Newsweek, Democracy and the Future of Media
The future of Newsweek, an institution of American journalism since 1933, is in play. Yesterday, the Washington Post Company, which has owned the magazine since 1961, made a surprise announcement that the the second largest weekly magazine in the U.S. was for sale.
Many are calling it the end of an era; I think it’s another example of a behemoth media enterprise that it can’t turn the ship around in time. Newsweek lost $23 million in 2009 and is on track to lose money this year as well.
What’s interesting is that, at least as of this morning, Editor Jon Meacham is thinking about placing a bid. He argues that the publication still plays a role in public dialogue and democracy, and we’d be worse off without it. This is true of most media and the independent press have been making this argument for years. Journalism informs the public and holds public figures accountable. No one wants to think about a democracy in which elected officials feel like nothing will hold them to task.
As Meacham said in an interview with The New York Observer:
“This is not a Mad Men romanticism about the news magazine. I’m entirely realistic about our prospects for economic success and the possibilities of finding a consistent audience for our journalism. These are incredibly difficult questions. That said, I believe it is a worth a good long look to see how the Newsweek–call it what you will–platform, big tent, whatever fits into a world that I think needs some common ground. I’m not saying that we’re the only catcher in the rye standing between an informed public and the end of democracy. That’s self-involved. But I defy you to make a compelling argument that the country is going to be better off with fewer places like this.”
We can’t afford to lose many more of the media institutions that provide nuanced perspectives from across the political spectrum. Citizens need to be exposed to news that isn’t just hyperlocal or speaks to their unique perspectives. Yet no one has figured out how to bridge the gaping divide between print and digital. much less fund it. Meacham addressed this issue during a scheduled appearance on the Daily Show last night: “We have to decide if we’re ready to get what we pay for. And if you’re not going to pay for news….”
The future of media is uncertain. And no one really knows the answer. While technological innovations and increased community engagement do help with production and dissemination of journalism, there are no promising new, cure-all business models that can make it possible.
But while no one knows the answers, at least Newsweek was experimenting and trying to change course (albeit too slowly). Newsweek‘s announced sale comes on the heels of a sharp redesign and new editorial vision that looked a hell of a lot like the Economist, which is one of the only weeklies that is economically viable. Newsweek increased its international coverage and meaty features, presenting unique perspectives on top headlines rather than just breaking news. But the print redesign wasn’t all-encompassing, and a lot of the digital strategy was left unfinished. Business Insider has a good recap of Meacham’s Daily Show appearance and future implications for the faltering publication.
For any media outlet to make it into the next century, they need to be lean, mean and operating on as many platforms as possible. Here’s wishing Meacham luck with making a bid and a go of the publication. Our democracy depends on it.
Flickr user axlape, via Creative Commons license.