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Wave of the Present: Newsweek Edition

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 I suspect that may be the case with Newsweek, an organ whose news-dispensing function has long been superseded by other media, and whose opinion-dispensing function has seemed more and more silly as it hardened into a sclerotic recapitulation of “progressive” clichés.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.