Alive!  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 1994

Alive!   

Once written off as members of an endangered species, the three major news magazines have found a niche in the information age. But the competition remains intense.

By William Triplett
William Triplett is a Washington, D.C.-basedwriter whose articles have appeared in Playboy, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post and other publications. He is coauthor of "Drug Wars: An Oral History From the Trenches" (Morrow, 1992).      

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   » Fulfilling the Mission

Maynard Parker, editor of Newsweek, was in Washington, D.C., last January to have dinner with then-senior White House aide David Gergen. Before meeting Gergen, he decided to make room for a few calories in the Four Seasons Hotel's workout room. Half-watching the news on a television, as he recalls, he "saw this extraordinary footage." He quickly called his photo editor in New York, telling him to "make sure we get the magazine rights to that."

They did. With signature flair, Newsweek jumped on yet another late-breaking cover, a trait which over the years has earned its top editors the in-house sobriquet "The Flying Wallendas." The anguished face of a young figure skater in excruciating pain graced the January 17 cover with the headline: " 'Why Me?' First Monica Seles, Now Nancy Kerrigan: The New Fear of Stalking."

Back in New York, Time Editor James R. Gaines – whom Parker had fired from Newsweek almost 20 years ago – hesitated about how much play to give the Kerrigan attack. ''We just didn't know enough at the time," he says. It was precisely the kind of sexy hard news story over which Time (read: Gaines) loves to go head-to-head with Newsweek (read: Parker). But with four days before the issue would hit the stands, there was bound to be saturation media coverage. Even if Gaines could get rights to the same footage Newsweek was after, he wasn't convinced he should rip up his planned cover story – a package on genetics.

Gaines opted to stay with genetics; the Kerri- gan attack got two pages inside. Unlike Newsweek's treatment, however, the piece focused on security and the vulnerability of athletes, avoiding any mention of stalking. Coincidentally, just a few blocks from the Four

Seasons, U.S. News & World Report Co-Editor Michael Ruby had already assigned a piece about the cut-throat nature of competitive figure skating as a lead-in to the upcoming Winter Olympics. Given the assault on Kerrigan, it certainly would have made a more timely appearance in the issue being assembled.

"But we had no idea what the motive of the attack was at that time," says Ruby. Even if details of the story had come out immediately, the attack on a sports celebrity probably wouldn't have made the cover of a magazine that likes to distinguish itself from the other two by, among other things, having no idea of who's hot and who's not. U.S. News gave the Kerrigan story a paragraph in the weekly wrap-up section. Ruby and Merrill McLoughlin, Ruby's wife and the magazine's other co-editor, went ahead with their scheduled cover, an examination of violence in America.

These three approaches to one of the biggest breaking news events of early 1994 are emblematic of how each newsweekly tries to stake a claim on the news and on readers' attention in an increasingly crowded media universe. Each does it a bit differently, but the goal for all three has always been the same – appearing relevant within the confines of a weekly publishing schedule, a challenge that has been made all the more bedeviling by the growth of 24-hour television news coverage and more in-depth reporting and analysis by daily newspapers.

A review of issues from mid-1993 through this summer indicates that news magazines have a strong grip on relevance. But it wasn't always so. Years of agonizing identity crises gave rise to a relentless deathwatch by some critics who were convinced the news magazines would not survive the information explosion. How each has managed to renew its relevance is largely through a combination of five objectives, all tailored to the individual magazine's approach. These include providing context for the news, offering informed viewpoints, spotting trends, providing new information services, and turning staff journalists into media celebrities. Despite problems and criticisms, financial and circulation figures suggest that all three are doing essentially the right thing.

"The rumors of their death have been greatly exaggerated," says Alfred Balk, a former journalism professor at Syracuse University. "The news magazines clearly still have a role to play."

P rovide C ontext Editors at Time and Newsweek like to say that what they're doing is putting the news into context, or, as Newsweek Editor in Chief Richard M. Smith has described it, "connecting the dots" between the week's events. The assumption is that the proliferation of news outlets is heaping tons of facts and details on people every day without giving them any sense of what it all means.

