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The Beginning of the End

Opinion | October 29, 2012

“We are transitioning Newsweek, not saying goodbye to it.”

Newsweek editor-in-chief Tina Brown wrote these words on the heels of the announcement that, after 80 years in circulation, the magazine was discontinuing its print publication in favor of a purely digital format starting in early 2013. The move doesn’t come as a total surprise; weekly news magazines in general have been struggling significantly in recent years. In fact, other news publications, including U.S. News & World Report, have abandoned the print format altogether, except for special editions such as school rankings issues.

There has been an overt paradigm shift in the way that audiences interact with information. Personal computers, tablets, and smartphones have combined with social networking platforms to create an alternative medium for news. People don’t want to wait a whole week to hear about the latest issue; they want to be in the loop at all times—and because of technology, they can be. Newsweek’s decision to completely digitize its publication only perpetuates the notion that we are all part of the growing trend from print to online news, and that there is little we can do about it.

It was difficult for me not to cringe at Newsweek’s fate. I enjoy my magazines in print, and reading them on the Kindle or iPad just seems plain awkward. I hate the fact that carrying a physical copy of The New York Times will eventually become an anachronistic practice. But to me, the decline of print media is inevitable; and it isn’t even the biggest issue raised from this announcement.

Newsweek was once heralded for its comprehensive coverage of polarizing issues. It was known for consistently exhibiting depth and significance in all of its featured stories, including owning the coverage of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. But in recent years, it has undoubtedly struggled. In 2010, the Washington Post Company infamously sold Newsweek to the late stereo mogul Sidney Harmon for just a dollar in return for also transferring its $47 million debt. Its circulation has dropped by more than 50% since 2007, and its troubles forced them to merge with The Daily Beast website in November 2010.

Critics have pointed out that Brown, as editor-in-chief, has taken Newsweek in a more sensationalist direction similar to its sister publication The Daily Beast. Publishing cover articles calling Obama the “first gay president” and hiring conservative pundits such as Niall Ferguson to make incendiary remarks about the president drew more backlash than anything else. Moves like these created a public impression that the magazine was more focused on making biased and misleading claims for the sake of creating buzz, than on reporting factual information. And to a degree, the criticism is understandable. Brown has been fighting an uphill battle in an industry going through a financial—and creative—drought.

The real issue raised by Newsweek’s decision is one of quality journalism. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if I’m reading the news in print or online. What matters is that magazines like Newsweek are able to report to the public meaningful and relevant articles without settling for controversial or sensationalist issues simply to generate more viewership.

The new all-digital format is a much-needed change of scenery for Newsweek. It can incorporate the current vigor and energy of The Daily Beast and eliminate trivial articles focused on the Casey Anthony trial or “Pippa on her famous bottom.” We have plenty of sources of entertainment; journalism doesn’t need to be one of them.

There is clearly a sense of reluctance that permeates throughout the publications industry when it comes to abandoning the print format for a completely digital one; if there weren’t, they would have done it already. With this new direction, however, Newsweek can set the benchmark for its competitors. It is estimated that the company will save about $40 million annually with its new business model. Hopefully this means that it escapes financial turbulence so that it can focus more on being a reliable source of breaking news; one that brings a fresh perspective, catered to the digital age.

All due respect to Brown, but maybe we are saying goodbye to Newsweek as we know it. And maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.