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Roger’s Rules

Wave of the Present: Newsweek Edition

October 18th, 2012 - 7:04 am

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.

The fate of Newsweek is but a blip on this gigantic cultural radar screen. There will be many — I am one of them — who regard its transition to digital-only format as simply a confirmation of its irrelevance. It will continue to exist, but in a shadowy, insubstantial manner, much as Achilles appeared to Odysseus in the underworld.

In A. N. Wilson’s book The Victorians, there is a marvelous photograph of an early railroad engine pulling what appear to be three or four re-wheeled stagecoaches on which were perched top-hatted men  and abundantly upholstered women. The assertion of the old in the midst of the new was patent and, to later eyes, comical. How thrillingly novel, however, it seemed to those who lived through the upheaval.

I reckon we’re at pretty much the same stage in this new internet and digital-powered development in communications as were those early railway passengers with respect to rail travel. There they were, giddy to be zipping along at 10 or even 20 miles an hour on this amazing new invention, a sort of mechanical horse with no legs. Naturally their carriages would look like, would in fact be, the stagecoaches of yore, for how else could one travel? (In his Notebooks, the English writer Geoffrey Madan recalled a questionnaire from railway line in the 1920s: “Did you have the compartment to yourself?”)

For many publications, the transition to digital-only format may be a prelude to a more final transition: oblivion. I suspect that may be the case with Newsweek, an organ whose news-dispensing function has long been superseded by other media, and whose opinion-dispensing function has seemed more and more silly as it hardened into a sclerotic recapitulation of “progressive” clichés. About a dollar’s worth of people read Newsweek when it was fully alive. Now that it is passing on to a more virtual state, another dollar’s worth will scan its pages, at least for a while. Nevertheless, the effervescent phenomenon in which Newsweek finds itself tossed about presages immense changes that go far beyond the quaint intellectual boundaries of something people once-upon-a-time found useful: the newsweekly. What an antique concept. Yet it is worth pausing to consider whether its superannuation is all progress or whether there is an attendant loss that will have to be made up elsewhere  — assuming, that is, that we muster the effort to make good the loss.

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