Special to The Bee
Holding the last print issue of Newsweek in my hands felt like holding the hand of a friend who was dying. Newsweek, the magazine, was gone. It will now change to an all-digital format accessible only online.
Many of us may have once had a subscription to either Newsweek or Time. In the 1980s, Newsweek’s circulation reached 3 million and as recently as 2003, 4 million issues were still published worldwide, before the rapid decline to 1.5 million in 2010.
My parents had a subscription. I remember it tossed on a coffee table or sitting in the bathroom. We had access to it at the library or the waiting room of our dentist. Often this was news you digested while waiting. Ironically, now news waits for no one.
In the last print issue, Newsweek describes its work as “group journalism.” It describes how news was covered, behind-the-scenes meetings about how to best cover a story, divide the work among reporters, photographers, layout editors and designers. It described the process as “the first rough draft of history.”
Contrast that with modern news and the race to break the story even if details are wrong. Recall the misinformation of the Sandy Hook school shootings: The shooter’s initial identification was wrong, as was the connection of the mother with the school.
Today, there’s no time for group discussion and verification from multiple sources; news is no longer about drafts but about the immediate.
The old print version of Newsweek falls prey to the cult of instant news. Likewise, we readers lose the culture of the shared story.
I can remember engaging in conversations about major news events. I was informed via multiple sources, typically first heard on the radio and television, then in newspapers and later in news magazines. These provided a tiered approach: We grew informed over time and were allowed to process the details and sort them out. We could reflect before another wave of information showered down. My mind likes working on a weekly basis; I’m given enough time to digest and ask questions, to ponder and challenge.
Good stories teach and expose us to new ideas and perspectives. We make sense of experience gradually, connecting the authentic and rich details. When stories work, audiences engage in a shared experience; we connect with others. Armed with a commonality, we as a community, region and nation move forward.
I can recall first reading about the struggle for civil rights in Newsweek. The South could have been on another planet; the racism seemed distant and unimaginable. Yet, the stories gradually resonated with my own family’s history – Japanese Americans judged by the color of their skin. The images of poverty and discrimination were not that foreign to our Valley.
A quiet conversation brewed across the land, first as whispers as we weekly witnessed the black-and-white photographs of church bombings, beatings, marches. The power of that story could not be denied; we gained an emotional understanding, a comprehension of history unfolding before us. Soon, we were part of a national conversation.
A weekly, in-depth magazine had the time to probe into the depth of a story and deliver it into our doctors’ offices and mail it to our homes. A great story – with images, interviews and opinion, could transform experiences. A farm boy who was born in Selma in Fresno County could find common ground with a march for equality in another town in Alabama named Selma. The distances between people disappeared with a great news story. We shared a common metaphor, a cognitive map of life.
Of course, at times Newsweek and other major media institutions had too much power and control of information. Some will claim the media woke up much too late to the tragedy of racism. Also, in 1970, a major lawsuit was filed against Newsweek – a gender discrimination case against the white male lords of the news.
The covers of Newsweek have always told the week’s story. The first issue in 1933 had images of FDR’s election, the Great Depression and Hitler. The cover of the last print issue was a stark black-and-white image of New York’s skyline and the old Newsweek offices.
Perhaps part of me still sees the world in black and white, a nostalgic look into my past and the glory days of newspapers, weekly magazines and the birth of black-and-white TV. Today, with iPods, smartphones and earbuds, so much more of the world seems to target the individual.
The days of the village storyteller may be over as I have witnessed the rise and fall of a news empire. Perhaps I’m a little too old to handle the information overload available today. I can’t process it all, and I find myself guilty of a journalism of affirmation: reading and listening to others who share my beliefs and perspectives.
I still enjoy reading hard copy and having time for reflection; I try to ignore the next avalanche of news that screams across my iPad or iPhone. New digital opportunities await online, but I miss the simple statement made by a magazine cover. Give me a few days to grasp the death of the last print issue of Newsweek. Maybe a week is just about the right time.