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Newsweek and the myth of the death of print

Associate Commentary Editor

Published: Sunday, October 21, 2012

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08

Newsweek magazine has published its print edition every week since 1933. Last Thursday, it announced its last print edition will publish in December. Is this a reflection of print media in the modern era? Yes and no. But mostly no.

Yes in the sense that, obviously, the Internet was not a factor 20 years ago and before. And yes in the sense that print media will never again be the biggest thing around like it was in a bygone era – much as radio will never again be the biggest thing around.

But no in the sense that this predominantly reflects on Newsweek itself as opposed to the state of print media. Newsweek completely lost its way over the last few years, taking a sharp turn from respectable news to showcase of sensationalism and controversial covers. Would a trustworthy news source publish a magazine cover on “The 101 best places to eat in the world” featuring a woman opening her mouth to eat a long piece of food in an obvious insinuation of oral sex? Or their cover of the Commander-in-Chief with a rainbow colored halo over his head alongside the headline “The first gay President?”

Contrast this with Time magazine, which has long played the role of Newsweek’s “older brother,” if you will. Time is also in some aspects a shadow of its former self: for example, adding a regular humor column by Joel Stein to a magazine that formerly never would have considered such an item. But consider Kurt Andersen’s article “The Protestor” from last December as Time’s annual selection for Person of the Year. He spent two months traveling around the world nonstop working on this one story, with the result being perhaps the best journalistic article of last year. For all its faults, Time’s quality never sunk as low as Newsweek. And the results showed: while virtually no print publication actually gained circulation over the past decade, Newsweek dropped 52.2% percent since 2000, while since 1997 Time only dropped 19.5 percent.

As a parallel, look at a similar situation from decades ago and closer to home: the Hartford Times ceased publication in 1976. Seemingly, if anything, the opposite should have happened. This was right after Watergate, when newspaper subscriptions increased. And this was during that great middle era, when television was already established and proven not to have killed the newspaper industry as once feared, but the Internet was still a ways off. So why did the Hartford Times fail? The answer is complex, but the biggest reason is simple: the newspaper lost its way. The Hartford Courant, which already did investigative reporting, doubled down on it during the immediate post-Watergate period. And, as occurred when capitalism works its magic, the Courant survived and the Times did not.

As I see it, a comparable situation is what happened with Newsweek today. Is it partially the modern iPad, Internet, and smartphone environment? No doubt. I am a print media aficionado, but facts are facts. However, there is also the critical factor that the quality of Newsweek, like the Hartford Times, started to drastically decline.

In fact, historically speaking, this is a relatively decent time for print newspapers and magazines. Many other periods were far worse. Television in the 1950s likely came closer to killing the print industry than the Internet has thus far. If people could see the news occurring visually for free, so the reasoning went, then why would they only read about the news at a monetary cost? Yet the industry survived. And throughout the 1970s and 1980s, many major cities went from having two or three major newspapers to just one.

In a free market, some businesses succeed and some businesses fail. That is simply the nature of things. Newsweek had a 79-year run and eventually it failed. In a perfect world, no company or product would ever go out of business and everyone would be happy. But are print newspapers and print magazines failing left and right? Since around 2000 or so, naysayers have said, “Just you see, this will be the year all print publications die!” And a few indeed have, Newsweek among them.

But the death of print journalism is a myth. Some critics are quick to jump on the discontinuation of Newsweek as a sign of the death of print journalism. In fact, it is nothing more than the death of Newsweek.

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