Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Problem With Conventional Wisdom Is . . . It's Conventional

For the last several months I've had a ring-side seat at one of America's most fascinating media circuses--the sale of Newsweek magazine.
My ticket to the show was provided by Fred Drasner, the man to whom Bill Taylor and I first brought Fast Company magazine as a concept and who, with his then-partner Mort Zuckerman, made the decision to back our magazine.
A few months ago, after a decade-long hiatus, Fred called me out of the blue. He was going to bid on Newsweek, he told me. Would I agree to work with him on developing an editorial strategy, and, if things worked out, to serving as the editor under his ownership.
What evolved over the next few months was a free updated education into the current economics--and thinking--about news, journalism, and publishing in America.
Of course, I told Fred I would join his team, out of a mix of loyalty and curiosity.
But naturally, I started out as a skeptic.
We all know, after all, what conventional wisdom tells us about magazines, in general, and weekly newsmagazines, in particular: they're irrelevant.
News is a commodity. I wrote that myself in Rules of Thumb.
It happens on the web 24/7.
What we need are people who can provide context. Tell us what the news means--don't just produce more of it. Especially more of it that's later, slower, and less interesting that what we get in short, concise blasts that show up on our cell-phones, laptops, iPads, and other devices in real time.
Then I went to New York with Fred and Paul Ingrassia, my editorial team mate, to meet with the current Newsweek team.
And I began to re-think conventional wisdom.
Before we met with the Newsweek people, we had dinner with a refugee from the publication. Our own editorial "DeepThroat."
He made a compelling case that conventional wisdom is dead wrong.
What the world needs, he said, is a respite from the constant blasts that come at us on the Web. We need to be reminded that "the week" is not a useless increment of time. It's vital one, an important rhythm to events and human life. The news that passes as news, streaming across our electronic screens, usually isn't really news, anyway. It's data, information. It doesn't inform us; it numbs us.
What if a news-weekly actually concentrated on the two things its name says it is: all about news; and weekly.
While we were sitting in New York, preparing for our Newsweek meetings, a funny thing happened: Rolling Stone broke a story. A journalist (as it happens, a former Newsweek stringer) had spent a week (that pesky time period, again) in Europe with General McChrystal and his top team members. The result was a story that blew the lid off the Afghanistan command, cost the General his job--and reminded us all what real journalism does: It reports.
The New York media cried foul! Didn't this guy know he was burning his bridges with the General and his staff? Losing access? Probably sacrificing his seat at the correspondent's dinner in DC?
I made a mental note: We need more journalism, more reporting. We need more content, less context.
Then we had our meetings with Newsweek. The magazine had placed a hefty bet on context, not content. The prize of place went to the magazine's columnists and pundits, the public faces of Newsweek who appeared, along with the editor-in-chief, on TV talk shows and radio. They were smart, they were well-informed, they fit the bill for what magazines in America are moving toward--very bright talkers who can tell you convincingly what they think about what they've been writing about. It's created a world of journalism where "news" consists of journalists interviewing journalists.
When I got back home, I picked up the most recent biography of Henry Luce, "The Publisher" by Alan Brinkley. It's not only a great biography and a historical review of the American Century. It's a primer on publishing and the forces that created our ideas of what magazines can and should be. It's a book, ultimately, about America and Americans, and Luce's ability to tell us our own stories, report on our own national dreams and aspirations.
Then I turned to "American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone" by D.D. Guttenplan. Another must-read for anyone who's grappling with politics, journalism, and present-day America, as well as the journey of one of our most doggedly determined journalists, a national treasure who valued reporting and truth-telling above all else.
And I came away convinced that we need Newsweek, and Time, and The Nation, and all the other struggling news-weeklies out there. But we need them to do what they started out to do, not what they've bent themselves into.
Convinced that we don't want hard-core reporting, they've morphed into "theme-based" magazines. They try to guess the direction of the "national narrative," and then "make sense" out of it for us.
Never mind that most of the time their guesses of narrative arc are wrong! How could they be right? Even the best analyst who tries to connect the dots rarely nails it.
The real question is, at this point in American journalism, is that what we need our reporters doing?
Michael Wolff has long argued that American journalism took a wrong turn with Watergate. All of a sudden, the hard-working, hard-drinking shoe-leather-using reporters of the old school became media celebrities themselves.
Journalists got too smart for their own good, too Ivy League for their readers.
Compound that with the Web, that makes news nothing more than a constant crawl across the bottom of whatever side screen you're blind eyes are staring at, add Twitter and every other social media feed to the mix, and make everyone a blogger and a pundit, and you've got the Tower of Babel replacing serious reporting, tough-minded fact-gathering, and relentless questioning of authority.
We need fewer celebrities, and more muckrakers.
We need less streaming and screaming, and more investigative reporting.
At the end, my original skepticism was replaced by a lengthy memo that Paul and I wrote, laying out an editorial strategy for Newsweek, a plan to take the magazine back to its roots and forward to renewed relevance.
Then Sidney Harman outbid Fred Drasner for the magazine, and the memo became, well, a memo.
But here's what I learned from several months of thinking about something that I was sure I already knew the answer to, before Fred called: The problem with conventional thinking--about journalism, magazines, you name it--is that its conventional.
Which means it's probably wrong.
And certainly boring.
Let's hope that whatever Mr. Harman does with Newsweek, whatever TimeWarner does with Time, and whatever else happens to the magazine and journalism world writ large, we end up seeing more experimentation, more back to the roots thinking, and less conventional wisdom.
In their own opposite ways, it's what Henry Luce and I.F. Stone both stood for.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb