Days-Old News, Competently Delivered

Media Reviews for Media People: Dobrow on Newsweek

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MediaWorks is happy to widen our pool of staffers for Media Reviews for Media People with Larry Dobrow, who plans to write about any darn thing he likes -- or doesn't. Feel free to send him suggestions. This week, Larry returns to the valley of the newsweeklies.
You know precisely what you're going to get when you crack open an issue: the 'news' of the 'week,' presented in a linear manner.
You know precisely what you're going to get when you crack open an issue: the 'news' of the 'week,' presented in a linear manner.

I'm a bit sluggish today, having stayed up late last night finishing Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." For the uninitiated, the novel is exactly like "High School Musical" but with fewer day-glo outfits and more ashy post-apocalypse cannibalism. I awoke this morning still rattled by the book's dark view of humankind's survival instincts, my faith in our general decency scuffed. I should probably stick to lighter before-bed fare, such as Nora Roberts or Cinemax.

Fortunately, today's subject, Newsweek, doesn't demand much intellectual heavy lifting. Over the years, the mag has stuck to a simple formula: mixing a days-after review of the headlines with airy lifestyle fare. If something happens, Newsweek writes about it. Creativity rarely enters into the equation.

That sounds like a knock, which it isn't. Indeed, there's a lot to be said for clarity of mission and execution, especially in this era of media diversamafragmentasaturation. Newsweek is nothing if not straightforward. You know precisely what you're going to get when you crack open an issue: the "news" of the "week," presented in a linear manner.

Most of what the mag does well is on proud display in the Dec. 17 issue, headlined by newly anointed Republican presidential front-runner Mike Huckabee. It's hard to think of a subject more in the mag's crosshairs. Religion and politics? That's newsweekly-cover nirvana.

The report on Huckabee's rise and beliefs is exquisitely reported, presenting the most comprehensive take on the candidate that I've seen. Elsewhere, a story on adoptions gone sour packs some emotional wallop, courtesy of a jailhouse visit with a mother who cracked under the strain of parenthood. The lifestyle content -- tips on holiday photo taking, feature/review combos for six upcoming films, an oddly compelling item on personal items salvaged from the attic of a former insane asylum -- nicely counterbalances the political material.

Here's the thing, though: There's nothing here I can't find anywhere else, usually a few days earlier. The "Periscope" bits on Iran nukes and destroyed torture tapes, the "Perspective" quotes and cartoons, the "Newsmakers" blurbs (Patti LaBelle?) -- by the time Newsweek reaches most readers, they're all stale. Even sporadically informed nitwits like me can't help but encounter much of this material during a casual web walkabout.

Perhaps in response to this, Newsweek has bulked up its columnist arsenal in recent months. The thinking seems to be this: If we no longer can be the first news guy on the scene, we'll be the one who provides the context for what readers have already heard. That makes sense in theory, but for the teensy detail that Newsweek lacks a true must-read columnist. While I consider Daniel Gross to be one of the most thoughtful writers around, I rarely find myself thinking, "OK, I want his take on so-and-so event now," as I do with a handful of web pundits.

So I don't need Newsweek for think pieces; The Economist has me covered in that regard. I don't need Newsweek for news; The New York Times' website and take care of that. I don't need Newsweek for wrap-up or analysis; viva The Week. What, then, do I need Newsweek for? Maybe to keep me company in waiting rooms, assuming my doctor/masseuse/parole officer's subscription is up to date.

Meanwhile, this comment isn't specific to Newsweek, but I'll air it anyway: Magazines oughta lay off on the please-please-pretty-please-visit-our-website appeals. In the Dec. 17 issue, Newsweek devotes a full page to the site's content, including a story-popularity index. It also urges readers to check out, among other things, Dennis Lehane's ruminations on literature, clips from an interview with Ron Paul, a celeb-newsmakers video and a "web-exclusive video report on international affairs." Web-exclusive? Where the hell else are they going to run a video?

It's all too much. If Newsweek feels the need to shove me towards its perfectly OK site, it should raise the stakes a bit, a la "If you don't visit five times a day, we'll encourage George Will to write about baseball again." Heck, that might prompt me to make my home page.

Moving on, the mag boasts an odd mix of advertisers, with a handful of car brands (Toyota, Chevrolet, Honda, Ford) and financial-services firms (Discovery, Visa, Bank of America) but none from magazine mainstays such as cellphone marketers. Given Newsweek's all-things-for-all-people thrust, few companies wouldn't fit in here -- maybe video games or similarly youth-leaning pursuits. But again, readers rush out to their mailboxes to devour the new issues of enthusiast titles such as Surfer, Harp or Fine Homebuilding, and advertisers likely enjoy some kind of halo effect. Does anyone wait with bated breath for Newsweek to arrive?

I don't subscribe to the theory that newsweeklies are a relic of the past. Just because I go foraging for information every 11 seconds during the workday doesn't mean there aren't plenty of others who like their news served up in a handsome little weekly bundle. But to web crawlers and other need-to-know sorts, Newsweek no longer serves much of a purpose, and it's those readers who marketers want to cozy up to.

I wish I felt more strongly about Newsweek, either pro or con. Not to damn it with faint praise, but it's a nice magazine, and I respect its general competence. That's all.
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