The Three Newsweeklies Head Off in Three Different Directions

In its cover story, U.S. News examines a weighty, wordy industry that (like newspapers) is struggling to adapt to the challenges of the digital age: book publishing.

A mere five and a half weeks after Oprah Winfrey scolded James Frey on national television, U.S. News & World Report takes the opportunity offered by that news peg to examine a weighty, wordy industry that (like newspapers) is struggling to adapt to the challenges of the digital age: book publishing.

“Does the book publishing biz have a good read for you!” U.S. News enthusiastically begins. “The story begins with a real-life drama peppered with deceit, humiliation, and redemption; plays out against the big-bucks backdrop of global conglomerates; crosses into sci-fi as newfangled techno-gizmo gadgets battle for a piece of the electronic future; gives grass-roots hope to would-be authors everywhere with the massive growth of microsize independent presses; veers into legal thriller territory with a brewing fight over copyrights; and ultimately settles into an old-fashioned mystery as pundits wonder, what happened to America’s disappearing book readers?”

The breathless over-the-top writing continues as U.S. News considers the Frey drama in conjunction with two other recent scandals concerning fake authors. “At a time when ‘truthiness’ issues in so many areas of public discourse have pitted trust against cynicism, the convergence of all three scandals at once had the feel of a Triple Crown of hoaxery, with the grand losers being accuracy, truth, and literature itself,” the magazine writes. “Was it mere coincidence or was something seriously amiss?”

Don’t run away just yet, for after that sputtering start, U.S. News’s 3,100-word cover story does get better as it goes along. (Though we do advise avoiding the sidebar “One for the Blooks,” which arguably turns the newly coined terms “blook” and “blooker” into clichés.)

Throwing in a dash of counterintuitiveness that seriously damages its already-weak news peg — “[T]he fact is that the Frey scandal doesn’t really throw much light on the changes and challenges that are reshaping the book industry today” — U.S. News finally begins to explore the current state of publishing.

Referring to a 2004 survey from the National Endowment for the Arts, U.S. News reports that fewer than half of American adults now read literature, with “a 10 percent decline in literary readers for all age groups from 1982 to 2002 and a whopping 28 percent decrease in young adults ages 18 to 24. In total, the study calculated, 20 million potential readers had been lost.” As such, the magazine reports on various products and approaches being tried to “meet the needs of this digital, Internet-savvy generation,” from another go at e-books (with easier-to-read displays) to a more sophisticated expansion of print on demand: “the Espresso Book Machine,” the brainchild of Random House’s former editorial director, which will soon, using digital files, be able to quickly print a quality paperback of “any book in the World Bank catalog” at the organization’s bookstore in Washington.

Further on, U.S. News offers an intriguing contrast with visits to publishing giant HarperCollins and to Soft Skull Press, a tiny independent publisher in Brooklyn, each trying in different ways to reach readers. Most newsy is that HarperCollins has discovered market research (“a first in an industry long notorious for not even considering it”), and that publishing executives all over are becoming adherents of a concept called “the long tail”: realizing “that if you tote up enough small sales (especially via a low-cost, direct-to-consumer sales tool like the Internet), you can add up a big profit over time. So for the first time in many years, publishers are once more interested in smaller — not just bigger — sellers.”

Aside from its cover story on health (which we gave our take on yesterday), Newsweek is pretty thin this week. A short feature on Rudy Giuliani (“having a heavenly time” thinking about running for the presidency, as a new Quinnipiac poll names him the most popular politician in the country), a piece on Houston’s “compassion fatigue” towards the huge number of New Orleans evacuees it took in following Katrina, and a story (“Love in a Time of Madness”) on the strains playing out in homes across Iraq among the many families containing Sunni-Shia unions are, in our eyes, the most intriguing of the bunch.

Time, in contrast, offers a magazine you can really dig into, beginning with its story on how Iraq’s sectarian clashes are upending the lives of thousands of families, “forcing them to leave their homes and changing the complexion of cities like Baghdad, perhaps forever.” Entitled “When Hate Lives Next Door,” the story begins with the harrowing tale of Sahar Ashour Nema, a Shiite woman whose husband was brutally murdered by Sunni militants two years ago. Nema and her children fled to another neighborhood, al-Haswa — which they in turn were forced to flee last week as armed Sunnis ran roughshod over the neighborhood. “Across the capital,” Time reports, “mixed neighborhoods have undergone the equivalent of wholesale religious cleansing, as Sunnis and Shiites have sought safety in their sectarian communities.” The story includes some beautiful black-and-white photography, including a stylish shot of three well-dressed Shiite militiamen who helped protect a Sunni mosque.

Elsewhere, Time notes that despite $320 billion in extra spending Congress has approved for the Iraq and Afghanistan war efforts in the past three years, “[t]he Marines are still flying around Iraq in Vietnam-era helicopters”; publishes an exclusive update on the story of Mohammed al-Qahtani, the “so-called 20th hijacker” being held at Guantánamo Bay who “says he now recants his previous incriminating statements, claiming they were extracted under extreme duress”; and reports on a growing “pitchfork rebellion” in rural China, as violent local protests by farmers and villagers “are convulsing the Chinese countryside with ever greater frequency.”

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.