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When A Magazine Falls In The Forest, What Takes Its Place?

The demise of Newsweek's print edition makes us wonder: What, exactly, is a magazine in the digital age?

What is a magazine?

The question may seem deceptively simple, or needlessly obtuse. But it is a real problem, and one that the many longstanding publications face. 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?’” 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?” 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.

It is unclear how this slower, more analytical style will adapt to a digital future. Will the fully digital “Newsweek” revisit an event, such as one of the recent presidential debates, substantially after it happens? How much later? A day? A few days? A week? Will journalists reflect on events from a chronological step back, or will they feel pressure to deliver their analysis as rapidly as CNN?

Remaking the vehicle itself is probably the easiest part of the process. Newsweek already offers a digital edition; its tablet presence is growing rapidly, according to Brown. Remaking the publication’s content to be relevant and competitive in a digital age, to an audience with a near-infinite variety of information sources from which to choose, will be a much greater challenge.

Americans haven’t lost their appetite for news. They’ve just lost their appetite for news delivered via dead trees. USA Today reported recently on a Pew Research Center study that found only 23 percent of respondents in spring 2012 said they had read a print newspaper the day before the survey; in 2000, the figure was 47 percent. Magazine readers in the same study fell from 26 percent to 18 percent.

Newsweek isn’t the first publication to take the plunge and go digital only. SmartMoney went all-digital in September. New Orleans’ newspaper, The Times-Picayune, transitioned to printing only three days a week earlier this year. Detroit’s newspapers, though they still appear on newsstands daily, are only available for home delivery three days a week.

Bloomberg reported several months ago that Newsweek was projected to lose as much as $22 million this year, largely because of the cost of printing and distributing its traditional, paper-based product.

Depending on how you define a magazine, the form may or may not survive the transition away from paper. Whether that’s to be lamented will depend on what arises to take its place.

Journalism itself is alive and well; it’s the old model of mass-circulation, advertising-supported, printed periodicals that is following the telegram into history. I don’t think we will ultimately lose the art of exploring current events deeply and reflectively. We are just in the process of creating new digital canvases on which journalists can practice that art.

For more articles on financial, business, and other topics, view the Palisades Hudson newsletter, Sentinel, or subscribe to my daily opinion column, Current Commentary.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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