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Backward Runs 'Newsweek'

Blah blah newsmag remake blah blah

Having recently been dumped by Time, I naturally had great hopes for this week's much-anticipated makeover of Newsweek. Both surviving newsmags (US News is said to exist still in some form, but no one I know has seen it lately) are in an Internet panic like that affecting newspapers. Newsweek has always been a bit faster on its feet. But judging from its first issue, the new Newsweek is not going to be the instrument of my revenge, alas.

In his editor's letter--one of many traditional newsmagazine features that have survived the scythe of change--Jon Meacham says, "We are not pretending to be your guide through the chaos of the Information Age," which concedes a lot of ground from the get-go. Why not at least pretend? Why else would people pick it up, let alone subscribe? The newsmags face a choice. Actually, they've faced it since long before the Internet. Should they try to provide a complete picture of what happened last week? Or should they stop worrying about that and hope to find appeal in trends, service pieces, fine writing, muckraking exposes, provocative argument, and other traditional non-news magazine fare? Whenever they have an existential crisis--and this is not the first--they always make the wrong choice.

Meacham--a very smart and thoughtful guy, which in my experience is not necessarily true of all newsmagazine editors (all two, that is)--actually says that his model is "the great monthlies of old" like Harper's and Esquire. He says the building blocks of the new Newsweek will be "two kinds of stories": the "reported narrative" and "the argued essay." So what's wrong with that? Well, to start, those grand old monthlies at their primes had a smaller paying readership than Newsweek has at its supposed nadir. So duplicating their greatness could be a pyrrhic victory. Furthermore, while it's not impossible to get readers by peddling sheer enjoyment, it's a lot easier to peddle necessity, or at least usefulness: You need this magazine to sort out the world for you and to make sure you haven't missed anything. In short, you need it to be your guide through the chaos, as Meacham so eloquently describes what he intends to avoid. And when something like the Internet comes along to make the chaos even more chaotic, you need your trusty guide more, not less. Possibly the dumbest slogan ever for a newsmag was one used briefly by Time a few years ago: "Make time for Time." Make time for Time? Who has that kind of time? If you can convince people that reading Time will save them time, then you may have a deal.

That said, Meacham's vision of a magazine full of exciting narrative and provocative arguments isn't terrible, if he could pull it off every week. Sadly, though, he has been defeated by what Mikhail Gorbachev used to call "the approaches of the stagnation period." He says he wants "provocative (but not partisan) arguments." Which would be what? "Let's paint the Capitol dome dark brown"? Or, "Try cooked carrots--they're not too bad"? It's not easy to be provocative if you're looking over your shoulder for the partisanship police. But Meacham's problem is more basic than that: The new Newsweek, judging from the first issue (which Meacham calls "a model of the form"), bizarrely resembles the old Newsweek more than the new Newsweek Meacham describes. It is cluttered with departments and headlines and labels and tiny features, all of which imply some hierarchy or order in the editors' minds, but only add to the chaos in the readers'. Its longer pieces follow all the stale conventions of newsmagazine prose.

What, for example, is this graphic on the letters page? Why, for that matter, is there still a letters page? It's the first page of content you come to. Five one-paragraph comments on the issue published two weeks ago--room for little more than a thumbs up or down. On the Internet, thousands of people have their say immediately and at length. And then a self-parody: "Your thoughts on swine flu" –the cover story two weeks ago--"in six words." Hali McGrath of Berkeley, California, submitted, "Blah, blah, swine flu, blah blah." And Newsweek published it.

But back to the graphic. It lists what I guess are five articles from the issue two weeks ago, each attached to a percentage. A thin line heads east from the second item ("16% ‘The Path of a Pandemic'"), turns south, and ends up at a pie chart (38% neutral, 21% positive, 41% critical). A tiny footnote says, "Does not add up to 100 due to letters received on other topics." Oh, I get it, I think. This is a breakdown by topic of letters--letters!-- received about the issue two weeks ago, plus a breakdown of one topic (possibly the cover?) by approval. So now you know that twice as many people who wish to comment on "The Path of a Pandemic" than those who wish to comment on "Tom Daschle and Mitt Romney on Health Care" know where to find a stamp. Fascinating.

But enough about a two-week-old issue of Newsweek. Let's talk about a four-week old issue of Newsweek. The next page of editorial content is an "update" by the author of Newsweek's month-old cover story about former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. It discusses important ethical issues such as whether, in reporting that he and Spitzer had gone jogging together and Spitzer had pooped out, he should have mentioned that he is 20 years younger. Also, whether Newsweek, in publishing the original article, was wrongly participating in Spitzer's rehabilitation. "I didn't write about the process," he writes, "because I thought readers would find the story of private citizen Eliot Spitzer far more interesting than they'd find the story of how Newsweek journalist Jonathan Darman got the story." He'll know better next time. But is this article a "reported narrative"? Or is it a "provocative (but not partisan) argument"? Hard to say. The next page (labeled "Top of the Week") is Meacham's apologia (or is it a mea culpa, or maybe a cri de Coeur?). That means the first three pages of content in the new Newsweek are about Newsweek.