Bruce Porter, who teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, agrees with the premise, noting that the tide of information today is overwhelming to "anybody who's not unemployed and who doesn't have all day to spend following all these highways he can follow. [The editors] are right: We need something to give us some idea of what's important and what's not."

The conceit isn't much different from the one Henry Luce articulated more than 70 years ago. "People in America are, for the most part, poorly informed," reads his 1922 prospectus for Time. "[N]o publication has adapted itself to the time which busy men are able to spend on simply keeping informed... Time is interested – not in how much it includes between its cover – but in how much it gets off its pages into the minds of its readers."

When newspapers started to poach on the newsweeklies' territory via week-in-review sections and daily analyses, the media environment went from competitive to Darwinian, and few observers believed the species would survive.

"I think the news magazines kind of lost their way in the mid-1970s," says Edwin Diamond, a former Newsweek staffer who until recently was the media critic for New York magazine. "America was retrenching all over back then – there was less interest in foreign news, the successes were People magazine and TV-watching, and newspapers were taking over some of the things magazines did." In a 1989 Columbia Journalism Review piece, Bruce Porter essentially pronounced the newsweekly a dinosaur on the verge of extinction because it wasn't offering anything that other media couldn't provide faster.

Henry Muller, Gaines' predecessor at Time, was the first to attempt a radical change. His 1992 tripartite redesign seemed to have the right idea – a weekly shouldn't merely rereport the news – but the consensus is he went too far. Time 2, as the redesign wasýcalled, dropped the familiar departments – World, Nation, etc. – and replaced them with a front-of-the-book section of news briefs; a middle feature well of wandering, ponderous essays ("thumb-sucky stuff," as former Editor at Large Kurt Andersen puts it); and a back-of-the-book arts and reviews section. Naysayers said it made Time look like too many other feature magazines. Gaines has since pulled back from Time 2, adding shorter pieces and stressing that soft as well as hard stories have news pegs and that they be densely reported.

Newsweek, by contrast, never deviated from the belief that hard news was a news magazine's backbone. But in the mid- to late-1980s the Wallendas were flying so quickly from story to story that the magazine was criticized for not knowing the difference beýween print and TV news. Editors reorganized the book into six sections, adding coverage to topics like family and health – then emerging as key issues for Newsweek's staple audience, the baby boomers – while spotlighting political coverage and commentary.

After Mort Zuckerman bought U.S. News in 1984, the magazine underwent a long, painful reorganization. Top editors came and went with unsettling frequency, exacerbating the magazine's seemingly chronic inability to define its new self (see "U.S. Snooze Wakes Up," October 1992). With the help of Ruby and McLoughlin, Zuckerman eventually grounded the magazine in service-oriented journalism, and more recently has emphasized investigative projects. Hard news remains the premium: According to Media Industry Newsletter, U.S. News ran more hard news pages last year and in the first quarter of this year than either Time or Newsweek.

Still, conventional wisdom held that for hard news the dinosaur couldn't compete. Then came the Persian Gulf War, and despite bomb-to-bomb coverage from other media, newsstand sales for all three magazines soared. (In fact, five of U.S. News' 10 bestselling covers in its history are gulf war issues.) Instead of rehashing events, the news magazines were fitting them into the bigger picture – a mission consistent with the original Lucean precept that a news magazine should not merely report the news but, to some extent, interpret it.

"The gulf war showed that there was a role for us to play, and it was kind of close to the traditional role," says Robert Pondiscio, a Time spokesman. (Unfortunately, Time still had to go through its almost disastrous redesign the following year before the message sank in.)

O ffer V iewpoint As newspapers started to do what the newsweeklies typically did – put four or five staffers onto a single story for several days with some flexible lead time to develop balanced, interpretive reporting – the newsweeklies were forced to go one better. Thus was born the concept of offering the viewpoint of the newsweekly writer, encouraged to speak strongly. Editors wanted definite points of view based, ideally, on the reporting, which writers would do almost entirely on their own instead of having several correspondents feed them facts from the field. The idea was to be every bit as informed and authoritative as before, but also more lively.

