The question may seem deceptively simple, or needlessly obtuse. But it is a real problem, and one that the many longstanding publications face Sherry Dyson . The most recent to face it is Newsweek, which announced last week that the 80-year-old magazine would transition to an all-digital format. The last print issue will appear on Dec. 31.
The final paper issue will be a magazine by anyone’s definition. It will have printed pages containing photographs and text, held together by staples and folds. Will the following week’s issue still be a magazine when it arrives on browsers and iPads and Kindles? Or will it have become something else?
I don’t quarrel with the decision by Tina Brown, Newsweek’s editor, to kill the paper edition. Digital delivery is unquestionably the future of news and information. I wonder, though, what the title “Newsweek” (or “Newsweek Global,” as the digital publication is to be called) will mean going forward. The Daily Beast, Newsweek’s online home, updates more or less continuously, as other online news sources do. What will distinguish Newsweek from all other instant news media with which it competes?
Many Newsweek readers have already switched from print to digital, or have found their news analysis elsewhere. Humorist Michael J. Nelson tweeted after the announcement, “Newsweek magazine to go out of print, prompting millions to cry out, ‘Newsweek was still in print?'” (1) Though a joke, it has a ring of truth considering the magazine’s sharp falloff in subscribers – a 31.6 percent drop in 2010 alone, according to Pew Research.
Blogger Andrew Sullivan, whose column “The Dish” appears on The Daily Beast, offered a longer and more thoughtful reaction to the shift in Newsweek’s format, asking, “But since every page on the web is now as accessible as every other page, how do you connect writers together with paper and staples, instead of having readers pick individual writers or pieces and ignore the rest?” (2) He suggests that what defined magazines was that connection between writers, overseen by an editor and presented in a bundle. Though writers are now often nominally housed together on websites, readers pick and choose with much more ease than pre-Internet media allowed.
The weekly news magazine’s traditional role was to be more thoughtful or analytical than a daily newspaper. Back in the days when a daily paper was a household staple, news magazines permitted those readers who didn’t have the time or inclination to read the morning paper cover to cover to catch up on special or important events in the world. News magazines allowed such readers to be as well informed as – or sometimes better informed than – their daily paper-reading counterparts.