The next page of content is headlined "Scope," with the explanatory subhead "news, scoops and the globe at a glance," which is pretty much what Meacham had said Newsweek was not going to cover anymore. But never mind the headline. Most of the page is a picture of Miss California in a white bikini. I know she's Miss California because of a quote from Donald Trump just over her right shoulder, with the added information that he had "allowed [her] to keep her crown." Her breasts are covered by a table of contents of the Scope section. These contents include "InternationaList" (short dispatches from foreign parts; no list that I can see); a source-greaser (flattering profile of a figure who may prove useful) about CIA director Leon Panetta; something called the "Indignity Index," described as "an unscientific appraisal of dubious public behavior" (comedian Wanda Sykes gets a 12 for a rude joke about Rush Limbaugh, Keifer Sutherland gets a 68 for some kind of unpleasant encounter at a party); a short, serious essay by Melinda Gates about building institutions in underdeveloped countries to help poor people save money; and so on.

I say "and so on" as if there is some pattern or similarity here. But the only thing these various features have in common is nothing more about Miss California. It's been said that the test of a newsmagazine is whether you would grab it if you'd been trapped in a coal mine for a week and had one hour to catch up. And after a week trapped in a coal mine, perhaps an hour with a picture of Miss California in a bikini will be more useful than any explanation of why she's in the news. But the new Newsweek maintains the same irritating practice as the old one of half-explaining, which is no use either to those who already know the story or to those who don't.

For example, on the "Perspectives" page (quotes of the week) is a quote--"He's lanky, smart, tough, a sneaky stealth soldier"--identified as "Maj. Gen William Nash on Lt. Gen Stanley McChrystal, who was tapped to replace Gen. David McKiernan as head of U.S. operations in Afghanistan after McKiernan was asked to resign from his post." Got that? Through this blizzard of brass, we can discern the shadows of a story about Afghanistan. Maybe we should know all about it. But do we? In situations like this we used to rely on newsmagazines to help us bluff. But this quote is no help at all. The story seems to be about McKiernan's resignation, but the quote is about his successor. And what good is it to know that he is "lanky"?

My favorite feature in the Scope section, and possibly in this entire issue of Newsweek, is called (for no special reason that I can determine except for a failed attempt at a pun) "The Reign of Spain." And it consists of a handsome chart comparing the unemployment rate in Spain in December 2007 and in March 2009 with the unemployment rates in other countries on those same dates. Why Spain? Why those dates? Why these other countries? Newsweek's entire explanation: "Unemployment in Spain is soaring as the country sheds thousands of low-skilled jobs."

Next comes a section called "The Take," apparently a ghetto for Newsweek's columnists, who used to be sprinkled through the magazine. Reading six columnists right in a row might ordinarily be heavy slogging. But in this case the force and originality of their arguments and the beauty of their prose overwhelm any qualms. In fact, this magnificent section goes a long way toward justifying the entire misbegotten project. And I don't just say that because three of the six columnists are former colleagues of mine here at The New Republic. Or perhaps I do say it for that reason. Or is it the full-page photo of Fareed Zakaria in a white bikini that has numbed my critical faculties?

And so we progress to "Features," which seems to be longer articles on myriad subjects, many written by outsiders (Michael Bloomberg, Tina Brown…), who are prized because they bring an independent luster. Also, you don't have to give them health care. But the section's lead story is the magazine's cover story: an essay about and interview with President Obama by Meacham himself. This kind of thing was a staple of the old newsmagazine, and it follows strict rules. It always opens with an anecdote or telling detail that flaunts the magazine's access to the great, and illustrates whatever the point of the piece was supposed to be. Disappointingly, Meacham's reinvented Newsweek has not abandoned this stale formula.

Foreshadowed by the weak cover headline--"Obama on Obama"--Meacham's own opening anecdote is comically lame, reduced to using the temperature to gin up a bit of phony drama. Well, it seems that "last Wednesday, in the gathering cool of late afternoon," Obama was about to get on Air Force One to fly "to the heat of Arizona." He saw "a small crowd of schoolchildren and military personnel gathered with cameras and homemade signs" and went over to shake their hands. That's it, except for one more weather report: When he turned back to board the plane, "a breeze blew--and everyone scurried anew, to keep up with him."

Another piece in the issue--I guess it's supposed to be a "reported narrative … grounded in original observation and freshly discovered fact"--is about curing autism. "It's spring in Washington," the piece begins, "and Ari Ne'eman, with his navy suit and leather briefcase on wheels, is in between his usual flurry of meetings." It's spring in Washington. That doesn't seem to qualify as either an "original observation" or a "freshly discovered fact." Nor does it have any apparent relevance to the story that follows. Could it be a "provocative (but not partisan) argument"? And what about that blue suit? I have news for Newsweek: Washington is the blue suit capital of the world. Let's give them the leather briefcase on wheels.

I could go on. But you should buy a copy of the current Newsweek and judge for yourself whether the "argued essay" you have just read is "grounded in reason and supported by evidence." Don't forget to cancel your subscription to Time while you're at it.

Michael Kinsley is a former editor of The New Republic and the editor, most recently, of Creative Capitalism: A Conversation with Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Other Economic Leaders.