"One reporter who genuinely is curious about a subject and is intelligent produces qualitatively a more exciting piece than the old stuff – and with more insight," says a veteran Newsweek writer.

Newsweek's coverage of the Los Angeles earthquake in its January 31, 1994, issue was a novel read, full of ironic and interesting tales of survival. Time's January 17, 1994, cover on the genetic revolution and its intricate details was narrated in a patently celebratory tone. Even U.S. News, which has maintained its longstanding emphasis on a no-nonsense style, features brighter, more reflective, and occasionally even introspective, coverage than its earlier incarnation did – e.g., the December 20, 1993, cover story "Who Was Jesus?" – though the voices and viewpoints tend to be much more restrained than those in Time or Newsweek.

The trade-off is less objectivity, but certainly the myth of pure objectivity was known to be a myth even when journalists were supposedly practicing it. Bruce Porter, who worked at Newsweek in the late 1960s, says, "The slogan used to be: 'Fact, not opinion.' Bullshit. It was just that back then, [opinion] was always masked." Under Luce, Time was at least a bully pulpit, if not house organ, for the Republican right. U.S. News, historically conservative, once editorialized against the civil rights movement.

The difference today is that the viewpoint is less collective or institutional than personal and more openly acknowledged, and Porter thinks "people find it refreshing" to know news magazines have dropped the pretense of operating from an objective point of view. Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, appreciates that the newsweeklies are no longer hiding their biases, but he doesn't approve. "The interpretive flavor of the news magazines is now permeating television news and increasingly the newspapers," he says. "Whether it's..the Style section of the [Washington] Post or [CBS'] 'Eye on America,' it's judgment and interpretation and it's more subjective than the past half century."

K eep U p W ith T rends Nothing represents currency better than spotting and explaining a trend, and all three news magazines try to be ever-vigilant. Of course, often by the time a trend is noticed by the newsweeklies it's nearly been reported to death, but that doesn't mean they can't make a contribution. One of the better examples is U.S. News' cover story last November 8 on guns in schools, a report that drew praise from the San Francisco Examiner. The story is "sadly, not news," the paper stated. "But the magazine does a good job of providing an overview of this increasingly scary and depressing problem, wrapping up in one package what sensationalistic local TV news clips provide in a disconnected, rapid-fire fashion."

Time's August 15 cover story on infidelity examined the issue through an unusual lens. Rather than rounding up the usual suspects – therapists, counselors, straying husbands and wives – for more commonplace observations on the trials of monogamy, the piece looked at human behavior as a function of evolution. As a result, marriage, infidelity, divorce, love and lust were not seen as marital challenges but as a nexus of genetic predispositions often at odds with our conventional ideas of morality.

The key to newsweekly relevance is staying close to the news, says former journalism professor Alfred Balk, and doing a good trend story can be a chance not only to supply perspective, but broaden it. Balk hails Newsweek for its thorough overview on gays in the military when the subject was the focus of heated national debate early last year. "They even had something about how other countries have dealt with the issue" when no other U.S. news organizations were examining that angle, he says.

K eep U p W ith the T imes Gradually the magazine industry as a whole has been nosing around in cyberspace, trying to develop a practical way to exploit online delivery, and the newsweeklies are not about to be left out. With the popularity of home computers and computer bulletin boards, no publisher can really afford to ignore this potential market. Indeed, as a senior publishing executive told USA Today last November, shortly after the future of online generated intense discussion at the 1993 American Magazine Conference, "I don't know of one publishing company that's not doing something or hasn't a group studying or doing some research [into electronic publishing]."

It's one thing to look current by covering computers, as each newsweekly does. It's quite another to offer news online. The text of Time is available through America Online, U.S. News offers text and selected photos and graphics through CompuServe, whileýNewsweek markets a CD-ROM version that includes text, pictures and sound. Staffers at each of the magazines are optimistic. "When it began," says Bill Allman, new media editor at U.S. News, "I felt like a blacksmith watching the first Model-T roll by – 'Oh, no, I'm out of a job!' But there will always be a place for information providers." Balk says online is "the wave of the future in that technology is driving all print media that way."

