Commentary Magazine

Don’t Give Readers What They Want

In early May, on the evening of the day his magazine got shot out from under him, the editor of Newsweek, Jon Meacham, appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, seeking fellowship, commiseration, and a platform from which he might discourse upon the larger significance of the day’s developments. Discoursing upon larger significances is one of Meacham’s particular gifts. No one was surprised then that he would seek to apply it to the unexpected news that the owner of Newsweek, Donald Graham of the Washington Post Co., was putting the magazine up for sale, with the implication that the place would be shuttered for good unless a buyer was found, and soon.

As Stewart listened, rapt and unusually smirkless, Meacham noted the explosion of journalism now available for free on the Internet. The moral that Meacham drew from this new competition, together with Graham’s announcement, was this: “If you’re not gonna pay for news, then you’re gonna get a different kind of news.” (I’m transcribing his pronunciation of “going to” in honor of his Tennessee twang, which gets folksier as his words get more portentous.)

It was an odd thing for Meacham to say, given his efforts to reposition his magazine in the media universe—to offer, that is, his own kind of “a different kind of news.” His efforts peaked last year, when he unveiled a new business and editorial plan with three main elements. He raised the magazine’s price per issue, to a whopping $6 on newsstands. He cut costs by laying off staff and by letting half his subscribers drop off the rolls. And he recast the magazine’s content for those readers who were stubborn enough to hang on. His newsweekly, he said, would no longer even pretend to offer the traditional summary of the previous week’s events, as it had been doing, with dwindling enthusiasm, for nearly 80 years. Instead, readers would find “argued essays” and “reported narrative … grounded in original observation and freshly discovered fact.” It would become a “provocative (but not partisan)” magazine of opinion—a liberal magazine written by liberals who didn’t want to admit they were liberals.

This final reinvention of Newsweek left Meacham’s customers with a choice. They could turn to the Web and get “a different kind of news” for free, or they could go to Newsweek and get “a different kind of news” for $6 a week. He seemed startled that so many of them turned out to be skinflints.

To Jon Stewart—still rapt, still unsmirking—Meacham went on to cast Newsweek’s unhappy fate as an “existential crisis,” confusing the consequences of his own terrible business sense with a calamity afflicting the whole country. “Let me say this,” he said, portentousness rising. “I don’t think we’re the only catcher in the rye between democracy and ignorance, but I think we’re one of them, and I don’t think there are that many standing on the edge of that cliff.” Indeed, Newsweek was one of the few “common denominators left in a fragmented world.” And it’s not his fault that the denominator business isn’t what it used to be.

Meacham’s Daily Show appearance was a bottled sample of the narcissism that is one of the besetting sins of our press establishment, and in large part the cause of its undoing. Newsweeklies were once the pashas of the magazine world. Editors enjoyed lavish salaries, traveled first class to overstaffed bureaus in Paris or London, gorged on expense–account dinners, and escaped each weekend to houses in the Hamptons in limousines paid for by the company. It was a fantasy life beyond the dreams of even the dreamiest literary men, but it came at a price: humility. The hacks had to restrain every impulse toward artsy self-expression and instead serve a readership that wanted only a straightforward and comprehensive account of what just happened. Cashing their checks, newsmagazine people agreed to write short and write snappy. They banished unconventional or discomfiting thoughts from their copy. They resisted any stylistic flourish beyond an occasional cheekiness of tone. And they restricted their subject matter to last week’s news. A sufficient number of these old boys thought the price was worth it, and the newsweeklies flourished.

Over the past 30 years, when a new generation of editors launched the magazines on a course of ceaseless reinvention—Meacham is by no means the first newsmagazine editor to fidget—each turn of the ratchet moved the form further away from the kind of magazine that people want to read and closer to the kind of magazine that journalists want to write. “We publish the magazine we would want to get every week,” Meacham told his readers in introducing yet another of his revolutionary reconceptualizations a few years ago. “We are betting that you want to read more, not less. . . .We think that you will make the time to read pieces that repay the effort.”

He may have been right about that; within reason, people like to read more of what they like to read. He forgot, though, that readers are different from journalists, with different expectations, tastes, and, often, views of the world and what it should look like. He ignored the truth that the old newsmagazine editors lived by: journalists who write to satisfy people like themselves will soon run out of readers. The magazine that lies dying in Don Graham’s arms violated this rule week by week.

To cite one obvious example: newsweeklies annually marked Christian holidays with a cover story on a religious theme, always respectful and sometimes celebratory in tone. I’m sure it was a strain, an exercise in self-denial; few journalists are religious in any conventional sense. The new Newsweek, by contrast, published holiday issues that any good secular journalist would like to read. One issue near Christmas offered a long and fallacious cover story on “The Religious Case for Gay Marriage.” Easter came and the magazine feted “The End of Christian America.” Pieces like this weren’t so much a challenge to traditionally religious readers as a declaration of war. Why not just put a bullet in the Easter Bunny while you’re at it?

The reinvented newsmagazine has pursued a fantasy life of its own. The fantasy is a reverse of the one the old editors enjoyed. The expense accounts may be gone, the bureaus may be shuttered, and not even Meacham gets to travel first class. But editors and writers have dispensed with the necessity of satisfying a large and reliable readership and can indulge their literary aspirations at last. They get to write long “argued essays” and make “original observations” and lace them with their own (minority) opinions on politics and culture. They have released themselves from the obligation of giving readers what readers came to them for: that straightforward and comprehensive account of what just happened.

Of course, it is now an article of faith in the magazine business that readers don’t want this at all. Immersed as they are in round-the-clock cable TV and websites, they don’t need a rehash of events a week old. I’m a fuddy-duddy, world class, but I’m not so sure. It’s true that most journalists have fixed themselves to the info-teat of their iPhones’ Twitter feeds. A rather smaller percentage of normal people live this way, and the presumption that the desires and tastes of journalists are identical to those of their customers is one of the many mistakes that brought Meacham and his colleagues to their present pickle.

Meanwhile, the most successful weekly magazine in the English-speaking world is the Economist, and one of the most successful magazine start-ups of the recent past has been the Week. Both offer readers, among much else, a rehash of the past week’s events. Donald Graham might want to give them a second look.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson, our media columnist, wrote last month about journalism myths.

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