You could wake up half the populace in the United States in the middle of the night and ask them why the 79-year-old, once indispensable Newsweek will no longer appear in print. You would receive the conventional wisdom, offered with offhand, matter-of-fact certitude. The Wall Street Journal put that conventional wisdom this way:
“ . . . signpost of how traditional print news outlets are being battered . . . ”
“ . . . Internet accelerated a downward spiral . . . ”
“ . . . challenging economics to print publishing and distribution . . . ”
All true. And all rather ironic, offered as they are by perhaps the most economically successful print news outlet in existence. “One of,” we say, for there are others — even other newsweeklies — that are thriving, such as the Economist. What happened to Newsweek was no more inevitable than a death notice for the Economist or the Wall Street Journal.
Newsweek’s death was unnatural, not inevitable. Newsweek made two critical mistakes: First, it made a counterintuitive, anti-economic, herd-mentality decision to give away a significant portion of its content online; and then, when readers discovered that they did not need to pay for what they could get for free, Newsweek decided to degrade its content to unimaginably and embarrassingly low levels.
Neither decision was wise. Neither was required by circumstance, nor were these decisions in keeping with the grand journalistic tradition by which Newsweek was known for decades. The idea that a business could be sustained on the basis of paying a network of skilled reporters, then giving away what they researched and wrote, illustrates the addictive, mentally eviscerating allure of the new electronic media. (It also illustrated the fallacy that at the beginning of online media that readers would no longer pay for quality reporting.)
And when the grand electronic giveaway didn’t keep Newsweek print readers, Newsweek decided that nobody wanted quality news reporting anymore, just scandal and controversy. Thus Newsweek trans-mogrified itself from a newsweekly into a tasteless form of a tabloid journalism. Surprise, surprise. Few wanted that, and now Newsweek has folded.
Will Newsweek survive, let alone thrive, online? Not if the same people making its strategic decisions are left in place.
Electronic publishing has drastically widened the availability of news, rendered its quality decidedly mixed, and not replaced the quality research and investigative reporting that only print media are structured to provide. We are confident that people will gravitate to quality in sufficient numbers to sustain print media long into the future — if these media, unlike Newsweek, stick to high standards.
Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News