S potlight S taffers Television network news operations have long known that audiences not only respond to content and presentation, but to the anchors and correspondents who present it. Newsweeklies are now trying to create that kind of audience loyalty by promoting their staff editors and writers as well as outside contributors.

In the past the newsweeklies were largely reported by unknowns. Now, not only is each magazine granting staffers more prominent bylines, they're vying to make them household names by getting them on radio and television issues-and-commentary shows. Newsweek's Eleanor Clift (see Bylines, page 8), U.S. News' Steven Roberts, Time's Margaret Carlson and others have become broadcast fixtures, spouting their opinions on a range of issues, whether they cover them or not.

Each magazine has also augmented its staff with a stable of big-name columnists, such as Michael Kinsley, Charles Krauthammer and Andrew Tobias at Time; Jane Bryant Quinn and George F. Will at Newsweek; and James Fallows and Richard Perle at U.S. News.

The newsweeklies also occasionally contract with a high-profile outside writer and often put the story on the cover – e.g., historian Garry Wills, who has written for both Time and Newsweek.

Finally, Time and Newsweek will commonly publish excerpts from a hot, forthcoming book, such as "All's Fair," the new release by Mary Matalin and James Carville that was hyped on Newsweek's September 12 cover. "It's sensible to run excerpts," says Ed Diamond, "especially from books that are clearly going to become part of the news conversation, like something by [Bob] Woodward or [Henry] Kissinger."

Being relevant doesn't mean being trouble-free. Indeed, providing context has also provided its own set of problems, chief among which is the question: What's the difference between this and plain old editorializing?

"Granted, analysis involves a certain amount of subjective viewing," says Stanley Cloud, former Time Washington bureau chief. "But that is not the same as an editorial, which takes a specific position on a matter of public policy and pushes that position." Newsweek Editor in Chief Rick Smith says, "The key distinction..is that the reporting, and not some preconceived notion, drives the interpretation."

But others aren't so sure. "If Rick had been totally candid with you, I think he'd have said he doesn't know what the clear answer is," says a Newsweek writer. A Time writer says the same fuzziness exists there: "I think we couch [a viewpoint] in language that makes it seem more objective than subjective, but once you add perspective, you add the human element." U.S. News' Ruby and McLoughlin readily concede that the line between context-analysis and editorializing is a blurry one, while Time's chief Gaines says, "It's like pornography. You only know editorializing when you smell it."

Take, for example, the Whitewater coverage in the January 17 issues of Time and Newsweek. The main stories were remarkably similar – a Q&A format that laid out clearly and fairly what were then the important points of the affair. But the opening texts introduced the reader to the facts not much differently from the way editorials do.

From Newsweek: "Here we go again. In yet another example of the Beltway's taste for murky melodrama, a sitting president is being drawn into what would seem to be a major scandal. Remember Watergate? Iran-contra and BCCI? Anyone for another October Surprise? Round up the witnesses, cue the special prosecutor." Doubts that the facts would add up to much were reinforced by a separate piece titled, "Troubled Waters: The president has finally launched a Whitewater counteroffensive, but if he has nothing to hide, why is he so defensive?" It chastised the administration for its sloppy handling of the matter up to that point, but then proceeded to answer its own question with exculpatory speculation: "Part of the explanation may be simple miscommunication."

Time leaned in the other direction: "Why would a lawyer ask the Justice Department to subpoena some of the papers of his own clients – especially if those clients are the president of the U.S. and his wife? White House senior adviser Bruce Lindsey has a simple answer: 'Privacy.' Indeed, subpoenaed papers become part of the record of a criminal investigation, unavailable for release under the Freedom of Information Act and thus shielded more effectively than otherwise from Congress and the press." The final lines: "It may be that the president and his wife are guilty of nothing wrong. All the more reason to agree to have a special counsel conduct a vigorous investigation that is free of any suspicion of bias. Unless that is done, no one will ever really know."

