Long before the first issue of Tina Brown’s revamped Newsweek hit newsstands, critics already questioned its future. Regardless, the new editor promised in her inaugural column “to re-create a great institution after its journey through tough times. What a magazine can offer readers is a path to understanding, a filter to sift out what’s important, a pause to learn things that the Web has no time to explain, a tool to go back over the things we think we know but can’t make sense of.”
I don’t want Newsweek stubbornly clinging to its past, but I resent the empty notion that a few new fonts and colors make an old magazine more “hip” and thus more relevant in today’s media quick sand. Don’t insult my intelligence while trying. Print magazines will never compete with interactive media hipness, whatever that means. Why should they? They need to provide the content and context that gets lost in the immediacy of the newsy, noisy Web. In that she’s right. Magazines need to offer enough value that I’ll keep them around for a while, even reread them or use them as a resource. Every article should have a quote to remember and make me think. I don’t believe that is too much to ask, but Ms. Brown doesn’t deliver.
The second issue of this new “filter” has entered the superfluous space of fluffy magazines and is anything but. The readers have not become part of the discourse, nor are their voices heard. I am sure that they are evenly divided between those who like the new look and feel and those who don’t. Brown, however, is not interested in a dialogue with her audience. All three letters and tweets to the editor about the new design that were published in the second issue praise its “oomph,” and its “sharp and engaging” look. How is that, to quote Tina Brown again, “making sense of it all”?
But to be fair, I can’t evaluate the content beyond the two issues that have been published so far (I will revisit the topic here in a few weeks). For now, I will just say this: I was baffled that the first two issues managed to give a combined 5 pages to the Charlie Sheen story (as I am sure Talk Magazine would have eagerly done). Sheen even manages to get his headshot on the cover, a pathetic little thumbnail of a pathetic little man, squeezed to the outer lower edge, right beneath a burning house floating in a sea of debris in Japan. Quite a “path to understanding,” Ms. Brown! Cheers for that! But if this is the extent of your “filter to sift out what’s important,” as you promised, at a time of economic hardship, turmoil in the Middle East and Japan on the brink of nuclear meltdown, I’ll pass. Oh, and we also get introduced to the future British princess or whatever her title will be pouting in her underwear. Awesome.
The magazine looks cheap with an unpleasant ‘70s feel. The headlines state the obvious and could appear in any British tabloid or the New York Post (“Nightmare in Japan”). Its myriad of font types, sizes and weights, and an overall confusing black-red and blue color scheme with tiny visual elements are dizzying. The new section names — NewsBeast (yes, we get the connection), Omnivore, The Big Fat Story, XTRA INSIGHT — come straight out of Highlights for Children. Many of the black & white pictures should have been color, while some color pictures would have been more expressive if left in black & white (including Charlie Sheen and the British royal what-ever-her-name-is in her nickers).
The graphics, logos and headshots that accompany the columns are flimsy, sort of Wall Street Journal-ish but out of ink (or too much of it) and less graceful. Some articles use so many blog heads, subheads, bylines, decks, intros and haphazardly positioned oddly rounded drop caps and horizontal and vertical lines in various thickness (in, you guessed it, red, black and blue) as well as bold lead ins and pull-quotes that I am exhausted before I even get to read the rest of the copy. Oddly enough, there is also a lot of white space in all the wrong places and that is equally distracting. I initially merely skimmed the articles because I was so puzzled by the style elements that were supposed to draw me in. Brown seems to be strongly opposed to “less is more”. Black is her color. Bauhaus be damned (but I doubt that many of her copy editors know what that even is). Whatever! We prefer to be, like, bloody hip.
The problem is not the busy layout; the problem is that the layout is unimaginative and uninteresting; nothing innovative happens here. Nothing like the layout of Wired Magazine that uses every thinkable and unthinkable element of text and graphic style to give each page and section its unique modern feel. But they use old-school elements (think Bauhaus again): geometry, straight clear lines and optical illusions; color schemes that provide depth. Graphics that are sleek. They use the various fonts as artistic tools. With them, more is really more. In comparison, Newsweek’s “hip new look and feel” is overzealous and amateurish. You want peppy? Try again.
“Having read the [first] issue front-to-back,” writes Jack Shafer in Slate, “I can report that the gaps remain, the agenda has not shifted, and the crackling, confusing digital dots are still scattered at random on the floor.”
I agree. If Tina Brown’s goal is to reincarnate the serious, in-depth newsmagazine with analysis and good writing, I believe she drives on the wrong side of the road. Most of the content as it stands now could easily find its place on the Daily Beast website or in O Magazine and People. Nothing wrong with that, but don’t pretend to reinvent the newswheel. I expect from an engaging, relevant print newsmagazine to provide me with challenging long-term analysis, investigative reporting, a focus on the bigger picture and an in-depth look at what has disappeared under the screaming fluffy radar of new media. I want brilliant writing, a way with words that sets the bar high for the reader. Long-narratives written by seasoned, sharp writers who bring with them the broadest and widest outlook possible. Writers who have seen the world and can provide context to the news. Writers who challenge me and my views.
None of the content in this magazine comes even close to that yet. For now, it is just one more outlet for an editor with a big ego.