My Newsweek complaint

I’ve been annoyed about Newsweek since they changed their format earlier this year. They went from trying to be a comprehensive weekly news magazine, to a shorter magazine full of page-long “opinion” essays coupled with longer-form “opinion-reporting” articles. This isn’t usually the kind of thing I would complain about here on the weblog, but this morning there’s a science-related angle, so I may as well explain my frustration.

The format change by itself might not have been such a bad idea. I’ve read Newsweek since high school, when I had to keep track of current events for public speaking. Over the years, it’s gotten less and less worthwhile – partly because the “opinions” started creeping into the news coverage, and partly because the blind spots got more and more obvious. Changing the format to a journal of opinion was at least forthright.

The problem is that Newsweek’s writers just aren’t that good at opinion writing. Now if I had the budget of a Washington Post property, I’d hire out most of the writing to people who actually had things to write about. In science and technology, which I care about quite a lot, there are all kinds of people who could write about new progress or the state of the art – and with an editor and a budget, they could do it for Newsweek’s audience.

Why do I want to read some staff journalist’s intimate thoughts about evolutionary psychology (a piece they ran this summer, and which has returned several times in column form), when they could get Steven Pinker, or David Buller, or Leda Cosmides, or anybody else with an actual chip in the game? I don’t want to automatically agree with what I read, I want a position to be competently argued and to tell me facts I didn’t already know. Why do I want to read some journalist’s he-said-she-said account of climate science?

So this morning, Gretchen found a useful Newsweek article – an essay by genome scientist George Church promoting his work on personal genomics (“The Genome Generation: The Case for Having Your Genes Sequenced”). That’s the kind of thing that a magazine filled opinion essays ought to be carrying – written by an acknowledged leader of science, directed to a general audience.

I said, “But I didn’t notice that in the paper magazine yesterday.”

“Oh, it says it’s a web exclusive.”

That’s right – they hired a real scientist to write a long-form opinion essay. And they didn’t print it. What’s worse, when I went to Newsweek.com to read the thing, I discovered you can’t even find it on the front page of the site.

I had to use Google News to find a Newsweek “web exclusive”.

We decided earlier this year to let our subscription lapse. I can’t say I’m going to miss it. I enjoy paper magazines – we take several – not least because I’d much rather read a long essay in print than on a screen. But the essay needs to be worth my time, which increasingly means worth bringing to the attention of students and readers.

UPDATE (2009-12-16): From reader A:

I just skimmed over your recent blog entry about Newsweek---someone had forwarded me the address of the Church essay (http://www.newsweek.com/id/226963) but the page doesn't open! It sticks at "loading" indefinitely. The future doesn't look good for Newsweek, as you suggest . . .

From reader B:

Instead of following your link to the Newsweek genome essay, I decided to try to replicate your experience by looking for it on the Newsweek site. Knowing its title and topic from your description, I found a link to it on the front page, near the bottom, in a section headed "News/Week", in a list headed "Life/Health". I suppose they might have added it since the time when you tried to find it. It's not prominent but you can get there from the front page. Whoa! This is bizarre. In my compulsive way, I wondered whether my link to Newsweek might not point to the home page. So I closed the browser tab and brought up Newsweek again to look at the URL. Sure enough: http://www.newsweek.com/. But now, under News/Week Life/Health, there was a different list of articles. Nothing about genes. On a third trial, the original list was back.

Maybe they have so much compelling content that they can’t manage to share it all at once?