Saturday, August 15, 2009

Newsweek: a great example of what journalism needs

I have been thinking this for a while now, and it's time I come out and say it: Newsweek—I am so, so proud of you.

I remember seeing piles and piles of the old you lying around my mother's house in New Jersey, sandwiched between the Asbury Park Press and old paper napkins scented with her gin and tonics. My mother had a fairly ambivalent attitude toward you, and I took that on as I grew up, even as I became a journalist. I didn't understand the point of you, and I don't think my mother did either. I adored the Washington Post, especially their Sunday magazine, but something about you... I just didn't get what you and TIME contributed to the conversation.

But now, things have changed.

“There’s a phrase in the culture: ‘we need to take note of,’ ‘we need to weigh in on,’ ” said Newsweek’s editor, Jon Meacham in a New York Times article. “That’s going away. If we don’t have something original to say, we won’t. The drill of chasing the week’s news to add a couple of hard-fought new details is not sustainable.”

I could feel that doggedness in the magazine even when I was younger, that sense of obligation that made the publication seem more like an informed citizen's duty to read rather than a pleasure, rather than something that could provide enlightenment and spawn fresh discussion.

With Newsweek's redesign starting with their May 18, 2009 issue, the magazine overhauled the format they had going for 76 years and replaced it with something perfectly packaged for today's ever-changing journalistic landscape.

Think about it. How are most newspapers and magazines trying to stay in the game? They're starting Twitter accounts and begrudgingly keeping up with them, or finding an intern who's only requirement is to be under the age of 21 to do it.

But Newsweek rethought their entire publication and executed it not in small doses, but all at once—which made the entire thing that more stunning.

They had an entire issue where political satirist Stephen Colbert was their guest editor. He inserted his humor into bits of the magazine (which were clearly pointed out as his work), such as: "Recycling magazines, catalogs and newspapers is one of the easiest ways for liberals to feel good about themselves." And in his editorial piece where he discusses the topic of this week's issue, he writes: "Americans have many lingering questions about Iraq. (For example: where is Iraq?) I wanted to find the answers."

Publicity stunt? Maybe, but it worked, it was damn hilarious, and the issue still had wonderful content. For those of us who respect high-quality journalism—but can also enjoy the humor of publications like the Onion—this was absolutely perfect.

The magazine is now divided into four clear sections: "short newsy items, essays and commentary, longer features and cultural coverage. It is printed on higher-quality paper, which instantly will make it feel better in your hand. I think the new design is sophisticated and airy, and makes the stories we work so hard on seem more inviting," said Assistant Managing Editor Kathleen Deveny in the "Reinventing Newsweek" column.

But it's more than the content. Newsweek has finally figured out that design can make or break a publication.
The new magazine is loaded with style. The palettes are softer and more elegant. New fonts are used in the magazine, including Archer, a signature font of the most un-Newsweek of all magazines: Martha Stewart Living. Cerebral and direct, unsnarky and anti-ironic, with cool hues and fonts to match.

“It’s so beautiful and open and a very modern serif font,” said Bonnie Siegler, the founder of Number 17, the design firm Mr. Meacham hired to redesign the magazine, speaking about the use of Archer in the magazine.

— from an article in the New York Observer

And these things, like font choices, do matter and it takes a great editorial team to really get that. Writers tend to want to believe their writing will rise above the need to have stunning photographs and compelling design. Unfortunately, in today's world—it does not. It just won't be noticed as much.

What's more—Newsweek does use Twitter, and they do it right. Before their issue on July 13, 2009 on books came out, they held a roundtable with six authors and live-tweeted the discussion. The quotes were incredible, things like Elizabeth Stout's reason for writing: "It's just a compulsion. It's absolute madness in a way, I think. The few times that I contemplate not doing it, it's almost like there's a flavor that leaves ordinary life." Now that is something you'd want to see on your Twitter home page.

Most importantly—they're bringing a necessary lightheartedness into journalism, which has gotten way too serious in this seemingly desolate landscape. In the Colbert issue, he writes: "I sent Newsweek's reporters to find out whatever happened to Iraq. Unfortunately, this meant cutting the cover story they had planned: 'Hey, Have You Heard About This Thing Called Twitter?"

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