|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
News magazines have long been an anomaly in the media world. In a changing news environment, their contours have remained largely stable. The content of the major magazines evolved, but the titles remained the same, and so did the basic format. A question kept being asked: Would someone come up with a new idea that would challenge the format and formula of Time and Newsweek, which have long dominated the field? In 2005, there suddenly appeared a possible contender in the form of The Week.
The Week was founded in 2001, but its sudden rise in ad dollars (see Economics) and circulation (see Audience) in 2005 has become news in the past year. Business Week did a piece on the rise of The Week, and media writers have noted how the magazine, once thought of as an experiment, is beginning to be taken seriously.1
The Week brings a different approach to news magazine content. Rather than having reporters go out to gather news, its editors cull the week’s coverage from foreign and domestic publications and condense it into a summary. The magazine is not trying to set an agenda. It doesn’t make any original decisions about what to cover, and it doesn’t replay anyone else’s coverage at much length. Instead, its attitude may be summed up best in its slogan: “All you need to know about everything that matters.”
In some ways the magazine is loosely following the path laid out by blogs, with less slant in any political direction. In a world inundated with reporting and information, and with a population that has less spare time to keep up with the news, The Week’s approach of providing a kind of weekly briefing paper has obvious appeal.
We noted in past years that the news magazines — at least the mass titles — were on a clear migration away from serious longer reporting about hard-news topics. But now it seems an alternative path may have emerged. The Week does not focus on celebrity gossip or trend news. It is serious in tone and choice of topics, but it does not provide heavy in-depth reportage. It melds significant topics with short space and a fairly balanced presentation that offers a sample of opinions from the left and right. Data indicate that this approach may be catching fire.
Other trends of note in 2005:
Will the success of The Week and its second-hand summary approach — or the continued success of other nontraditional books like the Economist and the New Yorker — stir the interest of other publishers? Or lead Time and Newsweek, the two dominant weeklies, to reconsider their formats?
The Week’s success also raises a concern. If its content model continues to succeed, and even inspire imitators, the net effect is likely to be fewer reporters gathering information as it peels readers away from those doing the original reporting. Quality outside reportage, then, will grow increasingly important, and the sway over the news that a few publications and companies enjoy could grow.
A Week in the Life of the News Weeklies
Every media outlet has its own way of reporting news and makes its own choices about what to cover. But news magazines have a particularly varied array of options. Because they have a longer time than most other outlets (particularly the other outlets we examine) there are more possibilities for them to consider. Inevitably, a week’s worth of news from the entire world, even news that was covered by other outlets, will not fit between two covers. Traditional magazine editors decide what is and isn’t worth their pages, and because magazines are less time-sensitive the editors are granted a wider latitude in that regard than editors and producers in other media.
In the past, we looked at the topics covered annually to provide a measure of the world the news titles offered. Looking at those topics over 25 years, we found a decline in reporting on national and foreign news and a rise in entertainment and celebrity stories, especially in Time and Newsweek. This year we wanted to look at how that shift away from traditional hard news plays out, by doing a closer examination of one week’s worth of coverage in each magazine. We picked a week that corresponded with the “Day in the life of the media” that we examine in the other chapters of this report.
What do we see? A complicated landscape. If you paused at a newsstand or magazine rack the week of May 16, the first conclusion you would probably have drawn about the week was that nothing epic had happened. The first thing you might notice is that many of the titles are actually dated May 23 – a week after the day they actually appear on the newsstands – in order to appear “fresh” for a longer period of time. The covers of the major news magazines were devoted to a hodgepodge of issues, topics and even products. Time was heralding a look at the new Microsoft Xbox video game console. Newsweek had a president on its cover, but it was one from two centuries ago — George Washington, publicizing an excerpt from the historian David McCullough’s new book on the great man. U.S. News featured a picture of a slot machine and wrote of “Secrets of the Casinos.” The Week, with a sketch of Charles Darwin, turned its attention to the debate on “intelligent design” and evolution. The Economist fronted a discussion about the “axis of evil.” And the New Yorker offered a sketch of Sigmund Freud driving a cab with a fare/patient lying down on the back seat.
Such is the nature of the news magazine world in a week when there is no dominant news event. Magazines have the freedom to promote on their covers a “good read” or an “evergreen” or a piece that for one reason or another was contracted to receive cover play.
Look inside and the differences run deeper still. If you picked up a magazine to get an idea of what happened the week of May 8-14, the reality you found depended greatly on the title you picked.2
Time: The world presented in Time’s May 23 issue includes news from the week past, but it isn’t what many might think of as the news of the week. The 82-page magazine functions more as a supplement to a broader news diet, with a mix of topics and a mix of seriousness.
