The demise of Newsweek’s defining print magazine means the end of Tina Brown’s desperate attempt to save the cover — not just of a print magazine, but really of anything at all — as a meaningful cultural force.
Brown was the master of the form. During her time at Vanity Fair, Annie Liebovitz’s photographs of celebrities became as representative of the magazine as any of the words within. Brown used the cover for the purposes of maximum disruption, and this didn’t change during her time at the New Yorker or Talk magazine.
When Brown arrived at Newsweek, her former cleverness was replaced with blunt trolling for controversy, and provocativeness became mere provocation. Where pregnant Demi Moore seemed bold and important, “Muslim Rage” and the macabre “Diana at 50” — plus total duds like simulated asparagus fellatio, which, hilariously, utilized a stock photo, were transparent controversy-stirrers.
Critics suggested that Brown had lost her touch, but in fact the game had changed, and she was trying to do the impossible. Brown realized that the media ecosystem favored viral images, and her covers spread on blogs and the social web. But they failed to carry the cover stories, or the magazine, with them.
The end of the cover as a central statement isn’t limited to magazines. In a Q&A yesterday, New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson explained part of the rationale behind choosing stories for A1: “Because the news developments are sometimes already known by readers when they open the paper, we try to choose articles that tell what I frequently call ‘the story behind the story,’ meaning what happened out of the public eye that helps explain why events happened.” She identified the Times website — a quickly changing stream of the publication’s reportage — as a representation of the brand’s identity as a whole, striving to incorporate all of the paper’s sections as well as multimedia, breaking news, and more benign culture coverage.
If covers are dead, the homepage may be next. As a form, it’s painfully static in the face of a media environment experienced by many consumers as a stream of content on Twitter or in the Facebook news feed. Reddit, which bills itself as the “Front Page of the Internet,” changes at a dizzying pace and is determined entirely by the whims of its readers, who upvote posts until they reach the traffic-ecstasy that is reddit.com. Websites like Gawker Media’s and BuzzFeed balance streaming front pages with a splash that may feature a story for a few minutes to a few hours — a move to embody the constant flow of content, rather than any structure or presentation articulated from the editor’s seat. This stems significantly from the rise of sharing as a method of discussion; when circulation is no longer fixed for any particular story, and readers determine whether that story will be read or not, a homepage can only do so much. And print editors who treat their homepages like magazine covers have completely missed the point: instead of creating organic, flexible extensions of their brand, they are pinning themselves down.
Because Tina Brown has been so identified with her covers, the demise of Newsweek seems to be symbolic. On top of the magazine’s separate struggles, both in terms of relevancy and content, Brown is admitting that she can no longer determine what people will be talking about at the water cooler. The water cooler doesn’t exist in 2012 as a real, live place; it’s the Internet, and the Internet determines itself. While Josh Tyrangiel, the editor of Businessweek, has risen to prominence largely because of his magazine’s beautiful, sophisticated covers, his always seem to be logical extensions of the stories inside, or witty comments on a relevant story. Businessweek is freed by its ability to be pedantic and micro; it is a business magazine, after all; it’s also not even trying to dominate the conversation. Brown’s Newsweek sought to set an American news agenda when an American news agenda that no longer exists.