Saturday, October 8, 2011

Time for Newsweek?

Historically I've subscribed to more magazines that I can possibly read because, one, I tend to be a compulsive magazine reader, and two, I'm also cheap and loath to pass up a bargain even if it's for something I don't really need. So when I'm offered some ridiculously low subscription rate--some alleged "professional rate"--for even a magazine in which I'm only marginally interested, I tend to take the bait.

So over the years we've subscribed to such sundry titles as Smithsonian, The Atlantic, Bon Appetit, Organic Gardening, Harper's, Martha Stewart's Living, Reason, Dwell, Travel and Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, and even the Economist, which every week provides 50 percent more information about the state of the world than the average human can possibly absorb.

Lately I was considering Lapham's Quarterly, a book-sized publication with each issue dedicated to one topic, such as food. One friend recommended it as a "good magazine to keep by the can" presumably because you can gradually work your way through all the relatively short articles as you tend to your bodily functions.

Yet over the past several months I have gradually edited down our list of subscriptions. On the one hand I've grown tired of all the shrill and pointless political noise in the U.S. The self-mutilating debacle over raising the debt ceiling may have been the corker for me.

Second, I want to expand my reading horizons, especially since, ahem, at 63 time is not limitless. My reading habits have been heavy on politics, economics and generally non-fiction, and light on novels and history. One of these days I intend to even tackle poetry; and "tackle" it will be because reading poetry is something I find very frustrating.

A few magazines are staying. One is the New Yorker which I hardly read cover-to-cover but which most always delivers something arresting, one of those reading moments that leave you mumbling "Wow that's interesting," like James Surowieki's "Financial Page" columns. Or a really good writers like Calvin Trillin or Jeffrey Toobin. And the cartoons and cartoon-captioning contests.

Garden Design is voyeurism: Photo features of beautiful garden designs most of which won't work here because San Miguel is a semi-desert climate. National Geographic has beautiful photos and peeks at corners of the world you never imagined existed.

But I'm not sure about Time and Newsweek both of which I started receiving a couple of years ago thanks to some super cheap "professional rate." About a year ago Newsweek went into a coma: Under the editorship of Jon Meacham it had become a soporific collection of essays, with no particular appeal.  And as the magazine lost advertisers by the week, it felt as if it was literally vanishing.

Enter magazine Wonder Woman Tina Brown, who had revived Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, and whose arrival was billed in apocalyptic terms such as "if anyone can bring Newsweek back, it's Tina Brown." So I gave Brown a couple of months--probably not long enough--to see what she could do.

Newsweek seemed to get louder, more discombobulated, and went from boring to vapid. Time magazine remained its solid self, so I cancelled my bargain subscription to Newsweek, which has been sending me desperate pleas to re-up ever since.

As the editing dust has settled a bit, I'm having second thoughts. Newsweek is evolving into a interesting read. The October 10 issue has a cover about sperm donations of no interest to me, i.e., "how to get pregnant fast, cheap--and in public." But then it offers articles about comedian Jon Stewart touring with the USO in Afghanistan; Anita Hill 20 years after the Clarence Thomas hearings and a report on the Taliban that opens with a stunning two-page photograph.

Tina Brown throws in quite a bit of newsie tidbits that are not particularly informative, but overall the layout of the magazine is more open with more use of photography and graphics. I'm not one of those who scoffs at photographs taking space that rightfully belongs to words: A good photo indeed is worth a thousand words.

By comparison Time looks constipated. The October 10 "Special Money Issue",  devotes nine pages to junk like "The 5 Things You Should Never Buy Again" and "The Extremes of Couponing". Several pages are "briefings" about world, national and science news. An interesting four-pager talks about the collapse of the solar panel manufacturer Solystra after it had received hundreds of millions in federal subsidies. Compared to Newsweek's "Omnivore," Time's "The Culture" is awesomely dull.

News weeklies inhabit a tough corner of journalism. They pretend to provide news but really can't compete with daily newspapers, much less the Internet or television news which is updated constantly. That problem is worse for us because we receive magazines a week late. So they need to spin or find new angles to topics or people we we're already familiar with, such as Newsweek's piece about the Taliban or Jon Stewart's USO tour. That requires good writers and columnists but particularly much imagination on the part of the editor.

Wait, should I cancel my cancellation of Newsweek? Keep Time too?

Or cancel both and just get my news and analysis from the New York Times' Internet version to which I already subscribe (about $5 a week, the greatest bargain around)? Accessorize my commode with Lapham's Quarterly?

Right now I'm in the mood for reading more fiction or non-fiction divorced from current events, like my current Kindle selection, a book about Italy under the Borgias, who make the Sopranos look like a 4-H Club.

Another endangered subscription is Vanity Fair, whose mile-long articles, in tiny type and buried in heap of fashion ads, are getting on my nerves. How about editing down the articles and allowing more space for larger type, eh?
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