There is some national affairs coverage, a smattering of international news and an increasingly large area for pop culture in “the back of the book.” Today, that term may refer only to where something appears in the magazine; it may say little or nothing about what magazine editors consider the material’s significance. In the May 23 issue, the cover story (Microsoft’s new game console) and the other piece teased on the cover (an interview with the comedian Dave Chappelle) reside in the “back of the book.” There is actually, by page count, more soft news than hard news.
The issue has three big interview subjects: Bill Gates, Chappelle and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel . Of those, it is Sharon who doesn’t make the cover, even though the interview with him is an exclusive.
What we found to be the main stories in our study of a Day in the Life of the News got little space in Time. King Tut got a two-page spread of photos and captions. The United Airlines story got about a quarter of a page and got the most space out of any of our big stories in the magazine by far. The plane that violated airspace got about 10 lines. And the Michael Jackson trial was handled in a quote from Macaulay Culkin.
Cover — The main cover topic is Microsoft’s new Xbox game console, and the dominant picture is Gates staring at the reader, Terminator-esque, the glowing “on” button of the new game box serving as his right eye. “Inside Bill’s new X-Box,” the text reads.
The cover-story package is 14 pages long, though the amount of text is considerably less than that. Graphics and large pictures (the hallmarks of the news weeklies nowadays) make for considerably less actual type. There are, for instance, only 16 lines of type on the first two pages of the piece, which carry a large picture of Gates playing with a controller. The piece itself is a trip inside “Xbox Headquarters,” where the machine was built, and a look at the thinking behind it.
Along with the main piece, Time includes a three-page spread full of pictures of video game “innovators” — or “visionaries,” as they are also called.
The package tries mightily to invest what many might consider an essentially light topic with extra heft. It isn’t just about the new video game system, the cover story says, but rather “about a sea change in American culture, which has embraced video games, formerly a despised hobby, as a vital force in pop culture.” Whether that is true is one question. Whether that is news because of the latest Xbox is another. The story offers some discussion of changing American culture, but is largely a commercial for the newest endeavor of Bill Gates, one of the people Time would eventually name a Man of the Year for his philanthropic activities.
The other piece teased on the cover, about Dave Chappelle, is the second largest package in Time, a six-page piece including a Q&A interview. Chappelle, who went AWOL early in 2005, has a new program on Comedy Central called “Chappelle’s Show.”
The piece doesn’t wade too far into any “larger significance” of the comedian or his hiatus, perhaps because it’s not clear what that would be. Pictures make up two of the six pages of the package.
Other stories — The third biggest story in the issue is the interview with Sharon . The lack of any reference to the piece on the cover suggests that the magazine now clearly sees itself less as a news magazine than a general-interest magazine with news included; Time’s current editors apparently are willing to forgo such items on the cover. That is also reflected in the division of space between the covers. The “front of the book,” the part of the magazine devoted to covering hard news, ends on page 42 with the end of the Sharon interview. The lighter “back of the book” takes up 38 more pages. Subtract the 15 pages for the table of contents, letters from readers and other items, and the back of the book accounts for more than half of the issue. Based on the topic page counts from Hall’s Magazine Reports in recent years, that appears to be fairly typical.
The names and images on the cover — Chappelle and Xbox — also probably have more relevance to younger readers than Ariel Sharon.
Elsewhere in the issue, Time devotes eight pages to national affairs. The pieces include one on President Bush’s ban on funds for stem cell research, the religious leaders behind a filibuster fight that was going on in the Senate, and the outed anti-gay mayor of Spokane, Wash. In World, the Sharon package also included a short piece about the relatively unknown ad man who helped soften the prime minister’s image and win him the election in Israel.
The magazine also features a three-page “Your Time” section in the back (a combination of news you can use, random facts and short interviews), a page of shorts on “People” and a closing essay.
The news of the week, the stories that pass through the public consciousness day-to-day, appear in the Notebook section in the front of the issue, a series of quick short items. It was here that the United Airlines story, the one about the plane that violated D.C. air space, and the Macaulay Culkin quote appeared, along with shorts on Arianna Huffington’s blog, military base closings, the successor in Pope Benedict’s old job, a book called “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” a contraption that vaporizes alcohol for quicker consumption, and plans to change the president’s daily intelligence brief.
Time is a magazine that seems caught in between genres. It feels compelled to pay attention to the news of the week, but only in passing, and to try and cover serious issues like the Middle East , but it isn’t clear if its audience really wants to pay attention. And Time looks as if it isn’t sure how much its audience wants to read.
Newsweek: Like Time, Newsweek is not really a summary of the past seven days but instead a complement designed to keep its readers apprised of news topics and trends that the magazine’s editors see as important. The world presented in the May 23 issue in many ways resembles the one offered by Time.
The current-events section, or the “front of the book,” is particularly short. There are just five hard-news stories, which go up to page 36, and a later two-column piece on the Illinois slayings. The rest of the magazine’s 84 pages are devoted to lighter trend stories. Removing the letters, cartoons and table of contents, the hard-news hole in the issue is 13-plus pages — including ads.
