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Some thoughts on newsweeklies

As a Newsweek contributor, I'm saddened to hear that the magazine is up for sale. But like Felix Salmon, I think there's good reason to believe it will be bought: It's a major brand, with a global subscription base approaching 3 million and a Web site that's pulling in 5 million unique visitors a month. There's value there.

One thing that might happen, of course, is that a billionaire who wants a vanity project or a political press comes along and snaps it up. Serendipitously, this week's New Yorker has a tremendous profile of entertainment-magnate Haim Saban, which notes that he believes a fast route to political influence is control of media organizations, and reveals that he previously "tried to buy Time and Newsweek, but neither was available."

Well, now one is. Another name for that category: Peter G. Peterson, the deficit-obsessed billionaire who just started The Fiscal Times.

And then there are different media companies and corporations that might want to add Newsweek to their portfolio, much as Bloomberg did with Business Week. But I'm more interested in the product than the ownership. In recent years, Newsweek has smartly transformed itself from a newsgathering model to an opinion model. That was an important transition, if only to decisively demonstrate that the institution understood the changed media landscape.

In the long run, though, I'm not sure opinion is a great model either. Just as the Internet and cable news have accelerated the news cycle far beyond what a weekly magazine can handle, the market for opinion has expanded and accelerated dramatically. It's hard to make your mark there. Some people take that to mean the newsweekly cycle is just unworkable: Too slow for news, too fast for long-form big think. I strongly disagree. I just think that it needs to carve out a niche suited to its strengths.

And that strength, I continue to think, is analysis. The newsweekly cycle is fast enough to talk about the news, if not fast enough to be breaking on it or driving the commentary on it. That said, most Americans aren't fast enough for the modern news cycle, either. So for the great mass of Americans who want to understand what's going on but don't have the time (or interest) to consume an enormous amount of daily media, a magazine that offered a predictable mix of clear explanation and analysis tied to the events of the week could be a godsend. To some extent, the Economist does this with an eye toward the international scene, but there's plenty of need to adapt that model to a more domestic range of topics.

To give an example, think of all that's going on this week: The car bomber. The BP oil spill. Greece's meltdown. The stomach-churning drop in the Dow. Financial-regulation reform. Elections in Britain. Supreme Court politics. A bill to strip suspected terrorists of their citizenship. Even for a news junkie, that's a lot. But where can you go to learn about it? Newspapers, of course. But they're focused on what just happened, not what's happened over the past few days. Blogs, I guess, but they're opinionated and hard to navigate. Cable news argues rather than explains. Monthly magazines and books are long out of the news cycle.

Newsweeklies could fill that role, and to some extent, they do. But not predictably enough. You can't be sure, at least with most of them, that if you pick up the issue, you'll learn what you need to know on the major events of the week. The content mix is some news, some opinion, some analysis, and only some of it is on the events of the day. But if you could get a publication delivered to your door that you could be sure would get you up to speed on all the stories you'd been hearing about without fully understanding, I think that'd be a very appealing product.

People want to know. They just don't want to, or don't have time to, consume the amount of media necessary to know. Bridging that gap is a tremendous market opportunity.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 7, 2010; 11:21 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Comments

Haim Saban? The Power Rangers guy?

Posted by: MosBen | May 7, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Wow, way more than Power Rangers, it turns out. Tons of stuff from my childhood that I didn't even realize he was involved with.

Posted by: MosBen | May 7, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

There is definitely a market for analysis that isn't ideologically driven.

The comment that cable news "argues rather than explains" is spot on. Think how much better off we'd be if Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann had spent more time with guests who could really explain health care, what the problems are, what the options are and what was in the various bills at various times. Instead, we had everyone coalescing for or against "the public option" mostly without really understanding what it was, what problem it was designed to address, what else there was in the bill that addressed the problem in other ways, what problems weren;t being addressed etc. In the end few understood the bill and that accounts for the relative lack of support. That has happened with fin reg as well, with Ezra's site being a notable exception on both issues.

Partly I think many people are lazy or don't have time to really try to understand issues, so we just fall back into tribally based positions. But the problems are so complex we need to do better, and the media certainly needs to do better to help us.

Ezra is spot on here.

Posted by: Mimikatz | May 7, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Wow, sorry to pick on Ezra in particular, but this list of what's been going on really lends point to the media's disgraceful failure in covering the Nashville floods.

Hello, a major American city and such icons as the Country Music Hall of Fame, Opryland, etc, under like 10 feet of water. Tell me that would have passed the media by if it was New York or Chicago. Damage estimates are over a billion dollars. This could be up there with some other great US urban disasters, and somehow it was just one story too many.

Is this, in theory, the kind of situation where a newsweekly could theoretically shine? (Daily 24/7 media blows it, newsweekly comes in with in-depth coverage, photos, etc.?) Or once an event gets missed, does it stay missed?

