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Ed Driscoll

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Well, this happened:

To make sense of the strange Time and Newsweek covers appearing at your supermarket news stand recently — Newsweek seemingly going from cover stories on light S&M one week to Obama as “The First Gay President” the next; Time magazine concurrently featuring a breast-feeding three-year-old(!) boy – it helps to understand the history of newsweeklies.

Time began publishing in 1923 as the first weekly news magazine; Newsweek debuted a decade later as a copycat publication. (It was bought by the Washington Post in 1961, and in 2010 famously unloaded by the now-ailing newspaper for a dollar.) As Alan Brinkley wrote in The Publisher, his 2010 biography of Time founder Henry Luce, Luce and his then-business partner Brit Hadden (who died at age 31 in 1929) were originally going to call their publication “Facts” when they first conceived of the notion of a weekly news magazine in the early 1920s. One night in 1922 though, as Brinkley writes, while Luce was riding the subway home, he came across an advertising card above the windows of the subway car that used the phrase “Time for a Change” or something similar in its copy, which convinced him that “Time” was the correct title for his nascent magazine idea:

Hadden immediately agreed, and they never reconsidered. “Time” was attractive to them because it captured something of the dual purpose of their enterprise—to chronicle the passage of time and to save readers precious time. “Take Time—It’s Brief,” was one of the early slogans they attached to their announcements of the new publication; “Time Will Tell” and “Time Is Valuable” were others.

It also helps to understand what a novelty a weekly news magazine was in the 1920s, by comparing it to the competing information mediums of the era, as Brinkley goes on to do. The first radio networks, the direct precursors to today’s NBC, CBS, and (slightly more circuitously) ABC, were formed in that era. Movies were extraordinarily popular, though they still lacked sound until the end of the decade. That was the media culture in which Time was born, Brinkley writes:

With the exception of the national wire services, whose stories were filtered through local newspaper editors with their own interests and tastes, Time—which even in its early, frail years had subscribers in every state—was for a while the only genuinely national news organ. No newspaper had a reach very far beyond its own city. Radio news in the 1920s consisted of an announcer reading headlines a few times a day. Newsreels were not yet prominent. Even with its relatively modest circulation in the 1920s, Time established itself as an important force in journalism if for no other reason than that it reached men and women in all parts of the country and promised to rescue them from isolation and provincialism and prepare them for the cosmopolitan world.

As John Podhoretz wrote in 2009, recounting his experiences at Time in the early 1980s, until the World Wide Web arrived in the early 1990s, newsweeklies were still hugely influential, through the eighties and nineties, with its top journalists receiving limousine service and tony expense accounts:

Time Inc., the parent company of Time, was flush then. Very, very, very flush. So flush that the first week I was there, the World section had a farewell lunch for a writer who was being sent to Paris to serve as bureau chief…at Lutece, the most expensive restaurant in Manhattan, for 50 people.So flush that if you stayed past 8, you could take a limousine home…and take it anywhere, including to the Hamptons if you had weekend plans there. So flush that if a writer who lived, say, in suburban Connecticut, stayed late writing his article that week, he could stay in town at a hotel of his choice. So flush that, when I turned in an expense account covering my first month with a $32 charge on it for two books I’d bought for research purposes, my boss closed her office door and told me never to submit a report asking for less than $300 back, because it would make everybody else look bad. So flush when its editor-in-chief, the late Henry Grunwald, went to visit the facilities of a new publication called TV Cable Week that was based in White Plains, a 40 minute drive from the Time Life Building, he arrived by helicopter—and when he grew bored by the tour, he said to his aide, “Get me my helicopter.”

Once Matt Drudge blew open the story of Bill Clinton’s dalliances with Monica Lewinsky, a story that Newsweek attempted to suppress, the walls quickly began to fall, and savvy news consumers quickly began to receive their news elsewhere — including from news aggregation sites such as Drudge and Instapundit, which can be and are updated numerous times a day, unlike the increasingly lethargic schedule of the newsweeklies.

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