Three of the stories we saw in our Day in the Life study turn up in Newsweek. The plane violating D.C. airspace gets about two-thirds of a page in the Periscope section. North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are covered in a one-page column. And the slaying of two girls in Illinois is covered in a short two-column piece near the back of the issue’s hard-news section.
Cover — Newsweek’s May 23 cover isn’t news, it’s about a book excerpt. The cover face is more than 200 years old — a picture of George Washington looking defiant astride a white horse. The cover, “The Real George Washington” is based on an excerpt of David McCullough’s book “1776.” Also teased on the cover are a special section on “Design 2005: What’s Hot” and “The Filibuster Fight” in the Senate.
Inside, the four-page piece leading into the excerpt calls “1776” “powerful” and “vivid” and calls McCullough “America’s best-loved historian.” That kind of prose isn’t unusual for book excerpts. If Newsweek didn’t like the book or believe others would, presumably it wouldn’t have put it on the cover. The lead-in piece is mostly an essay on the author, his book and the nation. “For the country, the path ahead is never entirely smooth, but, as Washington’s story shows, faith and patience can see us through the longest nights,” it says near its end. The piece is followed by a five-page passage from “1776.”
The cover-teased “Design 2005” package looks at a variety of new product designs, from homes to video games to prescription bottles, in ways that range from multi-page stories to short items no longer than 15 lines. Design — in everything from Target products to iPods — has recently gained increased attention from the news media.
Rather than a searching exploration of design, however, the section, particularly near its close, turns largely into an advertising layout. A “Design Dozen” resembles a shopping guide — readers learn about the Mario Batali Basting Brush, Krups Espresso Maker and the hot colors for the year in paint. The subhead on this section: “Our pick of the names to know, stuff to covet, ideas to ponder. Wearables, listenables — even affordables.”
Also getting a cover mention is the filibuster showdown that threatened to erupt in the Senate. A large illustration of Senators Harry Reid and Bill Frist with dynamite around the Capitol dominates the opening spread, taking up five of the six available columns. The actual room for text is about four columns out of a 12-column spread.
The article delves less into the filibuster threat and more into the waning influence of moderate voices on Capitol Hill, in the Senate particularly. Much of the piece focuses on the moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, whom it calls “a relic of a bygone era.” It notes that Specter and a fellow GOP moderate, Sen. Susan Collins, stopped their weekly meetings among moderate Republican senators because they were the only two people there. Almost lost in the shuffle are the judges who prompted the GOP to consider the “nuclear option” in the first place. They are restricted to a graphic.
Other pieces — Next comes a three-page story about Newsweek’s disputed account of the reported desecrating of the Koran at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (an article that ran on May 9) — what the magazine got right and wrong and the violence that broke out in the Arab world after the story ran. The piece acknowledges possible inaccuracies in the earlier story, but adds that its source still recalls reports about Koran mishandling, including a toilet incident, but cannot recall where. There is also a one-page piece about the Defense Department’s base closure plans and a one-page column from International Editor Fareed Zakaria about the administration’s policy regarding North Korea .
Then comes a two-page report on Burger King’s plan to reach Americans by selling extremely caloric and fatty foods, including a new Enormous Omelet Sandwich. A one-page story explores how the runners-up on the TV show The Apprentice often did better than the winners. Another page and a third carries a piece on the rising star of the Miami Heat point guard Dwayne Wade, next to a two-column story about the slaying of the two young girls in Illinois.
The front and back of the issue are filled with briefs. The magazine’s four-page Periscope section contains its usual mix of short supposed insider pieces (an item about President Bush visiting battleground states after the election), short news-of-the-week pieces that don’t merit big play (the aircraft that entered D.C. airspace) and other news nuggets (the mayor of Las Vegas pursuing a reality TV deal). In the back, the magazine offers its “news you can use” section called The Tip Sheet, which covers everything from television season finales to safe cars of the future. Then there is the Newsmaker section, a place for gossip and entertainment shorts — an item on Dave Chappelle and one on Renee Zellweger’s engagement to the country singer Kenny Chesney.
By and large, Newsweek in this edition follows the same pattern as Time, though generally with a lighter and (it seems to hope) a hipper touch. Some of the editorial content hints of advertorials.
U.S. News and World Report: The world presented in U.S. News’s May 23 issue is heavier than the one in Time and Newsweek. Dave Chappelle doesn’t appear. Neither do the runners-up from The Apprentice. There are more stories, and more weightier topics, than in the other traditional news weeklies. The magazine is also written in a more direct, “hard news” style; anecdotal leads appear, but not as often. Still, even here there is no attempt to recap the week, but simply to focus on issues editors believe important. U.S. News’s editors seem more interested in a hard-news agenda — from stories on shipping terrorists overseas for interrogation to an article on the dangers of life in the commercial fishing business.
