Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Where Have All the Magazines Gone?

I was sitting a few minutes ago looking at the Esquire covers created by George Lois.
George has been feted as a genius for his magazine covers. They defined an era. Kind of like "Mad Men" but the real thing.
You flip through the covers and there are some great ones. And a lot of not quite great ones. And even more could have been great ones. And some that you wonder, what was he thinking?
Because magazines are hard. And covers are even harder. So George did amazing work, especially when you think about what everybody else was doing.
Which brings me to Tina Brown, Newsweek, and Sidney Harman.
I've never met Sidney Harman (this is standard for all pieces where someone is about to be hammered--I've never met him...but.)
Sidney Harman bought Newsweek for $1, all the debts the Washington Post had run up by not paying attention to what was going on, and the promise that he wouldn't fire anyone.
I know this because I was part of a team trying to buy Newsweek. Our promise was, we'd try to make Newsweek a great magazine again.
We lost, Sid won.
Then a lot of people left Newsweek while Sid tried to figure out what he wanted to do.
Fact was, he didn't know.
He wanted to be a player. He's 92. He has a bundle of money. Newsweek was relatively cheap and made him a player. Beyond that, I doubt Sid had an idea.
Then he had an idea.
Tina Brown.
Tina Brown was Sid's next big idea. She's a famous editor, a celebrity editor. Maybe he could get her to be Newsweek's new editor.
It's an idea.
It ignores a lot of facts.
Like the fact that Tina has left a bunch of wreckage in her path in the last few years. Remember Talk magazine? Remember the launch party at the Statue of Liberty? Lots of money, liberally thrown around, supporting a kind of a concept: America needs a magazine that's kind of like the high-toned, low-class, cheesy, sleezy mags of Europe. Didn't work.
Before that Tina worked at The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker.
According to folks who know, Tina's version of The New Yorker lost $1 million a week.
If my math is correct, that's more money than Newsweek lost last year. $52 million a year is a lot of money to lose.
But she's a celebrity editor.
Which raises the question: what's happened to America's great magazines?
I look at the George Lois covers, and I don't see great covers. I see an editor who had ideas. I see an editor who had the courage to do smart, bold, challenging edit.
That's what we need in American magazines today.
Not more celebrity garbage. Not more flash and trash.
These are amazing times. The conventional wisdom is boring. The celebrity circuit is overcrowded.
Where's the editorial courage to ask tough questions, to pay for serious investigative reporting, to challenge the easy way and propose a new direction?
Sid Harman has given more than his fair share of cool interviews and hip speeches since buying Newsweek.
But I'd be greatly surprised if The Daily Beast-Newsweek combination spells more courageous journalism for America.
If I'm wrong, I'll be the first to say so.
If I'm right, it's just another loss for a country that actually needs some great journalism to ask the right questions and produce great covers.
In the end, it's not the art directors, or even the owners, who do the work that we gasp at in awe. It's the great editors.
Where are they when we need them?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Look Back in Anguish

I've been in New Zealand for the last week, having arrived here one day before the U.S. election.
It's the first time I can remember being happy to be out of the country on election day. It's not so much that the hateful Republicans were poised for huge gains at the expense of the hapless Democrats. Or that the Tea Party is such a sad commentary on the mood and temperature of the American public.
It's that the whole exercise of democracy in the land of the free and the home of the brave has become an exercise of money in the land of the rich and the home of the unemployed.
The last election cycle had so little to recommend it. Sure there were the candidates-as-jokes. A Senate candidate--a candidate for the U.S. Senate! the greatest deliberative body in the world, by its own admission--goes on TV to announce she's not a witch! It's like the old days in corrupt Rome when the emperors nominated their favorite animals to that Senate. And it wasn't just the unbelievable amounts of money being dumped into elections by candidates themselves--Carly and Meg--and by companies with bottomless money pits.
My desire to be out of the country when the votes were being counted had more to do with the spirit of America at the moment. Anger, lost confidence, lost hope, lost community, lost optimism. A seeming incapacity to generate smart solutions to pressing problems, and an even greater incapacity to execute solutions in ways likely to produce real results.
I keep thinking back to Jared Diamond's diagnosis of the four stages of failure that afflicted societies in the past that disappeared.

Failure to anticipate a problem before it arrived.
Failure to recognize a problem after it arrived.
Failure to act on solving a problem after recognizing it.
Total failure because it became too late to act.

It's quite possible that America is mired in stage 3: we've recognized our problems--social, political, environmental, economic, educational, you name it--but we seem incapable of acting to solve them.

And it's not as if the rest of the world hadn't noticed.
Here in New Zealand my wife and I went to dinner the other night with four Kiwis. It was an informal, fun, out-spoken evening, which is pretty much the character of this independent-minded nation.
Somehow or other, the conversation came around to the state of the world--maybe because New Zealanders uniformly refer to themselves as being "at the edge of the world." This is a land where the people have a keen sense of nature, of the environment, and of the ways in which humans directly impact the quality of life--and the future of life--on the planet. After all, before humans arrived in large numbers on New Zealand, there were no land mammals on the two islands! No land mammals! So all the rabbits, stouts, and possums that afflict the birds in New Zealand were introduced by humans. In some cases, humans kept bringing animals over, long after the negative impacts had already become apparent (see stage 3 above).
The question was posed to the group at the table: If you had to appoint one nation to be in charge of emergency measures to rescue Planet Earth from its gradual but seemingly certain decline, what country would you pick?
One Kiwi picked Ireland: if we're all going under, he reasoned, what better group to throw the wake for the Earth than the Irish?
Another said Denmark. The people are smart, considerate, the quality of life high, and the likelihood to come up with good solutions better than anyone else.
One picked China. Not so much for human rights--that she let slide. But on the grounds that the Chinese are recognizing their impact on the earth, moving aggressively to alternative energy sources, and clearly able to implement solutions and get things done. Witness the Olympics.
None of the Kiwis--not one--selected the U.S.
None of the Kiwis even mentioned the U.S.
The attitude was, the U.S. is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
That the U.S. is focused on consumption, hooked on wasteful habits, undisciplined in social and environmental practices, incapable of implementing strategic solutions that could actually benefit the earth as a whole.

For a fun evening of lively conversation, the attitude toward the U.S., coming on the heels of our own dis-spiriting election, left a slightly bitter after-taste.

It's not just what we're doing to ourselves.
It's that the whole world is watching while we do it--and do it to them, as well. We may not have the distance to be able to see ourselves as others see us.
But be clear: they do see us, and in ways that would help us, if we could only see ourselves through their eyes.

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