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What killed ‘Newsweek’?

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.

“And of course under Jack Kroll and then under me, it produced reams of weekly coverage of the arts, second only in space to National Affairs and far more than Time did (as Robert Hughes used to enviously point out).

“Toward the end of the '70s, the magazine felt a need to re-invent itself. There was a conference of top editors to discuss ‘the future of the newsmagazine,’ and essentially it came down to two paths: 1) grow somewhat smaller and more serious, becoming an American version of The Economist; or 2) become more mainstream and popular, a kind of People with a Washington slant. It took the second route and began a long decline.

“It more frequently followed the trends and topics of the popular culture (including the political culture) and stopped leading the culture, breaking less new ground, becoming content to echo and reinforce what was already familiar. Its coverage of serious culture dwindled to a shadow. Never would it have put on its cover (as we did) such subjects as George Balanchine, V.S. Naipaul, Beverly Sills, Joyce Carol Oates, Vanessa Redgrave, Harold Pinter, Toni Morrison, Jasper Johns, Figurative Art, John Cheever, Luciano Pavarotti, Itzahk Perlman, and Vladimir Horowitz.

“In the case of the Naipaul cover, which I wrote, I remember a furious discussion over what I felt was our obligation to occasionally introduce a serious literary subject like Naipaul, instead of that week's rival subject — video games. A few years later, video games would have won hands down.

“I watched sadly (along with others of my era) as Newsweek gradually lost its authority as a ‘newsmaker,’ its sense of adventure. Conspicuously, the magazine's appearance, style, and substance reflected this decline — the diminished length of stories and greater use of pictures, the cluttered layouts, the jolting typefaces, the general middlebrow crassness.

“Occasionally, the magazine would pull off an interesting quasi-scoop and a story worth reading, but at least in my New York circles, it was no longer a must-read. It retained its relevance in Washington as a major vehicle for political news, but became irrelevant to the culture at large.

“The Washington Post's ownership of Newsweek (engineered by Phil Graham) was never a happy fit; the Post and Katherine Graham resented what they perceived as a ‘New York’ disdain for Washington grubbiness, regarding us as something of a an upstart stepchild. Newsweek never had a really strong voice in the Washington Post Company. All this, of course, was in contrast to Time, which (while not exactly flourishing) enjoyed its position as the flagship publication in a great family of magazines, all published in New York.

“And of course the end was accelerated by the rise of the 24-hour news cycle, the proliferation of news on the Internet, the disappearance of ‘authority’ throughout the media as cacophony crescendoed and the rabble roared. There simply was no more room for a magazine like Newsweek — and now we'll see how long Time maintains its print edition. “Meanwhile, of course, The Economist sticks to its guns and flourishes as never before. It is now, by far, the best ‘American’ newsmagazine.”

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