Of the three traditional news weeklies in this week, U.S. News covers the greatest number of the “big stories” from May 11 in its 96 pages. Most get short treatment. A large piece about the spike in violence in Iraq includes information about the security forces being attacked. The United Airlines strike winds up a brief, as do North Korea’s nuclear aspirations, fused with information about Iran’s nuclear gambit. King Tut gets a very brief four-line photo caption under what was basically a mug shot of the boy king. It is a no-nonsense issue of a no-nonsense magazine.
Cover — The image is a large picture of a slot machine and the words “You Lose” in between two sevens. The story? “Secrets of the Casinos, How new tricks and technology give the house a winning edge.” In the top left corner of the cover a stern secretary of defense looks down to tease a story about “Rumsfeld’s Lean, Meaner Military.”
The eight-page cover package is markedly different from recent examinations, in other news weeklies, of Vegas as racy cultural phenomenon. The stories here look at the unsexy side of gambling. In fact, one could make the argument that the report fits in with the magazine’s “news you can use” focus. It is decidedly negative and something of a warning about the dangers of gambling. The opening photo is not of showgirls or fountains, but a four-column close-up of a pair of hands pushing the buttons on a slot machine — the gambler’s “courtesy card” tethering her to the machine. The stories reveal that while gambling has become a hot pastime, with poker becoming particularly popular, the odds against winning are getting longer. The package explains how casinos use reward cards to gather data on gamblers in microscopic detail, and includes a piece on gambling addiction. Pictures play a role in the presentation, but they are not of the same emotive quality as the shots in Time and Newsweek.
The article teased on the cover is a five-page story about Donald Rumsfeld’s restructuring of the military and impending base closures. It is a straightforward roundup look at Rumsfeld’s efforts to make the military “nimbler” and how base realignment fits with those plans. The conclusion? “It is easy to talk about making the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines work together more closely. It is more difficult to make it happen.”
Other pieces — U.S. News groups its national and international sections together as “Nation & World.” As a result, readers bounce around a bit. Following Rumsfeld is a one-page piece on the spike in suicide attacks in Iraq, followed by a two-page piece on the U.S. practice of shipping terrorist suspects overseas for interrogation, followed by a “Letter from New York” on efforts to rebuild Ground Zero. Finally, Gloria Borger has a one-page “On Politics” column that looks at the perils of one party’s controlling the executive and legislative branches at the same time — there’s a lot of blame that can be heaped on the party.
The issue wanders into areas untethered to news of the week, but they are not necessarily light. A 24-page “Executive Edition” insert includes content tailored to the socio-economics of the magazine’s readers. There is medical news (about a hospital company that specializes in heart disease), along with some business news (a story about online stock trading companies) and some lifestyle news (a piece about buying wine) among others. And the issue offers a special four-page report on the dangers of commercial fishing: fishermen have the most dangerous jobs in America after loggers.
Many short items appear in the front and the back of the magazine. The opening pages feature Washington Whispers, a two-page section with lighter briefs on politics, on John McCain’s book “Faith of My Fathers” being made into a movie, and an item about Egg McMuffins being passed out a White House meeting to celebrate Chief of Staff Andy Card’s birthday. Next comes the White House Week page, which walks readers through some of the week’s more standard Washington fare: The state of the highway bill, the potential for departures of justices from the Supreme Court and how the new director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, is planning to reform the nation’s intelligence apparatus. After that the magazine still has a three-page section of briefs from the week featuring, among other things, a piece on the Newsweek Koran flap, John Bolton’s nomination to be U.N. ambassador, North Korean nuclear tensions, and the filibuster showdown in the Senate.
In the back of the magazine, following the gambling cover story, comes a series of short money and health items along with pieces on a range of topics — two pages on St. Augustine’s legacy, two pages on inner-city youngsters at elite colleges, two pages on animal hibernation — and columns from Lou Dobbs, John Leo and David Gergen.
In all there are 22 stories of a page or more in the May 23 issue, which means even with a shorter page count, it has, by far, the most long pieces (Time had 13 and Newsweek about 17).
In short, U.S. News seems the most serious, sober-minded of three main news weeklies. But it also seems bound by tradition. There is more news here, and less attitude, but also not much innovation of the kind found in some of the more serious alternatives that follow.
The Economist: The world represented in the pages of the Economist is big and sprawling. Different regions — the United States, Asia, Europe and others — are given their own sections and treated with roughly equal weight, suggesting to readers that the magazine looks at the news differently. There are no “national” or “foreign” sections in the Economist’s pages, there is just the world. Topics in Bhutan are given the same weight as those in Seattle . This absence of the “us and them” perspective leads to a decidedly different and perhaps more holistic view of the news.
