Newsweek, sold for $1 a couple of years ago, is finally making good on its threat to can its print edition and soldier on in digital-only format. Does anyone care? Probably not. Not even the high-octane, buzz-oriented editorship of Tina Brown could salvage the venerable newsweekly, which began publication eight decades ago. Niall Ferguson made some waves when, a couple months ago, he wrote a cover story for the magazine explaining “Why Obama Needs to Go.” But such forthright, counter-establishment stories have been rare in Newsweek, which mostly offers the same politically correct pabulum readers can find in other organs of the formerly mainstream (now legacy) media. The Wall Street Journal, quoting a company press release, reported that Newsweek Global, as the successor (not to say posthumous) publication will be called, will offer “a single, worldwide edition targeted for a highly mobile, opinion-leading, left-wing audience who want to learn about world events in a sophisticated context.” It’s possible that the phrase “left-wing” was missing from some versions of that statement.
Tina Brown is quite right that the economics of print publication and distribution are “challenging.” We are in the middle — or rather, we are at the beginning — of a technological revolution that will change, is changing, the format of publishing. Print on paper is not going to disappear: I am confident about that. But it is going to be decisively supplemented, where it is not in fact replaced, by digital alternatives.
Traditionalists like me are apt to regard this change with regret. Is it not yet another assault on literacy, on the world of culture that the wide dissemination of books made possible? Maybe, at least in part. I think that the classicist John Herington was onto something when he recalled, in an essay called “Possessing the Golden Key” (1997), some “conservative-minded wit” who, in the early 1960s, put about a rumor about an amazing new technological device.
It was the key to everything you could possibly need to know, and yet it could be carried in the hand and needed no cords or batteries; it had no name as yet, but provisionally it was being called Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge, or BOOK for short.
Alas, the assumptions behind that joke — assumptions that had prevailed in Western culture at least since the time of the Greeks — are no longer so certain. “Anyone who sets out to predict any aspect of future society,” Herington noted,
must begin by acknowledging that we are now in the midst of a cultural transition compared to which the transitions from oral to written literature, and from manuscript to print, may prove to have been quite minor affairs. . . . Is the book likely to preserve its primacy, or even, in the long run, its existence as an instrument of education or entertainment? Will the word (whether spoken or printed or just looming greenly on a computer screen) be able to make headway against the roaring torrent of visual images?
Herington ends on a note of cautious optimism (perhaps more cautious than optimistic, especially about that traditional bastion of liberal learning, the university), but I believe his governing questions are more pressing now, fifteen years on, than ever.