magazine has showed up on Tuesday, and by the time the weekend comes around, I’ll have finished combing through that week’s edition.

Even before I subscribed, I was a regular reader of what I suspect most people think of as the second-ranking – behind Time – of the major weekly news magazines. We got Time magazine at home when I was a kid, so when I was in need of a quiet news fix during library time at St. Cloud Tech High and especially during open hours at St. Cloud State, I turned to Newsweek. A regular stop during my college years was the periodicals desk in Centennial Hall, where each Wednesday, I’d check out the magazine’s new edition and spend an hour reading in the small lounge near the elevators.

And over those early years of reading both Time and Newsweek, I found that I liked Newsweek better. It seemed less stodgy than Time, more willing to explore new ideas in art, music and other areas of the culture without seeming like a condescending uncle telling tales. When I left St. Cloud for my first newspapering job in Monticello, I subscribed to Newsweek early on. It didn’t hurt that my boss subscribed to Time and was perfectly happy to let me pull it from Tuesday’s mail for a quick look over lunch.

There have been times, though, when I’ve had to choose between the two, and when those times have come, I’ve opted for Newsweek.

And in the last couple of years, the magazine had become a perfect example of the states of print journalism and news magazines in the era of the Internet, the iPad and what seems to me a decreasing interest in public affairs and hard news. Month by month, it seems, the magazine becomes more and more slender, and I wonder what its future holds. The edition that came this week – dated February 21, 2011 – is all of forty-eight pages. The previous week’s edition had eight pages more; five editions from the autumn of 2009 – don’t ask why they’re still around – averaged about sixty pages. Declining advertising revenue, of course, is behind the thinning of the magazine, and when ad space declines, so, too, does space devoted to news. Things that were covered in the past are left unattended, and that can easily result in reader dissatisfaction and disinterest and an ensuing drop in circulation. The spiral is difficult to stop.

I still find the magazine interesting. In fact, last week’s edition had one of the best pieces I’ve read anywhere, placing the recent events in the Middle East into a historic context. But the spiral of decreasing revenues being met with decreasing news space will continue, I think, making the magazine’s continued existence – to use a word that was favored by my adviser in graduate school – problematic.

The magazine was sold last autumn by the Washington Post Co. to ninety-two year old businessman Sidney Harman. From what I’ve read, Harman bought Newsweek for one dollar and assumed the magazine’s liabilities, which are substantial. His plans, according to a number of pieces I’ve seen, are to merge the company with the website The Daily Beast. Will that help the magazine? I suppose the brand may survive somehow, but will the physical magazine itself? I’m doubtful.

Along with the slenderness of this week’s edition, one of things that spurred this post was that I noticed this morning at Wikipedia that the first edition of Newsweek was published on February 17, 1933, making today the magazine’s seventy-eighth birthday. I’ll be surprised if it marks another one.

It’s not just Newsweek, of course. All general magazines – and newspapers, too – face the same challenges, I think, and for a lover of print journalism, it’s discouraging.

And to tie this somehow to music, I dug through the files and found “Bad News” by Cat Mother and the All Night News Boys. It’s from the group’s 1969 album, The Street Giveth . . . and the Street Taketh Away, which was co-produced by Jimi Hendrix).

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2 Responses to “I’ve Got The Disappearing Magazine Blues”

  1. Chris S. says:

    Your line about Time seeming like the condescending uncle made me laugh. During my radio days, one of the newsroom guys used to blurt out in his authoritative announcer voice, “Time magazine…Other magazines just report the news, but we tell you what to think about it.”

    I hadn’t thought about that in years.

  2. […] quite two years ago, I predicted the end of the print edition in a post here about Newsweek’s travails and its pending merger with the Daily Beast website. (I wrote that […]

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