The magazine is not just a recap of the week. Stories are joined together to try to make connections and create a larger context, even if they fall in different regional sections in the magazine. So a story in the “United States” section on terrorism might refer readers to pieces in the “Middle East” or “Europe” sections. There is also agenda-setting — stories on matters readers might know little about such as Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela , and biofuels. Lighter trend pieces, meanwhile, barely get space.
Beyond the personality differences, the magazine explicitly has a point of view; its editorials by themselves separate the Economist from its U.S. rivals. In American news weeklies it is what the writer thinks, not the magazine institutionally, that matters. The writers in American news weeklies, moreover, tend to have what journalists call a “take” on issues, but not clear positions. The Economist, by contrast, often urges actions and specific policies and makes endorsements. None of the pieces in the Economist even carry bylines. On its Web site, the Economist Group says the magazine “has no bylines, believing that what is written is more important than who writes it.”
From its text-driven nature to its U.K. headquarters, the Economist differs substantially from the other news weeklies, which may partly explain why it has made substantial inroads in audience here in recent years, while the U.S. magazines have struggled. Even the matter of how issues are dated is different in the Economist. It hits the newsstands three days before the Big Three.
Three of the “big stories” from May 11 make it into the May 20 Economist, though none is a stand-alone story. Instead, they are bits of information in larger stories about larger issues. For instance, there is a piece on Iraqi security forces that mentions the spike in violence in the country, and a short 10-line item in “The World This Week” in the front of the magazine touches the same topic. The news about North Korea bolstering its nuclear arsenal is part of the cover piece on the “Axis of Evil” as well as a nine-line item in “World this Week.” And the story about the obstacles to CAFTA is a 3-line brief and part of the larger article that opens “The Americas” section of the issue.
Cover — The Economist in this issue uses a week without a central headline to basically build one itself, based on two different events — North Korea’s announcement that it is preparing a nuclear test and Iran’s announcement that it is about to resume enriching nuclear materials. The cover line, “Return of the Axis of Evil,” and picture, a Muslim figure holding a mushroom cloud in his hands, are unlike the approach taken by the other titles. It is a contextualizing of different, not obviously related, events to create one story. And the four stories teased on the cover represent a diverse range of topics — “From Goldwater to Bush,” “Venezuela’s oil-rich troublemaker,” “A future for biofuels” and “ Detroit and the Unions.” All appear in different sections of the magazine.
The cover package is made up of two stories. A one-page editorial on the “Return of the Axis of Evil” outlines the stakes and urges action by the U.S. government. The Economist’s format also means that, technically, another part of the cover package is the lead story in the Middle East and Africa section later on that lays out specifically “Iran’s nuclear ambitions” — which frees up room for editorial commentary up front.
Other pieces — Listing all the articles in this issue would take up a lot of space. There are 71 — more than four times the U.S. average for this week — and the range of topics is vast, everything from the Los Angeles mayoral race to mining in China to French corporate governance.
In the May 20 issue the stories are, as always, short; three pages is a treatise here. The leads are taut and to the point, with lots of facts and figures. There are not a lot of scene-setting anecdotes or florid prose.
At the start of the book, the briefs are really brief, many less than 10 lines, and all are hard-news driven. The May 20 issue has no celebrity briefs, and international matters lead. Topics range from President Bush’s Russian trip to a summit of Arab and South American countries and the Senate’s passage of a resolution asking Nigeria to extradite the former Liberian leader Charles Taylor.
The Leaders section, where the magazine’s opening opinion essays appear, begins with the one-page “Axis of Evil” piece, then goes on to essays about India’s reformist prime minister, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, General Motors’ need to reduce labor costs, German shareholder activism and the Tories’ role in British politics. Following that is a three-page special section on Chavez, looking at the social gains his nation has made and the heavy hits democracy and economic development have taken. The nation has one foot in democracy and the other in autocracy, the article declares, adding that “Venezuelans must decide which foot they prefer to amputate.”
Even the United States section offers a different definition of news than U.S. weeklies. The first article is a one-page look at Antonio Villaraigosa, the new mayor of Los Angeles . It’s followed by a short piece on Jim West, the publicly anti-gay legislator in Washington State who was found to have engaged in homosexual activity, and a one-page piece on Paul Volcker’s investigation of the U.N. oil-for-food scandal. There also is a one-page report on the decline of American unions, a short piece on how poor Americans have never saved money, a two-column story on faulty DNA testing in Virginia and a story on Chinese businessmen who are making inroads in the Midwest. The one-page Lexington column, which comes at the end of the United State section, talks about Republicans abandoning a small-government approach to management. The Jim West story was the only one the U.S. weeklies also covered.
It is not until page 62, that the magazine digs into business news – and that content diverges dramatically from what would have been found in American news weeklies. Among business’s eight pages is a one-and-half-page article on Intel and its new head, a two-column story on how American businesses are starting to take global warming seriously, a one-column item on the battle over the mobile e-mail business and a short item on how Kodak is struggling in the digital picture age.
