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Newsweek, Democracy and the Future of Media

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.

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Flickr user axlape, via Creative Commons license.

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13 comments

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11:53PM PDT on May 11, 2010

Noted

4:19PM PDT on May 8, 2010

Thanks...

9:07PM PDT on May 7, 2010

no company should be regarded as too big to fail.

6:09PM PDT on May 7, 2010

Yup, this would be a time for God to help us.

12:44PM PDT on May 7, 2010

Heaven help us.

12:43PM PDT on May 7, 2010

Oh, no! I love Newsweek and have purchased subscriptions for my dad and some friends who were wondering where and how to get in-depth coverage of the news. I had no idea the publication was in danger, although I guess I should have seen it coming. I wish John Meacham well in his efforts to resurrect the magazine.

9:27AM PDT on May 7, 2010

Yes, I believe it is the begining of the end. Unfortunately books are in this mix also, which I think is very sad.

9:21AM PDT on May 7, 2010

Print media is something to which one can refer repeatedly when needed or desired, whereas, tv, radio, computer, etc., usually has a short lifespan and cannot always be bought or recaptured. Also, seldom can one get obtain the in-depth coverage of events on any of these latter media. Much of what passes for "journalism" on them, especially I find in the USA, is very shallow, biased and of questionable worth.

8:55AM PDT on May 7, 2010

The critical question is not through what medium do people obtain their information, but will enough people recognize that they must pay for sound information (i.e., facts and thorough analysis) in order to have the substantive, productive debates that are essential to maintain a democracy? A number of major newspapers have already closed; the sale of Newsweek is part of an existing trend. It's alarming that good, fact-based journalism is increasingly replaced by opinion and pseudo 'facts' disseminated to support political agendas.

7:01AM PDT on May 7, 2010

Androniki has made a good point about saving our forests. However, whilst magazines and newspapers may be made redundant by TV and computers, books should not be. Who wants to go sunbathing on the beach, or even lying in bed, reading from a laptop?

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