Into The Fray
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
T HE RECENT STORY of the Iowa septuplets illustrates the news values clash. Time and Newsweek both splashed the babies' parents, Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey, on their December 1 covers. Time gave the story 13 pages, Newsweek nine. U.S. News may look as if it passed on the story. On its December 1 cover is a photo illustration for a story on the latest high-tech developments Americans can expect and how their lives may change. On page 14, under the heading "People in the News," is a three-paragraph story about the first septuplets ever born alive in the United States.
"As a rule, I'm happy when Time and Newsweek have the same thing on their cover and we do something else," Fallows said during an interview with AJR the week his rivals played up the septuplet saga. He had been in Norway the previous week and had played no role in the decision.
Bernstein, who edited the section where the brief septuplet story appeared, says, "The truth is we hit the high points. Do I think we made the wrong decision? No, I think we made a different decision."
A U.S. News staffer, however, comments, "Seemed to me it was an excellent opportunity for us to give it a good U.S. News treatment, that is, examining the science of fertility drugs, etc.... If it was such a dried-up story, how could Time and Newsweek put it on the cover? It appears they found something to say."
While the story illustrates a clash in news values, it also points to why one even exists.
"If you assume your readers are well-read, which we do, do you want to bring them the same analysis they've already heard?" asks Bernstein. "Or give them something they haven't seen before? Re-reporting what was on the front page of the New York Times does not make people smarter."
(Bernstein left U.S. News in December to join Content, Steven Brill's new magazine about the news media. But, she stresses, she made the move because she wanted to be part of a start-up, not because of any dissatisfaction with U.S. News.)
U.S. News has a circulation of 2.2 million and reaches an audience of 12 million. Not all U.S. News subscribers read the front page stories in the New York Times and Washington Post, which examined the identical issues Time and Newsweek did, such as other families with multiple children and misuse of fertility drugs.
U.S. News thinks of itself as being different from Time and Newsweek. Its franchise is personal service journalism and investigative reporting. "News You Can Use" was ridiculed when it debuted a decade ago; now it is often imitated, as are the annual guides to colleges, graduate schools, hospitals and doctors. The magazine believes U.S. News readers are a bit more serious than Time or Newsweek readers.
Newsweeklies once had a clear mission. In the 1940s and 1950s, Americans depended on them to summarize what had happened the previous week. But since the 1970s the role of a weekly news magazine has become uncertain, especially after CNN altered the missions of other media.
Before CNN, Americans got the headlines from newspapers, radio and the evening television news. Analysis and context were the exclusive bailiwick of the newsweekly. But once Americans started getting news instantaneously, newspapers were forced to recast their front pages. More newspapers began cutting into newsweekly turf by writing analytical stories that put news events in context.
U.S. News, like its rivals, is constantly trying to figure out what it wants to be. Does it want to just give the news that happened the past week?
Does it want to provide context and analysis but risk repeating what's already appeared in the New York Times? Does it want to anticipate what might happen in the future? Does it want to break news? Does it want to do only explanatory journalism or investigative journalism or focus more on personal service journalism? Or does it want to do more reflective pieces on big-think issues?
"It's not clear what news magazines should be anymore," says Easterbrook, formerly a regular contributor to Newsweek. "The whole question of what a news magazine should be in the age of television is unresolvable."
"It's a definite challenge in a news environment where consumers have so many alternatives," says Christopher Orr, deputy national editor, who joined U.S. News in July after five years as an editor at Mother Jones. "The challenge is to have the timeliness expected of the news magazines with some of the depth of monthly magazines."
And it's clear Fallows wrestles every day with the question of what U.S. News should be. He accepts he has certain personal tastes and expectations, and even beliefs that he espoused in his book, which are sometimes hard to reconcile with his responsibilities running a news magazine. But he did not set out to turn Mort Zuckerman's magazine into "The World According to Fallows."
"If I have to choose between being exactly consistent with my previous life and doing what's best for the magazine, there's no choice. It's what's best for the magazine," he says. "I was not hired to make this my soapbox. I was hired to make the magazine better. A large circulation magazine with 10 million-plus readers requires a range of stories I might not have done."
Fallows, who has shown disdain for celebrity-oriented journalism, was compelled to put Princess Diana on the cover after her death. While the magazine sent no one on staff to London to cover the funeral, it reported on the spectacle and thoughtfully examined why women were so attracted to the story of Diana's life and how the public might better like the press if it had a deeper, clearer understanding of how reporters do their jobs.
"You could see the pain in Jim's face when he saw that Princess Diana was one of our bestselling issues," says Darlin, assistant managing editor for News You Can Use. "And not because of the stories themselves but because of who was on the cover." In fact, the Diana cover of September 15, 1997, was U.S. News' largest newsstand seller in the last 15 years.
"The biggest adjustment for Fallows," says Business & Technology editor Impoco, "is how to respond to a breaking story he would have otherwise happily ignored. I don't think Fallows would have been tremendously exercised about Princess Diana's death."
