The Nation's Pulse

A Big Cheer for Sidney Harman

By From the October 2010 issue

Send to Kindle

Me, I put up with liberal journalism because I choose to. The point is, these days I don't have to. Neither does anyone else. That's my predicate for examining the Washington Post's recent handoff of Newsweek to multimillionaire audio entrepreneur Sidney Harman, whose job it becomes to invent a niche for a publication fewer and fewer seem to desire, else the Post wouldn't have dumped it, right?

The Newsweek sale this summer -- for a solitary dollar, plus assumption of $70 million in debts -- affords a chance to look at how the free marketplace appraises journalistic value; which, needless to say, isn't how such appraisals were conducted a couple of decades ago.

Copious were the sentimental tears, and highly pronounced the sniffles, which accompanied the obsequies for what the old Newsweek supposedly had represented -- well-reasoned, as well as reasonable, interpretation of our orbiting planet. The press, being the press, recalled with affection the magazine's supposedly storied past, amid reflection on -- once more from the top, all right? -- the future of print journalism. Which future looks less and less secure, as more and more journalistic oaks bend to the harsh technological winds that howl.

What now for Newsweek? What now for that which the contemptuous call the dead-tree industry? As for the first, Nonagenarian Harman (as Time magazine, in the Luce era, would have denominated him) told the Wall Street Journal, weeks after the sale, "You pick up the magazine and it ought to be shouting at you, ‘Hey, man, you're in for the time of your life.'" There was other stuff about higher-quality paper, better graphics, and subscriber perks. It was instinct, nonetheless, to give readers the time of their lives that sets Harman's meditations above the merely formulaic.

Catering to readers is exactly, I would say, what Newsweek ought to try. I'd be surprised, frankly, if a shop run according to the playbooks of the past 30 years could figure out what that meant, "cater to readers." Even at that, the question would arise: hasn't the marketplace pronounced already on the superfluity and growing irrelevance of the newsmagazine format? We should hand it to Harman, even so: he's onto something too few fellow owners seem to apprehend -- to wit, think about your readers, otherwise you're gone. Get close to them. Figure out what they want: better yet, grasp whatever it is by intuition and life experience. Then, for Horace Greeley's sake, give it to 'em! They'll bite, and they'll buy, as always happens in successful instances of what high-minded liberalism understands, m'dear, as Raw Commerce.

The rawer the better, I would think: these days especially, as the Internet sucks away thousands -- who knows, maybe tens of thousands a day -- from the pacific pursuit of putting up one's feet on the ottoman and leafing through pages of print.

The old journalism profession knew better. It knew better because it liked people in a way the current institution can't begin to approximate. The old profession knew itself to be commercial and was fine with that. The new profession -- the adversary media was the term we started hearing in the '70s -- became starchy and not a little proud, just a bit overbearing; insisting, more and more every year, on the primacy of a do-good worldview of Uplift, Diversity, and Societal Advancement that coincided more often than not with the worldview of the liberal establishment. Of which establishment the media slowly became part.

Once the media began hectoring readers rather than entertaining and helping them -- showing them the time of their lives, in Harmanese -- readers began seeking alternative deployments of time and energies. What you don't have to do, in this land of the free and technologically enabled, you tend to find yourself not doing.

AS I SAID AT the beginning, I read the liberal press because I need and want to (believe it or not). If that need, that desire, warred with every instinct of self-preservation, I wouldn't put up with it, far less pay for the privilege of respectfully retrieving the New York Times from my front sidewalk each morning.

The fun went out of newspapers and magazines a couple of decades ago. A generation of journalists committed to the high seriousness took over from a generation wedded often as not to the low non-seriousness: stories about plain old people, not all of them by any means Harvard or Yale graduates. People who might like Willie Nelson or Sinatra; who drank beer, saluted the flag at football games, tried to keep marriages together instead of assenting to breakup at the first sign of difficulty or yearning; who helped the kids with homework, carried loans on their Chevrolets, maintained experiential or sentimental connections to the military. In those days, be it added, the people had values and norms that many in the news business shared, having themselves come from the people's middle ranks, feeling with the people some of the same promptings of interest and excitement. I still sometimes amaze people with accounts of how conservative were the politics of the reporters I worked around in the late 1960s. No hippie lovers, they! No antiwar types among them. A story didn't have to be big to deserve attention. The pounding of leaders -- local, state, or national -- had not yet become a routine (played for the sake of the general betterment). Feature stories about dogs and brides and high school reunions filled pages and pages. Sports sections lacked social significance.