There follows a three-page special report on the rise of biofuels that suggests it is time to take them more seriously as oil prices increase, a five-page Finance and Economics section and a three-page Science and Technology section. One needs to get all the way to page 85 (already longer than the entire issues of Time and Newsweek from May 23) before arriving at a three-page “Books and the Arts” section. Even here there are no celebrity interviews or film reviews. There are four one-and-a-half-column book reviews, a two-column article on new Asian cinema and a short item about a gallery exhibit of previously unseen Marilyn Monroe photos.
The issue still has room for a one-page obituary of Bob Hunter, the man who founded Greenpeace, and the Economist’s usual three pages of numbers, charts and tables that look at financial and economic indicators — something one would never find in any of the traditional American news weeklies. Again, some of that has to do with the magazine’s mission. It is a hybrid business/news title. But even taking that into account, the Economist simply treats news and the world it covers differently.
The Economist’s slogan is “First published in 1843 to take part in ‘a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.’ ” That insistent attitude, aided by arch prose, sums up what the magazine aspires to.
The New Yorker: The outlier in this group of titles is the New Yorker, which isn’t really a news magazine but, as we’ve pointed out previously, has wandered further into the events of the week in recent years. The world as represented in the May 23 issue is both broader and deeper than the one examined in the traditional news weeklies. The articles may not be immediately topical (in a week where there was no dominant story) but the issues they deal with — AIDS, a young sports star, espionage during a war, and art and an artist are familiar in a larger sense. The magazine clearly isn’t aimed at filling in the reader on what’s happened in the last seven days, and the length of its pieces means that inevitably, fewer stories are covered. Still, the depth of the reportage and the broad topics serve to illuminate larger issues. None of the 11 Big Stories we saw on May 11 turned up in this issue of the May 23 New Yorker.
Stories in the issue — Talk of the Town opens with a lengthy Comment article on the victory of Tony Blair and the Labor Party in Britain’s recent Parliamentary elections and on Blair’s close relationship with President Bush. The piece features the magazine’s usual left-of-center take on the elections and the drag Bush may have caused Blair. Beyond that, Talk of the Town is a usual mix of short pieces on scenes from New York and the world of the arts — a look at the United Nations Building renovation, at writer’s “habitats,” a count of trees in New York City, and Robert Goulet.
Following “Talk,” the magazine heads into matters at greater length. The news stories are less about the news of the week than issues and people of familiar gravity, but with an apparent emphasis on telling readers something they don’t know. First there is a seven-page piece on the rising H.I.V. rates in the United States and what’s behind the trend, foremost a return of casual sex among gay men. A seven-page piece on the 15-year-old Major League Soccer player Freddie Adu reports his struggles adjusting to the life of a professional athlete. Following that is an 11-page story on Pham Xuan An, a Time magazine employee in Vietnam during the war there who was also a double agent, and a 10-page profile of the artist Robert Rauschenberg.
The pieces all offer depth not seen elsewhere. The HIV piece opens with a long scene lead that lays the ground for a discussion of the relationship between crystal methamphetamine and unprotected sex, but still has plenty of room to step back and offer a broad picture of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. It explains how crystal meth works on the brain — what neurotransmitters are affected — and still comes back to talk about sex clubs. The New Yorker gives writers enough space to delve into topics at several levels and draw connections between different points.
The piece on Adu wanders through topics like soccer’s place in America and Adu’s “mental conditioning coach” while discussing the difficulties the boy has had developing as a player. The long article on Pham Xuan An isn’t just a profile of the man, but a history of the war and of how he played both sides. The piece paints a complicated picture. In 1997, it says, An was denied permission to attend a conference in New York . An says it’s because his government wanted to keep him silenced, but the reporter adds, “This is one possible explanation, but as always with An, there could be another figure in the carpet. All we know is that, for at least 27 years after the end of the war, An was still an active member of Vietnam’s military intelligence service.”
Photos do appear. Almost all are black and white and artistic in style. The three-photo montage that ran in the HIV story is pure art — of no one in particular, with images stacked atop one another to suggest the effect of a motion picture. And, of course, there is a certain amount of space devoted to the cartoons that appear every few pages. Over all, though, text dominates the New Yorker in the front of the magazine and the back.
The New Yorker’s editors might chafe at its being considered a news magazine, but today categorizing the magazine is difficult. Describing its approach, whatever the topic, as deeply reported and writer-driven is not.
The Week: The world presented in the May 27 issue of The Week is a broad but condensed picture of the world as seen through the eyes of others (the title is dated ahead the same way Time and Newsweek are, but is on a slightly different news schedule). The magazine doesn’t dispatch reporters to cover events or use them to work the phones; it culls through pages and pages of newsprint, magazines and Web sites to produce a summary of what others have offered as the week’s news.
