WWJD: A prayer for those at sea

Quite a few people, for perfectly obvious reasons (by all means, click here and then here), have been sending your GetReligionistas all kinds of news reports about the Washington Post Company’s decision to put nonNewsweek up for sale.

I wasn’t going to write anything about this sad story until I read some of editor Jon Meacham’s comments during his very well-timed visit to Jon Stewart and his Daily Show congregation.

Then I thought: WWJD? The letter “J,” in this case, stands for “Jon.”

Therefore, I got out my copy of the classic Book of Common Prayer (a really battered old edition from England) and it seemed like these words might be appropriate:

Prayer 594: IN STORMY WEATHER

When through the torn sail the wild tempest is streaming,
When o’er the dark wave the red lightning is gleaming,
Nor hope lends a ray the poor seaman to cherish,
We fly to our Maker, “Save, LORD, or we perish.” …

I could continue, but this old classic contains all kinds of narrowly doctrinal language, including the word “sin.”

The elephant in the living room, in all of these stories, is whether Meacham was wise when he made the decision to cast off roughly half of Newsweek‘s remaining readers and focus on publishing a niche magazine sure to please a narrow, elite audience of cultural, political and religious progressives who share his vision of a broadly spiritual America based on, well, his own approach to history, theology and political thought.

Meacham announced that strategy shift with a bang, hooked to Lisa Miller’s famous and/or infamous cover story under the headline, “The Religious Case for Gay Marriage.” In effect, the Newsweek editor announced that he was creating a World Magazine for the Episcopal establishment and those who worship, or used to worship, in similar pews. That’s the new publication that I have taken to calling nonNewsweek.

That’s why it is so interesting to read, care of The Politico, Meacham’s Daily Show defense of his magazine and its role in American public discourse. Read carefully:

“I do not believe that Newsweek is the only Catcher in the Rye between democracy and ignorance, but I think we’re one of them,” Meacham said. “And I don’t think there are that many on the edge of that cliff.”

Asked by Stewart about today’s free flow of information — including news consumption — Meacham struck a foreboding tone. “We have to decide, ‘are we ready to get what we pay for?’ If you’re not going to pay for news, then you’re going to get a different kind of news,” he said.

That’s interesting, since the Internet era offers all kinds of advocacy publications — left and right. What it lacks is publications that strive for balance, accuracy and fairness, especially when covering divisive issues. However, later in the interview, Meacham stresses that he leads a “news, general interest” publication. Finally, there is this:

“This is an existential crisis — and it’s not just because I’ve had a bad day, and it’s not just because I feel incredibly strongly that this magazine for 77 years … has mattered unto the life of the country,” he said. “It’s one of the very few common denominators in a fragmented world. … I think the country will be poorer for our disappearing.”

That’s strange, isn’t it? I thought that Meacham’s strategy was to cast off the fetters of the old, balanced “American model” of the press and to sail boldly into the new, honest niche world of advocacy journalism — a strategy announced with the magazine’s openly one-sided cover story about the hottest or hot-button issues in American church pews and pulpits. Now he is mourning the loss of “one of the very few common denominators in a fragmented world”?

It’s a bit late to announce that course change. WWJD? Meacham had already openly and honestly set his ship on a different course.

Perhaps that ship has sailed.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • CV

    Here’s what New York Magazine had to say about Meacham’s crusade:

    “…The goal has been to go for what one top editor called “the better informed and more intellectually aspirational readers in the country.” It’s a noble decision that comes with built-in audience limitations — even the profitable Economist has only slightly over 800,000 readers, half of Newsweek’s new rate base, and below that there’s The Atlantic, at just under 500,000. Factor in macroeconomic trends away from print advertising that are beyond any editor’s control, and the size of the task becomes apparent. Given the difficult climate Newsweek faces, it’s not surprising that long before today’s announcement, many staffers — particularly younger ones— questioned Meacham’s leadership. In fact, in parts of the magazine, one senior staffer says, “morale couldn’t be worse. People are openly looking for jobs on their computers, visible to their colleagues and bosses.”…Before the announcement, Meacham was unapologetic about the course he’d chosen at the magazine. “The editorial approach that we’ve taken is not simply on a whim of mine,” he told me. “It’s a concerted attempt to take serious-minded individuals seriously. You can argue that, and it may not work, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I would rather fight on that ground than any other.”