Newsweek's May 2 obituary of Richard Nixon portrayed the former president's character as fundamentally devious with anomalous moments of goodness. Of his entire career the piece concluded, "Watergate may yet be his monument, and it is evidence of a moral myopia that afflicted him all his life."

Time's obituary accentuated the positive, saluting Nixon's determination, stamina and amazing ability to come back from defeat. The tone of the piece was reflected in a summation the direct opposite of Newsweek's: "History will judge Richard Nixon as much more than the Watergate man." The same issue also carried a lengthy excerpt of Nixon's new book.

U.S. News seems to be less opinionated than the other two. Much of the reason may be due to the fact that Mort Zuckerman has preserved the nuts-and-bolts philosophy of reporting prized by founder David Lawrence. Shortly after the purchase there was in-house carping that Zuckerman was imposing his own views on stories involving his areas of interest (the economy, Russia, the Middle East). In recent years, though, the complaints have subsided. "I don't feel any pressure and I don't see any in the news pages," says a reporter who did feel that way in the past.

The story selection process also presents a problem now for all three, in that it seemed to be more evenhanded when the newsweeklies did straight news round-ups. "We are now in a highly selective process of storytelling that chases the headlines somewhat," says a Newsweek editor. "The consequences are that we neglect or take a pass on some stories because we feel we have nothing new to say or we've made a preemptive decision for the reader that there's no interest there for him. At times that's market savvy, and at times that's arrogant." Either way, "the idea now is..to appear to be smarter than events. The illusion isn't events have overtaken you, it's you have overtaken events."

Implicit in this is the danger inherent in encouraging the development of strong, smart-sounding voices to relate those events. "The act of reporting now takes a backseat to a sharp, edgy, wise-guy voice that is sometimes a surrogate for real insight and commentary," the Newsweek editor continues. "In the '80s the biggest sin in journalism was naiveté. In the '90s it's seriousness."

Newsweek's January 31 report on the Los Angeles earthquake was compelling, but it also featured such asides as: "The upper estimates [of damage] include a healthy multiplier for the imponderables of lost business, such as the movies that don't get made because [then Disney executive] Jeffrey Katzenberg is stuck in a traffic jam." The report was followed by commentary from a resident whose sense of irony emerged intact from the rubble: "My friend..and I decided that if we had to live in a tent city, we hoped it would be in Roxbury Park (in Bev Hills where they have croquet games). It would be catered by Wolfgang Puck, the blankets would be handed out by someone from Giorgio's and the water would be some Ramlosa or whatever."

At Time, the offenses are more often found in Chronicles, the front of the book section largely crafted by Kurt Andersen, one of Spy magazine's founding editors, to appeal to the young and the hip. Many issues and events are viewed with a sharp and shrewd eye, but others, like a purported psychological reading of Vice President Al Gore based on the paintings hanging in his home, have more attitude than substance: " 'Marjorie and Little Edmund.' A metaphor for powerlessness? A glum child (a Gore-ish blond!) is dandled on the knee of a large adult..."

Not that entertainment and entertaining writing don't have a place in news reporting. But when voice, tone and point of view become the premiums that they have, one has to wonder occasionally, as the Newsweek editor does: "Are you trivializing the news? Is the news just a permanent sub-branch of entertainment? I guess the answer is yes."

Trend stories also have their drawbacks in that they can sometimes be more wishful reporting than fact. Take the January 17 U.S. News cover story, "The Truth About Violent Crime – What You Really Have to Fear." It was a timely, exhaustive report, but its use of statistics was suspect. The editors stress that the point of the package was to analyze the public's growing fear of violent crime amid recent statistics showing it was decreasing. Says McLoughlin, "That piece was very clear on what the statistics are."

Yes and no. After noting early on the decline in violent incidents – which the piece estimated would total roughly 2 million for 1993 based on one set of official figures – the narrative then pivots on a Justice Department survey that puts the "real" figure "at closer to 6.6 million." A call to the Justice Department reveals an omitted fact, that this higher figure includes threats of violence as well as simple barroom fights and schoolyard brawls. Regardless, the piece marches on with the implication that the true scope of the problem is probably greater than what is being acknowledged or admitted.

