In his version of the “What’s the matter with Newsweek?” story, published yesterday afternoon at Slate, Jack Shafer noted that the debate over the fate of the newsweeklies has been going on for a good long time, and cited a 1989 CJR story that depicted the publications as dinosaurs. (See the cover image at right.)
The article, by Bruce Porter, was hardly infallible in its powers of prognostication; it notes in the lead that editors at the (then three) newsweeklies, despite a staggering combined readership of 50 million, were haunted by a sense that their publications’ “existence on the earth was not guaranteed to last forever, maybe not even far into the 1990s”—a timeframe that was obviously a bit aggressive. But the story offers ample evidence that the existential question facing the newsweeklies—just what role are these magazines supposed to play, anyway?—and their efforts to remake themselves in search of an answer have been with us since well before most readers had ever heard of the Internet.
Unfortunately, our digital archives don’t go back that far, but some passages are republished here. Here’s Porter’s diagnosis:
The main problem, ironically, seemed to be that Time and Newsweek and, to a lesser extent, U.S. News & World Report, had become the prime victims of their own success. Where once the newsmagazines stood alone in offering readers a colorful, well-written digest of the week’s events, larded with sufficient interpretation to put the news into clear perspective, in recent years this endeavor has drawn a heavy amount of competition from week-in-review sections of newspapers, as well as from television talk shows, magazine shows, and weekend insider programs about economics and Washington politics. Where once the newsmagazines were the general public’s only source of news about special areas, such as the law, medicine, the press, and the environment, today all of the large dailies, including USA Today, also employ back-of-the-book specialists dealing in those subjects. And where once the newsmagazines provided residents of small towns with virtually their only source of sophisticated analysis of national and international developments, nowadays practically everyone in the country can get home delivery of The New York Times, as well as of The Wall Street Journal, not to mention being able to tune in to the substantive news programs coming over National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service or to flick on the wall-to-wall coverage provided by the Cable News Network.
…Which might explain why the three newsweeklies these days are engaged in one of the biggest and most frantic renovations in their histories, trying to discover a new formula for success that, in the words of a hopeful-sounding promotional announcement to readers of Time, will yield “a magazine for the 1990s, a vital print companion to the electronic age.” Not only have they souped up their graphics, added new departments, and tinkered with the designs of their covers, but they have also altered the content of their magazines, both in the manner in which they write about the news and in the kind of news they write about.