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What killed 'Newsweek'?

A former editor describes what made the magazine hot, and how a loss of confidence in leading America's middle class culture brought the magazine down.

Culture for a mass audience, once upon a time.

Culture for a mass audience, once upon a time.

Charles Michener, editor, music critic, and "Newsweek" alum

Charles Michener, editor, music critic, and "Newsweek" alum

For all the pandering to “the middle class” by presidential candidates, where is the concern for middle class culture? I was reminded of the way this culture has shriveled by news that Newsweek, a former bastion of middle class and national aspiration, is ceasing print publication in December.

You could make an argument that one reason the middle class is so stressed these days, in addition to income polarization and the loss of housing equity, is that middle class culture “don’t get no respect.” The 1960s revolutions were hard on bourgeois, square values and then the counter-culture was turned by advertising agencies into mainstream culture.

Out went middlebrow culture, with its accessible techniques and uplifting American themes, endangering the magazines that catered to this broad taste — institutions such as the Saturday Review of Literature, Life, Look, Time, Newsweek and The New Yorker. The attack came from highbrows such as Virginia Woolf, who deplored middlebrow culture as more about doing what was socially expected than true appreciation of art. Dwight MacDonald’s famous attack on midcult deplored the way it imitates and adulterates high culture.

Fair points, to be sure. But for many years in American culture, the middle class was not written off, and figures such as Leonard Bernstein and Robert Frost and Arthur Miller were valued for the way they could speak to large populations and yet remain true to high art. The great exemplar, of course, is Shakespeare.

Magazines like Newsweek catered to this market of culturally aspiring middle classes, just as they tried to bring them along with social and political change such as race relations and urban values. When metropolitan newspapers had the funds, they too paid attention to culture, translating high art into relevant terms for large audiences. There was a sense, each week, that the American adventure made sense, was permeated with values and larger uplifting narratives.

Now to be middle class is to be devalued, conflicted (as in David Brooks’ famous portrait of boomers as Bo-Bo’s, half bourgeois and half bohemian), or consigned to Mencken’s “booboisie.”

Magazines, with their lush photos and wishful worlds of beautiful people and fine homes, cater to the aspirations of the broad (and sometimes upper) middle class. That’s one reason advertisers like their glossy moods. But they also speak to the higher aspirations of such readers, or at least they did when publishers and editors pushed them in this direction. Newsweek was a classic example.

I broke into journalism on the magazine side, working for the wonderful magazine published by King Broadcasting in the Stimson Bullitt years, Seattle Magazine. One of my colleagues there was Charles Michener, who, as it happened, left to go work for Newseek when it was a very hot magazine. I got in touch with Charles, now living in his native Cleveland, to get his take on the passing of the print version of Newsweek. Here’s what he wrote.

“I have sad thoughts about Newsweek, but I saw the end coming a long time ago. As you may recall, I was there during its heyday in the 1970s and early '80s. Newsweek was then the ‘hot’ magazine in NYC. It was the upstart among the three newsmagazines, which was its appropriate role in light of Time's ‘ownership’ of the franchise.

Newsweek pioneered in the use of bylines by the writers — reinforcing the magazine's heterodox nature, its more freewheeling, less formulaic, more opinionated aura. Years earlier it had introduced weekly columns, and they were a sensible, diverse bunch (Stewart Alsop, Robert Samuelson, George Will, Shana Alexander, Meg Greenfield, etc.). Newsweek was (somewhat grudgingly) ahead in its promotion of women editors and writers (see Lynn Povich's new book on the subject). Its special largely single-subject issues (‘The Arts in America,’ ‘Criminal Justice in America,’ etc.) were bold and novel at the time. It had superb foreign bureaus.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 9:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Used to love Newsweek and preferred it to Time. Now it is the opposite. Newsweek was declining but the Daily Beast pushed it downhill faster.

Rhonwyn

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 9:21 a.m. Inappropriate

There is real value in reading the insightful, clear, well-written thoughts of Michener. There are many avenues of thought to wander within the broader context of a changing American social landscape, and a struggling media closer to home. Thank you for the great story.

tom_hyde

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 9:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Newsweek spiked the Monica Lewinsky story; Matt Drudge ran with it. Newsweek was sold for $1.00; Drudge is worth millions. Party like it's 1998 when Newsweek began to die.

animalal

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

What killed Newsweek?
Newsminute.

BlueLight

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 11:26 a.m. Inappropriate

I signed-up online for a free subscription to News week several years ago. Still receiving it every week. Strange business model, free subscriptions.

Posted Tue, Oct 23, 3:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Kudos to Mr. Brewster and Mr. Michener for their thoughtfully detailed analysis of the demise of a once-great news magazine.

I was in Manhattan during the heyday of Newsweek, which along with Paris-Match published my iconic photo of the 1967 Tompkins Park riot. (See http://lorenbliss.typepad.com/loren-bliss-outside-agitators-notebook/2011/05/suppressed-history-1967-memorial-day-police-riot-in-tompkins-park-.html)

Hence I join Mr. Brewster and Mr. Michener in mourning the publication's long and painfully slow death.

That said, the Newsweek report is precisely the sort of journalism that makes Crosscut so vital.

Posted Fri, Oct 26, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Two points-

First- the middle class itself has been vanishing, due to the republican economic policies. For the last 30 years, we have had wage stagnation in the traditional occupations that are stepping stones to the middle class- blue collar jobs, government jobs, trades, manufacturing, and service jobs.

In 1970, it was possible to buy a car, a house, and, yes, subscribe to Newsweek on the salary of a welder or a waitress

That is clearly not true anymore.

Second- there is still a thriving "middle class culture"- if you define that as the culture of the majority of americans. It exists in many media- its just not the refined, sophisticated, polite whitewash that Mr. Brewster remembers from the 60's.
The current equivalent of middle class culture is clearly Reality TV, Oprah, Facebook, Lil Wayne, and Twitter.

Ries

Posted Mon, Oct 29, 9:51 a.m. Inappropriate

I have read it for years especially for the editorial articles. I guess I will have more time now for the Economist magazine which takes a bit more time and thought to read. Maybe I will be smarter than ever.

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