The magazine, founded by Jolyon Connell, a onetime White House reporter, is modeled after the briefing created daily for the Oval Office. And The Week throws its net wide to get its content. The New York Times is heavily represented in its pages, but the May 27 issue carries excerpts and ideas from the Glasgow Herald, Turin’s La Stampa, Mexico City’s La Journada, even Cigar Aficionado. The excerpts are generally short, sometimes a few paragraphs and sometimes only a few sentences. But they offer a quick summary of what the main piece was about, and the brevity of the pieces allows for a broad look at the news of the previous seven days. Of all the titles we examined, the Week comes closest to offering a recap of the week’s news, and that is what it strives to do.
The Week features more of the Big Stories from May 11 than any magazine studied, more even than U.S. News. The May 23 issue has articles about, or at least mentions, five of the stories — Iraq , United Airlines, King Tut, the Blockbuster board and CAFTA. It also deals with the North Korea story in the previous week’s issue, since the magazine comes out on a different schedule from the traditional weeklies.
Cover — The main image is a sketch of a befuddled Charles Darwin sitting in a classroom holding up a paper entitled “The Origin of Species” graded with a large: F. The cover line: “Doubting Darwin, Should schools teach ‘intelligent design?’ “ The sketch shows the usual approach the magazine takes to its cover art, a cheeky take on what it considers the week’s biggest story. Down the left side of the cover are four teases: “Did Bush nominate extremists?” “When cousins fall in love,” “Has the Force run its course?” and “The return of the nasty boss.” The teases are notable for their variety — everything from court appointments to the movie “Star Wars Episode III” — and for their sheer number. Like the Economist, The Week likes to get as many subjects as it can on its cover.
The “cover story” is not much different or much longer than any of the other stories in the issue. It is a half-page discussion of the intelligent design debate consisting of three long quotations from other publications — a column by the Boston Globe’s Ellen Goodman, a post from Brian McNicoll of Townhall.com and a post from Slate’s William Saletan. The piece itself takes no position. Goodman is against intelligent design, McNicoll is for it and Saletan says the theory is an admission of defeat from biblical literalists because they have at least had to accept the basic premise behind evolution, change over time.
The article on Bush’s judicial nominees has the same format and is the same size — a half-page of quotations, this time from six different writers in publications spanning the political continuum from the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post to the Wall Street Journal and National Review Online. Those critical of the federal appeals court nominees in question (Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor and Priscilla Owen, all now confirmed to federal courts) find them too radical; quotes from the supporting publications emphasize their qualifications for the bench.
The pieces on “cousins in love” and “the nasty boss” are straight excerpts from other publications — in the former case a column by the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman about cousins who want to marry but can’t in Pennsylvania, the latter a business story from USA Today.
The piece about “Star Wars” rounds up reviews by A.O. Scott of the New York Times, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Wilmington.
Other pieces — Everything else is brief, but the list of topics is long. A quick glance shows the breadth — military base closings, the fight over John Bolton, fighting in Iraq, Los Angeles’s new mayor, Lance Armstrong saving sperm to have children later, the formerly credentialed White House “reporter” Jeff Gannon and a one-page “Briefing” on the right to die inspired by the Terri Schiavo case.
That’s all in the front of the magazine’s news section, along with three pages called “The world at a glance…” which feature maps of the continents marked with dots and lines that connect to one-paragraph reports. The items consist of everything from a severed fingertip supposedly found in a bowl of Wendy’s chili to the launching of a television network backed by President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to the push in Rome to make Pope John Paul II a saint and the killing of hundreds of civilians in Uzbekistan by government troops.
After all that there are three pages devoted to the “Best columns” in the United States , Europe and elsewhere. Along with columns from the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, there are selections from Italy , the Netherlands , Iraq and Russia . There is also a short item called “It must be true… I read it in the tabloids.”
Then there are two more pages of “Talking points” where the big topics of the week, some heavy and some lighter, are boiled down to what people have written for and against them. This is where the Darwin piece appears, along with items about Yalta , Pope Benedict and the Rolling Stones. Then come two pages of editorial cartoons from the past week. At this point, not even half-way through the issue, the biggest stories of the last seven days have largely been addressed.
That still leaves the rest of the issue for a vast assortment of topics. The Week has sections for health and science, reviews of books, film, music and the stage, plus food and drink (recipes for lobster rolls and blueberry cobbler as well as an excerpt of a review on a new Chicago restaurant). A one-page travel section runs excerpts from stories on areas ranging from Uruguay to Bethesda , Md. and Madison , Wis.
The Week is Reader’s Digest meets the blogoshpere — an inclusive shorthand summary of the week’s events as seen through the eyes of others.