Not all readers liked such stuff. Fine: they could go to the Times and ponder along with James Reston and Flora Lewis. Along about the time of Watergate -- some would say the Vietnam War -- our mass media took up the cudgels for feminism, environmentalism, busing, and quietude in American foreign policy; later on, they came out, as we say, for the general acceptance of gay lifestyles. I generalize, yes. How do you limn a whole industry? All the fun, all the sheer normality, didn't seep out of newspapers and magazines, like air from a balloon, the instant Richard Nixon abdicated the presidency. With the new earnestness, anyway, came the new tedium.

Whatever pizzazz journalism might once have had drained away in the era of the new political and sociological seriousness. My goodness, the great things we were supposed to be doing, such as uprooting antique prejudices, fitting the new America for the new day of tolerance and diversity! Forget the customers -- they'll do what we tell 'em.

Forget the customers: Rule No. 1 for the Decline and Fall of Great Economic Institutions. Go on -- bore the customers with bad writing -- the hallmark of 21st-century journalism -- and solemn reports on national problems, just don't expect them to sit around with mouths wide open, licking up the insults (intended or otherwise). It so happened that the age of the Internet coincided with the age of Forget the Customers. The forgotten, voting with their dollars and their time, said, essentially, we're outta here. And they were.

FOR 2008 NEWSWEEK lost $13.6 million on revenues of $16.5 million. The whole dead-tree industry dropped its leaves and undertook a case study in rot. Even television fell into melancholia while the Internet connected more and more and more: assuring the customers they could have what they wanted, besides its being virtually on the house. You go where you find what you want.

I wouldn't disclaim exceptions. It happens with the New York Times that the cooking, home, and science sections are pretty entertainingly written (as contrasted, say, with the dark side meditations of Paul Krugman and Frank Rich). Still, for the most part, the best writing in today's mags and papers wouldn't have received more than a nod of assent some half a century ago. No James Jackson Kilpatricks now, no Menckens, no Buckleys are around to weave their spells. Many writers can't even construct a grammatical sentence. New York Times ledes (as we properly spell the word) can run 40-50 words.

When Kilpatrick -- for my money the best journalist/writer of the past half century -- moved last August to the great city room in the sky, I was minded to contrast his art with the gaucheries of Krugman & Co. I noted that the felicities of a good English sentence -- trimmed, smoothed, well-rounded -- strike fewer and fewer journalists as essential to their trade: possibly because the purpose of journalism, often as not these days, is to argue readers into alignment with the day's approved agenda. Lemme out of here, modern readers understandably holler.

A fair amount of pontificating has attended the trials of the print media, the silliest suggestion having come from those who want the government to subsidize print journalism to assure a continuous flood of stories such as the customers would seem to have rejected: stories, no doubt, of deep intensity and public urgency, guaranteed to glaze the eyes of all but the most earnest journalism PhDs. Among the fruitful suggestions for implementing such an agenda: taxing iPads so as to subsidize the pen-and-pad fraternity. Another: charging, by law, news aggregator websites (think the Drudge Report) for the use of dead-tree content. The Federal Trade Commission earlier this year actually held hearings on these and other lame-brain notions, with no one holding out much hope for government manipulation as the ultimate answer.

What we may have to do is go back where we came in -- to an industry whose personnel actually liked and understand the customers. What an idea -- understand your customers.

YET HOW WOULD IT BE if newspapers and magazines went back to rewarding literary merit as opposed to ideological commitment, especially the kind of commitment mainstream readers find alien to their own understandings of worth? What about hiring reporters notable for, as much as anything else, their avoidance of the Eastern universities that supply so many New York and Washington, D.C., journalists for the coverage of Big Stories that to many readers seem infinitesimally small? What about training writers once again in the composition of feature stories about life in its complexities and surprises? Even the New York Times has a few writers of this sort. Don't tell me the job can't be done.

Would such a strategy roll back the Internet tide and restore journalism? You know it wouldn't and, indeed, couldn't, so strong is that tide. The Internet -- to give it a common personality -- knows one thing the dead-tree journalists (to which fraternity I belonged most of my working life) can't always get their arms around. It is that change is ceaseless; that nothing lasts; that adaptation to circumstances -- just as the free market economists have always said -- drives progress.

You know, though, Sidney Harman could really, honestly be onto something. Make the reading experience, again, exciting, enjoyable, fun (save, of course, on slow news days); make satisfied customers out of mere high-minded spectators. So moves that liberal bogey -- the free marketplace -- whose groans and cries and snarls and purrings never fail to provide counsel or warning. 

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

William Murchison is a Dallas-based columnist for Creators Syndicate. His latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.