Time in the Age of Immediacy

Time in the Age of Immediacy

On the rise and fall of the newsmagazine

Time is money–an adage well-worn by last century’s entrepreneurial and managerial classes–has lost much of its resonance these days. We have lots of time; little of it is becoming money. But if time is no longer money, so is Time no longer money. The modern newsmagazine–that glossy weekly that packed seven days of world history into twenty or so pages–no longer holds much sway. Americans do not read newsprint, let alone turn to its weekly digests. We read blogs and kindles; we gloss twitter feeds and listen to the hum of podcasts. Our knowledge of the world has gone from page to hyperlink, from daily and weekly to up-to-the-minute.

In a decade of diminishing capital and abundant free time, the newsweeklies of last century face a serious crisis: financially as subscription and ad revenues decline but also intellectually as the need to bring busy Americans a week?s worth of synthesized news wanes. “The Age of Efficiency is over,” Jill Lepore laments in a recent New Yorker.  “This is an Age of Immediacy, faster than the speed of thought. A week is an eternity; four hundred words is too many; yesterday is ancient. Stories aren’t only sorted by category; they?re ranked by popularity.”

The all-knowing aggregation of weekly events has become outmoded. Life, Saturday Review, and Collier?s Weekly have expired; Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report are mortally adrift, dinosaurs in the age before the meteor. What has arisen in their place is a breed of daily, Web-only news sites, updated by the hour and minute, full of logorrheic opinion and cannibalized reporting. Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, Gawker, Politico, these are our Newsweek, our Time, our Life–for better and worse.

The humbling fall of the newsweekly was, perhaps, best expressed by last year?s renovation of Newsweek. With waning subscription sales and an industry-wide decline in ad revenue, the magazine not only laid off 160 of its employees (through what one of its editors unblinkingly called “a voluntary retirement program”), but it also turned against its mass-circulation and middlebrow sensibilities. Instead of the illustrated spreads of celebrities and the couple-hundred-word book reviews, the magazine was now to become a purveyor of narrative journalism and high ideas (and also halve its circulation from 3.1 million to 1.5 million).

“While there is no shortage of information out there,” Newsweek’s managing editor explained, “we believe there is a scarcity of insight. We will ask some of the best writers and thinkers–Fareed Zakaria, Christopher Hitchens, Michael R. Bloomberg and Jon Meacham (winner of a Pulitzer Prize this year for his biography of Andrew Jackson)–to wrestle with some of the most pressing issues of our time.”

Leaving aside the question of when and how one Michael Rubens Bloomberg, now three-term mayor of New York City, became one of our best writers and thinkers, this seemed on the surface to be a good turn of events: a national magazine aspiring to be the first airport-circulated, color-illustrated “little magazine.”

But Newsweek’s redesign last year was also a sign of a larger, and perhaps more troubling, shift in the landscape of American culture. While magazines like Newsweek and Time once emblemized the self-assured nationalization of our culture and our political institutions, they have now become, as Alan Brinkley writes in his new biography of Time Inc. tycoon Henry Luce, “the chroniclers of a much fragmented and visibly conflicted world.”

As we enact xenophobic immigration bills, and our politicians struggle to invoke a common sense of purpose, the culture of our media has followed suit. There is no longer news to report but only news to argue over. There is a scarcity of consensus; an abundance of interpretations. And while “it would be a mistake to sentimentalize the previous century?s version of journalistic authority,” as Bill Keller wisely writes in his review of Brinkley?s biography (N.Y. Times, April 25, 2010), “today’s media–in which rumor and invective often outpace truth-testing […]–plays some role in polarizing our politics, the dysfunction of our political system and the increased cynicism of the American electorate.”

The once red giants of mass-circulation journalism are now in a state of reduction, shrinking their subscription bases as well as narrowing their content, and while there is perhaps much satisfaction that can be drawn from the dwarfing of these middlebrow stars, it should also not be forgotten that Time Inc. was a launching pad for a set of young men who did, in fact, go on to become some of our country’s best writers and thinkers: namely, Dwight Macdonald, James Agee, Irving Howe, and Daniel Bell.

David Marcus is an editor at Dissent.