B UT THERE ARE COVER stories that Fallows clearly delights in, stories that reflect his philosophy of what journalism should be. During an interview, Fallows walked over to a wall in his office that features every cover that's appeared since he arrived. "This is the show-and-tell part," he said as he ticked off covers and stories he sees as successes. One of his favorites is a well-written, informative piece on the economics of pornography that appeared in February. While the author, Eric Schlosser, fully depicts the sleazy world, he does so without sensationalizing. He makes the point that you may think the tacky guy with the gold chains hawking nude dancers is the epitome of the porn world, but the real beneficiaries are long-distance carriers that carry phone sex, cable companies that broadcast porn flicks, luxury hotels that show adult films and mom and pop video stores that stock the porn movies Blockbuster refuses to rent.###
Fallows points to an El Nino cover that had been in the works but was rushed into print a week early after a hurricane pummeled Southern California. The story had several "last weeks" in it. He touts the "What Now for Investors?" cover after stocks plummeted in late October, as well as an examination of Microsoft right after the Justice Department's allegations of antitrust violations. "Not any of these articles makes you say, 'Oh, geez, this is Tolstoy being reborn,' " he says. "But they are better than the competition."
New recruit Brownstein also intends to write off of the news. "My strength has always been an analytical bent, but I believe you have to do it in a way that's attached to the news. You have to attack subjects that people are thinking about, but you have to have the creativity to do it in a different way."
Newsweek, says Brownstein, has become more of a hip, popular culture-oriented magazine, while Time focuses more on breaking news. "U.S. News has a very analytical bent," says Brownstein. "Somewhere in all of that is a golden mean."
But there's often bitter debate as to where that golden mean lies. The internal conflict over news versus analysis came to a head after the September 22 cover, which featured a closeup of 85-year-old Julia Child surrounded by vegetables. The story presented Child as a cultural icon largely responsible for the increasingly sophisticated eating habits of Americans. Its news peg appeared to be a biography of Child by Noel Riley Fitch, whose name the magazine got wrong (it called him Finch). "Yet Julia Child did more than change the way Americans relate to food," wrote freelance writer Karen Lehrman. "She also changed the way Americans relate to women." Elitist attitudes about food contribute, says the article, to "the almost tribal sense of class division that plagues American life."
The article caused an uproar within the magazine. The cover and the story line were so "un-U.S. News." The article itself, say some, was elitist: Not all of America has forsaken iceberg lettuce for radicchio. "I think a good magazine is constantly balancing two impulses," says Fallows. "One is to have a clear approach. The other is to try new things. I thought the article itself was good, attractively presented. Some people didn't like it. That's life."
Many didn't like it. "A confluence of people who thought their ideas were not getting attention, or that not enough stories were being written off the news, were pissed about that cover," says one staffer.
For the staff, the "softball" cover came to symbolize internal angst. "The story was Julia Child as a cultural force," says Amy Bernstein. "I question whether the writer proved that. I think since then we've become much more news-focused."
It's easier to chronicle the gripes than to find an accurate way to measure the magazine's progress. To Business & Technology editor Jim Impoco the magazine is smarter, sharper and more energetic. To investigative reporter Edward Pound, who left a year ago after nearly four years at U.S. News, "It's not even close to as good as it had been.... Under Mike and Mimi, we broke stories. We were out there giving readers strong investigative pieces. They still have a good investigative staff there. But they're not getting the support they need."
Says Eric Alterman, a media critic for the Nation who teaches media studies at Hofstra University, "I like the idea of writing about what matters and what's important rather than what happened last night or last week. I like the idea that Fallows is saying, 'Here's why this is important,' as opposed to just competing with other reporters to get some significant factoid. But I do think there are lots of problems with the execution, and I just don't know how committed Zuckerman is. I'm sure you've heard the metaphor of the ocean liner. Turning it around takes a long time."
But there's little doubt that the editor has raised the profile of U.S. News. "There is certainly a heightened interest in the magazine because people are interested in Jim," says Publisher Thomas R. Evans. "We benefit from having Jim Fallows and the attention drawn to the magazine because of him."
The way Evans measures success: The magazine carried 130 more advertising pages through November than it did during the same period the year before, without increasing the number of discounted pages. Ad revenues are up 8 percent. Paid circulation remains 2.2 million. But another way magazines judge their success is by readership (some copies are read by multiple readers). Readership rose 15 percent between April 1997 and October 1997, according to Mediamark Research Inc.
What Evans can't answer is how much one can attribute the increase in ad pages and additional readers to Fallows' leadership and how much to the healthy economy. Other magazines also are doing better. Nevertheless, he says, "I do think Jim Fallows, the persona, has had a significant effect on U.S. News."
The very notion of "Jim Fallows, the persona" would no doubt make Jim Fallows, the person, ill. As arrogant as Fallows may appear, and some think he's a major egomaniac, he's also a person with strong beliefs and the intellect to support them, and he is sensitive to the criticism. Nonetheless, Jim Fallows is someone many journalists love to hate, largely because of his book. Last year The Weekly Standard published a parody, "The Sayings of Archbishop James." Also known, unaffectionately, as "the rector of American Journalism," many think Fallows has a sanctimonious streak, a kind of "Jim Knows Best" attitude. Fallows says that's not the case, yet seems totally at a loss as to how to dispel the notion.
His mentor, Charlie Peters, has a theory about why Fallows is such a lightning rod for criticism from his peers. "Jim has never been one of them," says Peters. "I think nothing makes the meritocratic elite more nervous than being pissed upon by someone who may rank higher in that elite than they do."
Taking down Fallows a notch may be sport for some, but it's ultimately less important than paying attention to what he's trying to do with the magazine he's running. And that's evolving. He has spent 16 months in newsweekly boot camp and has come to look at the news somewhat differently.
"We're trying to put a little bit of the hack in him," Impoco says. "Usually we try to put a forward spin on a story. What is it we can do to advance a story that Peter Jennings is talking about? Jim understands this, but there's no substitute for experience. It took him a while to get used to the process and us to get used to tougher writing standards. We all joke about how we're growing in office."