ýI don't think we sensationalized the story at all," says Ruby. Perhaps no more than Time or Newsweek has done with their own contributions. Asked whether the latter's January 10 cover story, "Growing Up Scared," stoked people's fears in any way, Newsweek Editor Maynard Parker immediately says no, but then adds, "Well, we may have stoked it, I don't know, but we're trying to get at what people are..concerned about, and clearly one of the things they're concerned about is crime and the perception of violence."

Time's April 25 report on the putative rise of violence in the workplace (directly contradicting a U.S. News claim to the contrary in the above cover package) never mentioned the larger statistics, thereby effectively providing no context for the so-called trend.

"Certainly we're seeing a media drumbeat on the crime problem that bears no relationship to the crime statistics," says Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "You've seen similar things on drugs and other big stories – all trend-type stories – that have later been debunked."

ýs for the topical value of book excerpts, they can also bring the kind of notoriety a magazine would rather not have. The authenticity of a diary excerpted by Newsweek last February 28, that of a young girl's life during the siege of Sarajevo, has been questioned. Time has had second thoughts about having excerpted in its April 25 issue a recent book alleging that a number of America's first atomic scientists passed nuclear secrets to the Soviets. Scholars and historians have attacked the assertion so strongly that Gaines told the Washington Post in late May he wishes he had vetted the excerpt more thoroughly.

Whatever the problems, though, clearly readers and advertisers consider them more the exception than the rule. Combined circulation for all three is more or less holding steady around 9.5 million, despite the fact that total paid circulation dipped slightly for each magazine at the end of 1993 after several quarters of incremental gains. Figure in a conservative pass-along rate of one, and total newsweekly readership probably exceeds 19 million.

While ad pages at Time and Newsweek fell 2.4 percent and 0.3 percent respectively last year, advertisers have hardly turned their backs. "It's a hard time for magazines all around," says Roberta Garfinkle, senior vice president and director of print media for McCann-Erickson. "The news magazine is still a sound investment. No one is walking away from them in droves." Indeed, U.S. News posted a 0.8 percent gain in ad pages last year, coming in ahead of the other two with a total 2,186 pages sold in 1993.

ýard financial figures are available only for Newsweek. According to last year's annual report of its parent corporation, the Washington Post Co., Newsweek's operating revenues for 1993 dropped 4 percent from the previous year, from $347 million to $332ýmillion. The biggest drop was in operating income – 25 percent – from $24 million to $18 million. Over the last five years operating income has been erratic, going from a peak of $28 million to a low of $9 million, but operating revenues have remained somewhat stable.

Though Time is publicly held, figures for specific Time Warner publications are not available. But according to a May 1993 Wall Street Journal article, Time's net profits "fell from about $52 million in 1989 to $29 million in 1991, recovering modestly in 1992." All that spokesman Robert Pondiscio will say is, "The magazine is solidly profitable and has been for a while now." At U.S. News, Zuckerman's policy is not to release hard figures. U.S. News' Publisher Tom Evans says, "The magazine is making money, absolutely." A second source confirms that, saying it's been the case for about the last five years.

More than anything else, it would seem the newsweeklies have consistently shown – at times unwittingly – their best asset to be resilience. As Time once virtually abandoned the news, as Newsweek sometimes seized and dropped stories so fast as to suggest a problem with attention span, as U.S. News once lurched from one bloody misstep to another during the early Zuckerman years, it seemed more and more commonplace to think the newsweekly was headed for the big magazine rack in the sky. That it has not only survived but is to an extent thriving suggests a durability certainly greater than any former doomsayer ever anticipated.

"I've had to eat crow," Edwin Diamond readily admits. "But my later-life wisdom is that all media are additive, not supplanting. Radio didn't make print obsolete, television didn't make radio obsolete, cable didn't make television obsolete, and so on down the information superhighway. The news magazines aren't going anywhere. They're here to stay."

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