We old journalistic warhorses, such as remain in the corral, tend to moisten an eye when transition comes for virtually any species from The Wonderful World of Print; e.g., Newsweek, which the Washington Post sold this week to 91-year-old “audio pioneer” Sidney Harman, as the New York Times denominates him.
Your average moistened eye these days can dry quickly. This is such a moment. Newsweek, founded in 1933, thus only a little younger than its new boss, hasn’t had much to say to America for some time. It started out at second fiddle behind Henry Luce’s livelier, more luscious Time; it sawed away dutifully in that station for a long while, then had to submit just months ago to a re-invention for, ahem, the digital age. The re-invention, it seems unnecessary to say, failed of its purpose, which was to excite younger readers about the mission of a journalistic species that seems to have outlived itself — to wit, the newsmagazine.
The newsmagazines’ raison d’être is the spacious look the editors give minute happenings. The newsmag is supposed to make sense of things by observing them in context: often against their historical backdrop. Ah, the reader is supposed to say, I start to see…
Time generally excelled at the calling, for all that the worldview it reflected came mainly from the brain and personality of Henry Luce. Luce stamped every page with his viewpoint. He knew what he liked; he knew what he disliked. He was in a general sense conservative, certainly anti-communist; he liked Ike. Newsweek never had things worked out that nicely. In its better days, under the Post, it was sort of liberal: never infuriatingly so, and relatively calm about things. For people who liked that sort of thing, that was the sort of thing they liked.
Newsweek‘s recent and present problem is that that sort of thing doesn’t support big newsmagazines. Conservatives don’t yearn to read “Raise My Taxes, Mr. President!,” by Fareed Zakaria, with its reproach to the expiring Bush tax cuts as “an irresponsible act of hubris during an economic boom.” Liberals can get the same stuff anywhere today: the Huffington Post, the New York Times editorial and op-ed pages, featuring Frank Rich and Paul Krugman; E.J. Dionne at the Washington Post; blogs innumerable; and so on. Who needs Newsweek?
Newsweek editor Jon Meacham’s own liberalism isn’t of a particularly edgy or creative sort. It tends to nod agreeably to Beltway platitudes, rarely if ever challenging the reigning culture. A Newsweek willing to call out the culture when the culture needs calling out — that might be a Newsweek worth buying and keeping alive.
As for New Owner Harman (as Time would have called him, way back when), possibly the first datum to contemplate is his 92nd birthday — today. Photos make the guy look good, but you never can tell at that age. Beyond that, he says only of Newsweek‘s future, “It would be a remarkable conceit to tell you at this stage in the game that I have a plan. The plan is there to be had. I regard myself as well equipped.” Not precisely the dose of inspiration for which a journalistic Brontosaurus yearns.
We’ll see, of course (the platitude good journalists are supposed to eschew). Stranger things than the survival of a mission-less institution have happened in our world — but not a whole lot stranger.