P.S. I've never been there, don't have friends or family there, and am not a country music fan, but I'm sure feeling for them. This was big.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | May 7, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

"That said, most Americans aren't fast enough for the modern news cycle, either."

Ding ding ding ding ding! I'm smart. I'm educated. I try to keep up on stuff. But do you realize everything I'm supposed to be an "expert" on, just to remain a reasonably-informed member of society? Within just the past month, off the top of my head, the things that spring to mind include terrorism (and its constitutional ramifications), immigration (and its constitutional ramifications), health care, financial reform, climate change, and international finance/Greece/the EU. Oh, yeah, and my firm is changing health care providers, its open enrollment season for my husband, our anniversary is coming up that I need to plan, I have two client trips and three more projects to get out, we need a new deck, and today is my daughter's birthday. And we're out of bread.

I don't have either the time or the inclination to get a Ph.D in all of these areas. But I also don't want Rush telling me what to think so I don't have to. I want someone who knows a lot more than I do to distill the most critical facts for me, show how they fit into a larger framework, and explain the possible ramifications, issues, and solutions.

Posted by: laura33 | May 7, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse


to your point Ezra, I think what I'd read, and what they could deliver that would be unique would be something like the following:

The car bomber - article on how the curret no fly list works from putting name on list to operationalizing it.

The BP oil spill - article on current regulations regarding drilling and liability.

Greece's meltdown - article on recent history of Greek economy

The stomach-churning drop in the Dow - article detailing the role of computer programs in the stock market and how such a vulnerability might exist.

Financial-regulation reform - article about the widespread fraud and false reports coming out of the frozen concentrated orange juice commodities.

Elections in Britain - article on the platforms of the different parties and primer on basic election rules

and so on...

I think lots of stories, as you say, present an event and stop short of providing the meatier context for those interested. In the same way after an earthquake they might put a geologist on the news; I think there could be learned information presented in reaction to events. I'm a big fan of the 'explainer' model and I don't think I'm alone.

In the same way with HCR there was a few days of people going on about the Medicare doc fix and probably 99% of people don't know what the Medicare doc fix IS and you gave a detailed background. The standard way a journalist would approach a story on the doc fix would be to talk about the argument and dedicate half a paragraph to explaining what it was. However, explaining the doc fix and how it works is the opposite of partisan. It presents the information to the reader and lets the reader form his or her own opinions. Sure, there's room for spin, but much less room.

Posted by: ThomasEN | May 7, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse


and, yeah, what Laura33 said...

Posted by: ThomasEN | May 7, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

But what you want is what Newsweek was, for decades. Just bring it back.

Posted by: katherinegraham1 | May 7, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

"...which notes that he believes a fast route to political influence is control of media organizations..."

He's 100% correct on that. Think of the sheer volume of movement to the right FOX News has accomplished. Rupert/Ailes has more power to influence American politics right now than they could in any elected office short of the Presidency.

But that's not "media"...that's propoganda. But when real journalists lie down on the job (as most do these days) there's no real distinction.

It's a very sad state, that journalism is in this country right now.

Posted by: TheBBQChickenMadness | May 7, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

I used to have a subscription to Newsweek but i stopped it after a while due to the fact is is full of opinions. Newsweek stopped being filled with facts but instead were filled with who thinks what and how it should have been. Its ridiculous since it's not only Newsweek that is doing that. America's news system is tainted with opinions and it is bending and changing and affecting us. I remember reading Newsweek when I was younger. Facts were facts and everything seemed factual. I'm sure once Newsweek readers understand they will try to change it. It's all on the consumers.

Posted by: ladisasterejp | May 7, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the reason I gave up on weekly news magazines was because they were neither timely nor particularly thorough in their analyses.

Consider the following news gathering and reporting model:
A group of internet savvy folks get together online. All they have in common is an interest in the news. As time progresses, they discover they are a collection of folks with varied background, interests and experiences. And they link each other to the most current findings on space, earthquakes, floods, gardening, food, politics, sports and finance, just to name a few topics. They discuss, debate, analyze and share.

Oh, and they don't pay a dime to do this. They simply take advantage of what's out on the web.

Groups like this are popping up all over the internet. Weekly magazines won't be able to compete unless they cater to a specific ideological or demographic niche.

Posted by: MsJS | May 7, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

I think Ezra is right, and he is one of the very few American writers out there that is good at analysis. But that's just the problem, being good at analysis is so rare in this country. Our media has been broken for so long that people only write for titilation, or he-said-she-said, or to have a tidy narrative that has a beginning, middle, and end. But real-world problems and good analysis don't fit into those boxes, so we don't see much of good analysis. Its sad really.

Posted by: nathanlindquist | May 7, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

I think Ezra is right, but the said thing is that Ezra is one of the very few American writers out there that is good at analysis, which is so rare in this country. Our media has been broken for so long that people only write for titilation, or he-said-she-said, or to have a tidy narrative that has a beginning, middle, and end. But real-world problems and good analysis don't fit into those boxes, so we don't see much of good analysis. I don't know if Newsweek could find enough talented writers to base its business model in that direction. Or they could have Ezra lead trainings to break new hires of their bad habits.

