Newsweek's Sale and the Future of Journalism

The Washington Post Co. is looking to sell Newsweek, its vaunted but money-losing magazine jewel. Media analysts are in a frenzy, and many are envisioning a future in which Newsweek has no paper edition. Some are wondering whether the magazine should merge with Slate, an all-online magazine also owned by the Post. Others like Gabriel Sherman are worried about branding: will the company struggle to find buyers considering the words "news" and "week" don't really work on the Web?

The sale and possible electronificiation of Newsweek just a year after its redesign is one of those stories that epitomizes the challenges of the media landscape. Newsweek is still one of America's two most famous newsmags, the other being Time. Its rebranding effort last year tried to merge the soul of a weekly news digest with ... well, something else. The first few issues looked as though a design team had been instructed to empty their brains onto all 50 of its thin pages. Large pictures peeked out of unexpected corners of the magazine, faint blocks of color invaded the feature section, and the back of the book looked more like a collage of design ideas than a unified theory of magazine layout.

Less innovative, but probably more sensible, was the expansion of the opinion section in the magazine's belly. Michael Kinsley, in a well-noted takedown of the redesign, still praised the opinion section for "the force and originality of their arguments and the beauty of their prose." It's no wonder, really. Kinsley, the founding editor of Slate and current Atlantic columnist, has coined a style of analysis with soft opinion that is gaining new credence on the Web. A Politico article today noted that the Washington Post has been adding bloggers to its online roster, such as Dave Weigel and Ezra Klein: writers who straddle the once-electric fence between analysis and reporting.

It's clear why reported analysis (or analytic reporting) thrives on the Web. It goes back to the nature of the Internet. One recent study found that readers spend 2,000% more time with a dead-tree newspaper than with its online doppelganger. That's bad for advertisers, who want lingering eyeballs. But it's good for short-form journalism. It's good for bloggers. Bloggers aren't institutions with reputations for even-handedness to uphold. They're just people, and people tend to have opinions. So in blogging, we have an ugly word with a simple concept: an artery from the writer's brain to the reader's eyes. Bloggers can give us the news, quickly, lightly marinated in their thinking. This is something that newsmags have taught themselves was wrong, because they still operate in an institutional mindset that eschews right-wing or left-wing bias.

What's the solution for the fusties who still want to hug the moderate center? Hedge, baby, hedge. Don't be afraid of opinionated analysis. That's like being afraid of the Internet. Instead think about the new crop of op-analysts like stones on a scale. One on the left side. One on the right side. And so on.

Newsweek grew up learning how to tell people what happened. Today, everybody knows what happened. So Newsweek's reinvention needs another reinvention. I wish them the best of luck.

(Nav Image Credit: ask curly/flickr)

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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