Column: Newsweek’s Death: Inevitable and Regrettable

When Newsweek, seen here for sale on Seventh Avenue in New York City, ceases its print publication next year, the clean serendipity offered by a physicial magazine will disappear. (SIPA USA)

When Newsweek, seen here for sale on Seventh Avenue in New York City, ceases its print publication next year, the clean serendipity offered by a physicial magazine will disappear. (SIPA USA)

Two Norwich residents, both retired teachers at Hanover High, are facing an unpleasant change in January — no more Newsweek in print.

“I’m going to miss the photographs, holding them,” said Reeve Williams, who has lived in Norwich for 33 years and taught social studies at the school. He said his wife, Sandie Anderson, who taught French, enjoys making albums from magazine clippings, her own photos and other sources to share with friends. “There’s just something about the physical thing,” he said.

As was announced in October, the physical thing is to become an online-only news source next year, saving millions in the costs of paper, printing and distribution. Whether the earning power of the new entity will allow it to survive even in its electronic form remains very much in question, however, as publishers have found the public loath to pay a dime for general news online. Williams says he’s undecided about subscribing to Newsweek’s online edition, even though it will likely be offered to him for free since his print subscription doesn’t run out till 2014.

I worked in Newsweek’s Columbus Circle offices, in Manhattan, for seven years ending in 2005, poring over proofs on the 15th floor. The magazine has suffered many changes since I left, becoming an appendage of the (staffers heard themselves referred to as NewsBeasts), and under the direction of hotshot editor Tina Brown, trying to get attention with jangling cover stories, all the while growing thinner and weaker. For many ex-staffers, the end has come as a relief; for many of those remaining, the best ending will be to find other jobs.

Even back when the magazine had 3 million subscribers, we saw it coming — wave after wave of technology eroding print, our once-solid base. On the ground floor of our building, the rambling and disheveled Coliseum Books gave way to a discount clothing store and a bank. Our letters department had to cease accepting physical mail after the anthrax scare: emailed letters only would be published. Our old-school copy chief was forever consulting her treasury of reference books, while the rest of us, to one degree or another, used online references. During my time, even the chief found no better and faster source of checking movie facts than the Internet Movie Database,

What are you going to do? However set in your ways, you will adopt a new technology that meets your needs. At Dartmouth’s Hood Museum a few years back, an exhibit on Inuit art and culture made the point that nearly all of that people’s traditional garments and accessories, their slitted, wooden goggles to prevent snow blindness and the ingenious double-thumbed gloves that hunters used while kayaking — you turned the glove over when one thumb got wet — these survived modernity because no modern thing was better. But a rifle, ah, different story.

I still see a place for print journalism, though not continuing to do what Newsweek did so well for many years — gathering news from around the world. The print version of Newsweek finds itself joining the outdated weapons of the Inuit because the Internet is, in fact, the perfect medium for fetching up and blowing bits of news about.

But the Internet is not a simple or a beautiful place, as a magazine can be. Consuming an article online is at best unobtrusively complex. It’s often just tiresome. I wince at the hype about “blazing” download speeds. You always wait for your article to load, then the photos and ads. Contrast that to the clean serendipity of flipping pages of print. And all the while you’re online, you’re being gamed. Every click and keystroke registers, somewhere, another hint of your preferences; ads tailored to those preferences appear on your screen. I admit it doesn’t bother me to give a little piece of my identity away when I read or shop online. But, boy, do I love the feeling of picking up a newspaper or magazine that asks nothing of me but to be enjoyed. The beauty of print is that it just lies there. I buy it, read it, toss it, recycle it or use it for kindling, and nobody’s the wiser but me.

Going back to Reeve Williams’ point, print is nice to hold on to. “I like sharing articles with people, I mean actually handing them a clipping,” Williams said. He called it sociable. “I’m not going to hand them my tablet,” he added.

I remember reading someplace (in print) that when Bill Gates dies, his survivors won’t want to read about it only online. Better would be a big fat article on the front page of The New York Times, followed by a book. Wait ­— that happened already with Steve Jobs.

One news magazine that has enjoyed some success in the Internet age is The Week, a relatively new publication that summarizes articles from other magazines and Web sites. Although it has developed a readership, it produces no news of its own. In that way, it’s the print form of an aggregator site, like Google News.

Media commentator Jon Friedman says the middle class of journalism is dead. That is, the high end of the market, The New Yorker, The Atlantic , are doing OK in print with so-called long-form journalism by catering to a readership that will pay for it. For the magazines that produce short-form news, the business model has tipped forever toward free. So be it. But one last caveat: Online information can be too accessible for our own good. One Friday afternoon at Newsweek, a kid from the mailroom threw some stuff on the copy chief’s desk and said in passing that Bob Hope had died. That was news to us, big news since the editors upstairs might have to remake the cover and find room on an inside page for a copious obit. With the potential arrival of late copy drawing nigh, we girded our loins.

But as the afternoon wore on a conflicting story emerged, and by evening it had all come clear: Someone at the Associated Press had inadvertently posted a prewritten obit of the 95-year-old comedian on a Web page. U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey handed a copy of the article to Rep. Bob Stump, who said from the House floor, “with great sadness, I announce that Bob Hope is dead.” Soon a reporter was on the phone with Hope’s daughter Linda for details. She reported that her father was at home having breakfast. A spokesman for Hope later said he roared with laughter. (The comedian lived five more years.)

At Newsweek, meanwhile, the same kid came by to tell us the announcement was all a mistake. We were relieved. Thank God it didn’t get into print.

Joe Applegate, former night editor at the Valley News, now lives in Brooklyn where he is on the light and sound crew of the Heights Players’ production of Miracle on 34th Street.