Topic Coverage Over All in the Traditional News Weeklies
The in-depth look at one issue allows us to make close comparisons of the nature and editorial choices of the various magazines. A broader look at the breakdown of topics year-to-year provides a sense of the shifts in coverage over time.
Through the first eight months of 2005 the data from Hall’s Magazine Reports show a big change from a year earlier in the topics covered. Looking at the three traditional news magazines combined, national affairs, while still the largest topic in the weeklies, fell off dramatically — down to 21% of all pages — and if the trend continued that would be a 9% drop from 2004.3 While it’s true that 2004 was a presidential election year, there were some notable national news headlines in 2005, from Tom DeLay’s court troubles to the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to the investigation of the White House adviser Karl Rove. (It should be noted, however, that the page tally took place before Hurricane Katrina, which was bound to increase the national affairs coverage.)
What filled the pages left open by the drop in coverage of national affairs? For the most part, it seemed to be cultural news, which increased 4%, from 11% to 15%. But it was not alone in seeing gains. Health and medical science, and global and international affairs, were both up 2%, to 10% and 17% of all pages, respectively. And business pages and entertainment and celebrity pages both grew slightly to 9% each.4
Title by Title
Amid those broad shifts, there were also some differences among the Big Three magazines, particularly in the light-news areas. Reflecting some of the same differences found in the May 23 issues we examined closely, Time and Newsweek devoted far more of their pages to entertainment/celebrity topics than did U.S. News (14% for Time, 10% for Newsweek and 1% for U.S. News). U.S. News’s “news you can use” predilections also showed up in page counts. The magazine was by far the leader in health and medical science stories, which made up 14% of the pages in the first eight months of 2005. The topic accounted for 8% of Newsweek’s pages and 9% of Time’s.5
U.S. News also led the pack in national affairs coverage (24%, versus 18% for Newsweek and 22% for Time) and global/international coverage (19%, versus 15% for Newsweek and 16% for Time.6
Those patterns bear watching, however. The page counts were done before the big announcements at U.S. News of layoffs and its plan to shift to more Web-based publication. What that will mean for the news content is uncertain. It’s possible that U.S. News could become even more hard-news based, focusing in on its core product in a leaner publication.
The traditional news weeklies were a little different in 2004. National affairs, where the presidential election coverage normally appears, saw an increase of 5% in total magazine pages from 2003 to 30%, according to figures from Hall’s Magazine Reports. That is a large increase for one year, but still below the high figure of 35% in 1995, when there was no national election under way.7
Just as interesting is where the increase in national pages came from. Mostly they were taken from global/international coverage, which fell 4% in 2004, to 15% of all pages. That happened even though 2004 was a big year for international news, particularly the war in Iraq , where insurgent attacks increased and casualties grew. Also taking small hits in percentage of pages allotted was business coverage, which dropped from 9% of pages in 2003 to 8% in 2004, and personal finance coverage, from 3% to 2%.8
The New Yorker
While the New Yorker has become more “newsie” and political in the past 20 years, the general mix more recently has remained largely unchanged, according to Hall’s Magazine Reports.
Cultural affairs and entertainment issues remain the linchpin of the New Yorker, accounting for close to half of all pages. But as we saw above (LINK BACK), the magazine’s approach to culture and entertainment is deeper, with an emphasis on issue-based pieces or profiles. And the prominence given to “general interest” coverage demonstrates the latitude the magazine takes in covering more off-beat issues. Where the traditional news weeklies purport to cover the week’s news across many areas — politics, culture, business — the New Yorker does not.
The small shifts that did occur in 2004 and 2005 were likely tied to the 2004 election. Political coverage (as a part of national affairs) rose 12% during the election year, but fell back down again in the beginning of ‘05 to less than 10% of coverage overall.9
The election-year shifts suggest that even though the magazine isn’t a “news magazine” per se, its editors feel its content is at least tied to the news in some way, particularly where politics is concerned.
After a long stable period, the traditional titles may be facing serious challenges from two different models.
The Economist and the New Yorker, thick magazines that belie the suggestion that consumers want news more quickly, have been seen as models for smaller niche audiences. The question is whether the approach of The Week, a magazine with no first-hand reportage built as a kind of print-blog, can resonate with a bigger mass audience.
The Week counters many of the prevailing trends in the news media today. It has no bylines and is developing no “personalities” for TV or radio consumption. It has no reporters trying to get “exclusives” to trumpet on its cover. It does not rely heavily on opinion or its own point of view to win readers. But its style and approach seem tailor-made for an audience looking for easily digestible, even pre-digested, news.
2. Though the dates on the covers of these issues vary because of editorial decisions designed to make the issues look fresh on the newsstand, the news inside them is from as parallel a time as possible.
3. Hall’s Reports research. Unpublished data. www.hallsreports.com
9. Ibid. It should be remembered, however, that the magazine’s overall figures include fiction and reviews, which always make up a large share of the pages.