Wednesday, February 22, 2012

I Got The News (But You Already Knew It)

Damiem Jurado--"Nothing Is The News" (mp3)

For years, our school's newspaper has struggled, students trying to figure out a place for their stories that fits somewhere between an ever-expanding website hosted by the school's public relations staff and the hard-copy that used to get handed out every few weeks on a Friday. They have yet to find that place, for any number of reasons. But the underlying issue has always been that they lost control of the ability to tell us news.

This is not news.

A school paper has perhaps not had that ability for a good half-century or more. A small staff involved in an after-school or club activity could never hope to be the ones breaking the big story, not with the delays between event and writing of story, and then delays between writing of story and laying out and printing of story.

This is not news.

But in my slow brain, I had not realized for the longest time that a national news magazine, a Time or Newsweek, has to deal with the same problem. I got Time for a few years because of a whim and now I get Newsweek thanks to a gift, but I hadn't really given any thought to the struggles they were going through as I did my ritualistic bathroom reads--start from the back and work forward, perhaps never actually the front of the magazine where the news was.


As I sat with the latest Newsweek last night, with its cover story titled "How Obama Learned To Use His Secret Weapon," I finally, finally, finally understood the war that must be raging internally within these publications. Because I enjoyed the story well enough, but I thought, 'Gee, that's a little bit of an unusual story for a cover story; it must be a slow news week.' And then it was a quick brain leap from that thought to 'There is no such thing as a slow news week. We've got dead pop stars and ever-evolving presidential primaries and financial crises and recoveries and international tensions.' And then, with a slight shift in the meaning of the word "slow" my baby ephiphany was 'Wait, there really isn't ever a slow news week. The news moves so fast every single day that we know about almost everything almost immediately after it happens.' And then, the words "news" and "week" rejoined and I thought, 'How hard it must be for a news weekly that has lost the ability to report the news because every happening that they report on is not "so 43 seconds ago" for those who have 4G, but so so 7 days ago, and in this world now, that is an eternity.'

So Newsweek has been trying to adjust. And now I understand the continuing design changes and editorial redirections that I have been noticing in both magazines for the past several years. Time magazine had finally left me pissed me off because, reading from the back as I do, all of their little pop culture-based featurettes in the back pages seemed to change every few months. (I like Newsweek's current back page feature, "My Favorite Mistake," which asks a famous person to choose something major that they did wrong in their lives but which seems to have turned out okay-I plan to steal this as the concept for a later personal blog post). But now I realize the depths of the magazine's attempts to find its way.

The adjustments these magazines are having to make may seem minor, a mere shift away from any hard news to feature stories and analysis and opinion, but I would argue that these changes are gargantuan, the equivalent of a restaurant that once served pretty basic meat and potatoes comfort food having to serve up gourmet fare that will attract a much more discerning diner.

Frankly, I'm not sure what they should do or if they can survive. The Obama and the Navy Seals story was fairly interesting and I'm not sorry I read it, but if I were hurrying through an airport looking for something to read, I'm not sure that's what would grab me or what I would grab. I'm not even sure I will ever visit another newstand in my life, in an airport or elsewhere. Wouldn't I just sit down with my laptop or phone and read some online blog on one of those?

I'm not even sure I will stay with Newsweek when the gift subscription runs out. The current news magazine has the ability, I suppose, to give me a depth of knowledge that I don't have on a variety of topics (from the latest issue, the background life of Vladmir Putin, the science of feelings, the fall and rise of Harvey Weinstein, etc.) but I didn't choose those topics and I wonder how much of a hit-or-miss proposition it is for these publications to hook somebody like me. If I want depth, I go to the Internet, probably even to the once-maligned Wikipedia.

If I am Newsweek, who is my competition these days? Is it even other news magazines? In the magazine world, is it The Atlantic Monthly? If so, it loses. The Obama/Navy Seals barely covers four pages, so I learn some things I don't know, but not that much. Nothing like the depth I can get from The Atlantic or The New Yorker. Online, is it The Huffington Post or some similar megablog? If so, it loses. Huffington can link to so much more news, analysis, even titillation, without even breaking a sweat. Is it CNN? Fox News? The Daily Show? Colbert? What chance does Newsweek have against news with humor, with personalities, or with, in the case of Fox, the lack of a need to try to be impartial?

The cultural icons are falling. Stores, corporations, people who once seemed important, so many of these givens of our society will be gone within 5 years, maybe less. They will no longer serve a function that is needed; they will no longer be able to keep up with the speed of change. I guess I hadn't thought about how much the news as I have known it, newspapers and magazines to be folded back and left lying around, torn out and dog-eared, read and recycled, would be one of these victims. But, really, I've had that news for a long time. I just wasn't fully paying attention.


Daisy said...

This is something I think about a lot and it saddens me. I still subscribe to a daily newspaper but I've almost always seen the headlines on line before the paper ever makes it in the house. Sadly the Times they are a changin'

goofytakemyhand said...

Two words: Aussie Nads

Billy said...

Well put.

What concerns me greatly is that our culture seems increasingly uninterested in hindsight. Newsmagazines were supposed to be a place where, with the benefit of a brief cushion of time, a wiser grasp of the moment was possible.

Newspapers & online news are the emails I send out instantly, instinctively. Newsmagazines are the ones I write and then save, because I know it's not smart to send them without sleeping on them first.

The latter has lost most of its value to our current culture. Surely that should be disconcerting to us.

troutking said...

Yes, excellent post and a sad state of affairs in our culture. I get Time on my Kindle right now but I think I'm going back to the hard copy. I love sitting down with a magazine---it's reading and active learning, but not too heavy or much of a commitment to any one subject. I don't read cover to cover---I usually skip around based on interest. But my goal is to have read everything before I'm finished. That's what I like. I'm exposed to articles I didn't know I wanted to read. That's different than the Internet. The Kindle version is convenient but not as viscerally enjoyable. Either way, I'm not giving it up til it goes out of business.