NEW YORK ––There was a time when the newsweeklies set the agenda for the nation’s conversation – when Time and Newsweek would digest the events of the week and Americans would wait by their mailboxes to see what was on the covers.
Those days have passed, and come the end of the year, the print edition of Newsweek will pass, too. Cause of death: The march of time.
“The tempo of the news and the Web have completely overtaken the news magazines,” said Stephen G. Smith, the editor of the Washington Examiner and the holder of an unprecedented newsweekly triple crown – nation editor at Time, editor of U.S. News and World Report, and executive editor of Newsweek from 1986 to 1991.
Where once readers were content to sit back and wait for tempered accounts of domestic and foreign events, they now can find much of what they need almost instantaneously, on their smartphones and tablet computers. Where once advertisers had limited places to spend their dollars to reach national audiences, they now have seemingly unlimited alternatives.
So on Thursday, when Newsweek’s current owners announced they intended to halt print publication and expand the magazine’s Web presence, there was little surprise. But there was a good deal of nostalgia for what Smith called “the shared conversation that the nation used to have,” when the networks, the newsweeklies and a few national newspapers reigned.
Newsweek – or as it was originally called, News-week – came along in 1933. The magazine sold for 10 cents and was advertised as “an indispensable complement to newspaper reading, because it explains, expounds, clarifies.”
The magazine struggled for four years, until it merged with another magazine, Today, lost the hyphen, and emerged under the ownership of Averill Harriman and Vincent Astor, two of the country’s wealthiest men.
The modern era at Newsweek began in 1961, when it was purchased by the Washington Post Co. Benjamin Bradlee, who was Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief at the time and later executive editor of the Post, helped negotiate the sale.
Newsweek often struggled over the years, and the Post sold it to stereo equipment magnate Sidney Harman in 2010 for $1. He died the next year, but not before the magazine was joined to The Daily Beast Web operation.
The cost of maintaining a network of correspondents has risen dramatically, along with the costs of printing and postage. Meanwhile, Newsweek’s circulation dropped from 3.14 million in 2000 to 1.5 million in 2012. Time, too, has dropped, but not as precipitously, from 4.2 million in 1997 to 3.38 million now.
Other newsweeklies have done better: The Economist, with its upscale readership, went from less than 1 million in 2000 to 1.5 million in 2012, and The Week also has made gains.
Regardless, it is clear that the golden age of newsweeklies will not return.
Edward Kosner, who worked at Newsweek from 1963 to 1979, ending as executive editor, recalled a time when there might be a presidential debate on a Tuesday night, and his readers would eagerly await the arrival of the next issue of Newsweek – five days later – to find out the story behind the story, to hear what the newsmagazine had to say about what had happened. Now, he says, they merely go to CNN, or log on to Slate.
“Time marches on,” he said.
But for how long?