Closing night at Newsweek: the magazine used to be exhilarating and important

Virginia Heffernan
A copy of Newsweek is seen at Joe's Smoke, Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, in Portland, Maine. Newsweek announced Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 that it will end its print publication after 80 years and shift to an all-digital format in early 2013. Its last U.S. print edition will be its Dec. 31 issue. The paper version of Newsweek is the latest casualty of a changing world where readers get more of their information from websites, tablets and smartphones. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

If you've played so much as a second-string villager in a fifth-grade play, you know that things can get very, very weepy on closing night. Robert Barton's great handbook for actors, "Acting Onstage and Off," sends up that sentimentality in a dead-on little monologue.

"Goodbye, little line. Goodbye, little prop. I'll never use you again. Goodbye, little upstage turn."


I think of this monologue every time the curtain falls on another artifact of print culture. This time it's Newsweek, which goes dark on December 31, 2012. Goodbye, Newsweek, I'll never kind of skim you again. So long, "big get" cover interview. So long, curling address sticker and little centerfold staples; I'll never snag skin on you again.

Yesterday, Tina Brown, Newsweek's editor, announced that the U.S. version of the weekly newsmagazine, which first appeared as News-Week with a swastika-heavy cover in 1933, would cease publication in print by year's end. There will be layoffs, Brown announced. The hope is to slow Newsweek's losses, which stand at $40 million annually.

Long considered the Pepsi to Time Magazine's Coke, Newsweek nonetheless has an illustrious history. Yesterday, Howard Fineman, now the editorial director of the Huffington Post, feelingly remembered the Newsweek he once worked for. "In its prime, which lasted an astonishingly long time—from the early 1960s to the mid-2000s—Newsweek was as innovative, eminent and influential as any news organization in America or the world. Not every week, every issue or every story, but overall."

Fineman also recounts how, in 1996, he scored a cover story interview with Bob Dole. Every element of his tale is just shy of obsolete to today's app-happy readers, peering into their palms for headlines and weather reports. In Fineman's reminiscence, there's a paid-for-through-the-nose cover story. There's swashbuckling shoe-leather reporting. And of course there's subject of the story, benighted also-ran Bob Dole.

So it's worth relaying one little detail from the Fineman farrago to show how dramatically times have changed. In the winter of '96, Fineman, it seems, had to get from Des Moines, Iowa, to Pierre, South Dakota, in a blizzard. Ask yourself if there's a hotshot alive—at HuffPo or Politico—who would do this:

"I got to Pierre the only way I could: alone in the passenger compartment of an eight-seater I chartered with no notice at a private airport in St. Cloud, Minn."

And this was for a Newsweek interview with Bob Dole. Fineman says the cover story "came to define the race. Or so we told ourselves."

To me, this kind of expensive derring-do resembles nothing so much as the Cold War antics of the CIA. Or maybe something they still do at Skull & Bones, at Yale. It's a stunt of people with gigantic expense accounts, grandiose temperaments and high moral purpose who believe they change the world with their pranks and larks.

It was exhilarating to be part of magazines in those days. Even at fact-checker's desks and in editorial meetings, the conviction stood that everything—the outcome of an election, the conviction of O.J. Simpson, the box office performance of a blockbuster movie—turned on what we published and which photos we ran. Stern lawyers circled around, worried about libel. Editors cited the First Amendment regularly. People clucked over the merest appearance of a breach in the editorial-business divide. And everyone seemed determined to publish what was best, bravest and truest, the wishes of readers be damned.

You could no sooner bring up demographics or "minutes spent on each page" of the magazine—even if these things could have bern ascertained—than you could bring up just letting this one story go to a competitor. No writer counted comments or Facebook recommendations.

The world of periodicals has not just shifted form, words in ink becoming words in pixels. The way content now richocets across the Internet, its velocity, its mode of distribution and display, and above all its revenue model—all of these factors have made journalism a whole new entity. The medium is more profoundly the message than it ever was. A whole new kind of person becomes a journalist, and she uses a whole new part of her brain and heart and personality to do her job.

Tina Brown—who has worked on highbrow and lowbrow publications, on politics and culture, on TV and online—may be uniquely unsentimental, as journalists go. But even she choked up a little bit when announcing the print Newsweek's closing to her staff. That seems justified. Print journalism was, for a time, the show that would never close. It was "Cats." "The Phantom of the Opera." "Guiding Light." And it had, as they say, a great run.