Posted by: nathanlindquist | May 7, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

The problem with trying to divorce political opinion from analysis, is that all politics is an argument between two (or more) ideological views. How to analyze that without the excruciating "he said, while she said" kind of humdrum garbage MSM is already famous for is lost on me.

This is only a problem in politics btw. In sports, for all the arguments a game gets played there's an inarguable score at the end, and thus you can draw analysis. Same with business, which reports actual earnings and thus our opinion of whether the iPad is a success or not gets confirmed by reality at some point.

How would one go about doing this with ongoing issues in America like unemployment, recessions, climate change etc without diving into one side or the other's ideology??

Posted by: zeppelin003 | May 7, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

wasn't that Soros' concept (after destroying the pound) to go out and pay millions to start up think tanks to push liberal philosophy. Does that ideology have any regard for what's happening now in Greece or is that just collateral damage?

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 7, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

wasn't that Soros' concept (after destroying the pound) to go out and pay millions to start up think tanks to push liberal philosophy. Does that ideology have any regard for what's happening now in Greece or is that just collateral damage?

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 7, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

So sorry to see Newsweek is on the block. For the first time in years, I actually looked forward to seeing a newsmag in my mailbox. Sure, there are a million opinionators out there, but the strong suit of the slowdown weekly format is that Newsweek writers could take time to reflect and they produced their best stuff. Almost always there was insight there. Howard Fineman, for instance, is usually pretty good on MSNBC, but in Newsweek he can be great. The look is as bold and clean as the articles. I thought they were on to something. Guess we'll never find out if it could have worked long term.

Posted by: JamesOfDC | May 7, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

So sorry to see Newsweek is on the block. For the first time in years, I actually looked forward to seeing a newsmag in my mailbox. Sure, there are a million opinionators out there, but the strong suit of the slowdown weekly format is that Newsweek writers could take time to reflect and they produced their best stuff. Almost always there was insight there. Howard Fineman, for instance, is usually pretty good on MSNBC, but in Newsweek he can be great. The look is as bold and clean as the articles. I thought they were on to something. Guess we'll never find out if it could have worked long term.

Posted by: JamesOfDC | May 7, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

@MimiKatz: "think how much better off we'd be if Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann . . ."

Right now, I'd be happy if we could just get rid of Nancy Grace. Her show is something else.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 7, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

During Watergate, Newsweek was the only magazine I read that provided chronology and analysis of what was happening once things got into high gear.

A weekly magazine is the right timing to offer the right sized perspective that cable, newspapers and blogs totally miss.

A good perspective, Ezra!

Posted by: CubeRulescom | May 7, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

There's no substitute for hard work. The Economist does well because it packs about 10 times the news and analysis into each issue that Time or Newsweek does. I wonder which I'm going to spend my money on, even if I don't particuarly agree with the The Economist's editorial view.

I believe Newsweek was on the right track trying to create a center-left version of The Economist but for now the content isn't there.

Posted by: bmull | May 7, 2010 8:04 PM | Report abuse

"But if you could get a publication delivered to your door that you could be sure would get you up to speed on all the stories you'd been hearing about without fully understanding, I think that'd be a very appealing product."

bmull beat me to it...

It's called The Economist. I started reading it when I was 14 and it's the only magazine I read every week cover to cover. And I'm not sure I'd buy an Americanized version. I have trouble imagining Newsweek being able to organize the infrastructure to support anything as extensive.

Posted by: realityexists | May 7, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

But if any publication can come close to creating an "American Economist," you'd think it would be Newsweek. I think the real problem is a lack of trust in the American readership. They know that only a niche market wants to read that level of detailed analysis, but Newsweek has always seen itself as a generalist publication. Unfortunately that generalist style is particularly vulnerable to the blog/cable juggernaut.

Still the success of the Economist makes a lot of the whining about institutional factors seem hollow. Print isn't dead -- it just can't be lazy.

Posted by: NS12345 | May 8, 2010 5:13 AM | Report abuse

And just when Newsweek is getting analytic journalists like Rick Perlstein. You're really onto something new, Ezra. And good. There is an audience, I believe, for journalism that attempts to gather together the huge volume of information technology now makes available and to try to make sense of it. If nothing else it gives people some hope that they can understand the information flow and (maybe) control it. Otherwise one is overwhelmed and succumbs to the temptation to fall back on agitprop like the blogs or Fox News. Analysis journalism isn't free from bias; no journalism is. But the biases are buried in the material, much like a good AP history textbook; you can enjoy the ride without signing up for the program. Finally, tho analysis journalism is not easy -- it demands the energy and endurance of a successful politician -- there are plenty of Very Smart People out there who are capable of practicing it. And a very eager audience.

Posted by: bhmingus | May 8, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

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