REAL TIMES MEDIA)—If you were a kid in the late ’80s or early ’90s who spent their summer watching television, there are few things you remember. Hours of game shows, soap operas and Donovan Freberg. Trust me, you know who Donovan Freberg was. He was the blonde-haired kid with glasses who did all of those commercials for encyclopedia Britannica from ’89 to ’93 where he talked to the narrator about having to do a book report on “space.”
If you were a kid back then, you only had a few choices when it came to do a book report. If your parents had money you could pull out the old Encyclopedia Britannica like Donovan, or maybe you could go to a local library if you had one in your neighborhood. However, if you were one of those kids who thought you might go to college one day, you turned to Newsweek, the book report magazine of choice for youthful generation Xers. The recent announcement that Newsweek is broke and has to be sold, signals the end of an era, not just for people in my generation but for much of the press industry in this country.
After years of hemorrhaging cash, it was announced last week that Newsweek would have to be sold or likely stop publication within the year. Ironically the key issue isn’t readership, since the magazine has remained relatively stable over the last several years, but advertisers, who have been fleeing from glossy magazines like rats from a sinking ship over the last decade.
Many political commentators and journalists have been lamenting the end of the magazine industry as that final warning shot that all of the publishing industry is going to hell in a handbasket, with newspapers, dailies, weeklies and monthlies on their last leg. As shocking as it is to see Newsweek go down, it doesn’t immediately follow that the entire industry is in as dire straits as some would say. In the case of mainstream newspapers and magazines especially those that focus specifically on news they are in many ways victims of their own success. One of the great values of the news is the ability to keep up to date with important issues and interact with the information by sharing it with others or discussing it with other people. The Internet has allowed people to consume their news in a way that is faster, more fun and intimate than they ever have before. Ironically, the very thing that made Newsweek one of the best magazines to read in the 1980s and 1990s, the bright colors, quick feedback and ability to cover major stories week after week are now the very same things that people are doing online and thus don’t need the newspaper for anymore. On the other hand certain newspapers are doing fine, even in this poor economy, and believe it or not, those are the papers that nobody ever seems to think about. Local papers, small ethnic presses and the like are actually surviving in this economy and extended recession when the Chicago Sun times, and other major papers are falling by the wayside every month. Why? The small press, while not nearly as profitable, has a niche audience that seeks out those papers for news that isn’t going to be covered by anyone else. If you are living in Chinatown in D.C. and want to read papers in Mandarin, you won’t get that from the Washington Post. If you are living in Detroit and want news from an African-American perspective, you won’t get it from BET, but you certainly will from the Michigan Chronicle. In a strange way it would almost appear that the death knell of newsmagazines stems from their own success and the success of small presses in their relatively limited ability to expand beyond their niche audience.
Ultimately Newsweek’s demise will go down as another piece of Americana that we will remember fondly but move past. Just like the passing of LIFE magazine, MS, Redbook and my personal favorite, Emerge. The magazine will live on, in some other form, but it won’t be the same. For those of us who grew up sprawled across the living room floor cutting and pasting articles, listening to Donovan Freberg prattle on the T.V about his upcoming high school paper losing the “News that Matter Most” will hit just a little bit closer to home.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)