Twenty-seven years ago, I began my professional career at Time Magazine as a reporter-researcher in the World section, which was devoted to international news. Generally speaking, the World section ran 12 pages in the magazine. Nation, devoted to news within our borders, ran about the same or a page shorter. Think of that—an American publication, marketed to millions, that devoted slightly more of its attention, and vastly more of its budget, to news about events outside the United States.
Time Inc., the parent company of Time, was flush then. Very, very, very flush. So flush that the first week I was there, the World section had a farewell lunch for a writer who was being sent to Paris to serve as bureau chief…at Lutece, the most expensive restaurant in Manhattan, for 50 people.So flush that if you stayed past 8, you could take a limousine home…and take it anywhere, including to the Hamptons if you had weekend plans there. So flush that if a writer who lived, say, in suburban Connecticut, stayed late writing his article that week, he could stay in town at a hotel of his choice. So flush that, when I turned in an expense account covering my first month with a $32 charge on it for two books I’d bought for research purposes, my boss closed her office door and told me never to submit a report asking for less than $300 back, because it would make everybody else look bad. So flush when its editor-in-chief, the late Henry Grunwald, went to visit the facilities of a new publication called TV Cable Week that was based in White Plains, a 40 minute drive from the Time Life Building, he arrived by helicopter—and when he grew bored by the tour, he said to his aide, “Get me my helicopter.”
Those were, as they say, the days. No one in journalism will ever see their like again. I had come to Time after writing for journals of opinion, and was stunned at the prospect that I might make an actual living working full-time as a magazine employee. Now it has all come full circle. For Newsweek, the other newsweekly, has now been redesigned by its editor, Jon Meacham, in the model of…an opinion magazine. The publication is surrendering any pretense that it is attempting to present objective reportage. Instead, like the Weekly Standard or the New Republic or the Washington Monthly, it has lighter front matter, shorter hard opinion pieces, and then a central well of articles that combine reporting, analysis, and opinion. (And there is a culture section in the back, though this is not nearly as thoroughly conceived as the rest.) The resulting mix is a combination of those publications, the Atlantic, and New York magazine; though Meacham says he is an admirer and emulator of The Economist, that is a peculiar thing to say, because there is nothing whatever of the Economist in what he has produced. Perhaps what he means is that he wants the audience of the Economist—smaller but far wealthier, and easier to sell expensive ads in.
I wish Meacham Godspeed, but there’s almost no hope for him or Newsweek, and here’s why. If there were a market for an opinion journal that could sell in excess of a million copies, it would have revealed itself before this. The advantage journals of opinion possess is that their readers are extremely loyal and they have a personal stake in them that no newsmagazine has ever generated. The disadvantage they have is that the audience for journals of opinion is small.
More important, they are published for people who are passionate about abstract ideas, and find it invigorating, thrilling, and exciting to see them batted about. This is not the profile of the general mass reader.
Finally, Meacham has trapped himself in a false premise. In his editor’s letter and in interviews, he says that Newsweek is not partisan and cannot be perceived as partisan if it is to succeed. Well, first of all, that is an absurdity. The magazine is a love letter to the current president, and features a bristling attack on Dick Cheney, a pitying piece about George W. Bush, and a genuinely embarrassing paean to Nancy Pelosi by that notable interpreter of American politics, Tina Brown. If one had to affix an adjective to the new Newsweek’s first issue, “partisan” would be one of the first that would spring to your mind.
Besides which, partisanship is the hallmark of the opinion journal–not necessarily of the variety that would lead to support for one political voting faction over another, but in the sense that serious journals of opinion stake claim to a side of the ideological divide and then defend its base and attack outward at the other camp. This is what gives them their fire, their vim, their vigor, their reason for being. A publication that a) seeks to benefit from opinion, b) says it’s not partisan when it is, and c) expects to sell more than a million copies a week is a Rube Goldberg machine.
Why was the Time of my professional youth so successful? Because its readers hadn’t died off yet. Because cable news hadn’t hit yet. Because news organizations hadn’t surrendered to the siren song of soft puff pieces that completely destroyed their authority with the readers they still had. Meacham is trying to recapture that authority in a different way, but if he isn’t willing to own up to his own publication’s politics and its hoped-for position as the pet publication of the Obama White House, no reader is going to invest his or her trust in what Newsweek has to say.