    http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2010/05/can_jon_meacham_save_newsweek.html

    My subscription lapsed in precise alignment with the debut of the “new Newsweek” (the “religious case for gay marriage” cover story mentioned by tmatt). Perfect timing, as far as I was concerned.

    I guess I am just not “intellectually aspirational” or “serious-minded” enough. Perhaps my zip code is to blame!

  • Jerry

    It’s a bit funny in a gallows humor sort of sense that some friends on the left think of Newsweek as having been dumbed down into a “People”-class magazine so I guess the reason people dislike the magazine is determined by their ideological and religious background.

  • Peter

    It’s important to point out that Newsweek wasn’t succeeding as a Traditional, centrist publication because it was indistinguishable from Time. So Meacham tried. Bold experiment. Some say he didn’t go far enough and never rid itself of blandness and centrism.

    While we are dancing on graves, it’s worth noting that GR favorite Washington Times, which fully embraced European journalsim to become the house organ of the social conservative establishment, is also up for sale having imploded and reached circulation lows beleved to be around 45,000. Campus newspapers have a higher circulation.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    PETER:

    Other than the fact that Julia Duin is an experienced, trained and award-winning religion-beat pro — we really like pros like that — to what do you refer?

  • Peter

    Maybe it’s a “ghost” in your coverage or maybe you view the WT as a lost cause, but it is interesting that you scold Newsweek for going European but haven’t said a peep about the death of the truly European, our bias is even on the reccipe page, WT. Instead, it is praised for it’s coverage. It’s just interesting, that’s all. Maybe professional conflicts prevent yiu from criticizing the WT, I don’t know.

  • Chris

    I have an honest question. Newsweek used to be in my dentist’s office, and in the waiting room of my car dealership. I’ve noticed in the past year that it is no longer in either place. What proportion of Newsweek’s rate base consisted of subscriptions to professional offices to place in waiting rooms? Does going “up-market” eat proportionately more into that part of the subscription business?
    Granted, at more up-market offices (eg, the endodontist!) I’ve seen The New Yorker and sometimes even the Economist. But I haven’t seen Newsweek.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    PETER:

    Still waiting for a fact here.

    Please site an example of a European-style story in the Times we have praised?

    I am aware that the WTimes is a mix of European and American journalism. So is the NYTimes these days. We frequently praise the NYTimes, we frequently criticize the NYTimes. Remember, we are focusing on religion coverage here in the news pages.

    When you find a strongly slanted story on religion in the WTimes, one that does not attempt to cover both sides of the story, please let us know.

    A URL please.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Ironically, both I and my non-religious parents gave up on Newsweek because of the increased religious coverage. I moved to “U.S. News and World Report”, but these days I get virtually all of my news via the Internet.

  • Dave

    The interesting question here is not whether Newsweek exhibits niche characteristics but whether its chosen niche produces market success.

  • Jerry

    Terry, assuming you accept the premise that online polls reflect the political bias of the readers, one indicator of the right wing slant of the Washington Times is reader polls for example http://www.washingtontimes.com/polls/2010/may/are-democrats-hopes-holding-control-house-and-sena/results/ which is very far away from the fact-based 538.com poll which shows at this point that it’s highly unlikely that the Democrats will lose control of the House and Senate. http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2010/04/senate-forecast-update-little-chance-of.html

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    Fine. What does that have to do with GetReligion and coverage of religion-news stories in the news pages?

    I know that there is European style coverage in the WTimes, as in the NYTimes. I know. We are trying to cover the hard news coverage of religion. Ditto for Newsweek.

  • Jerry

    Terry, The point that I think a couple of us are making is that you’ve attacked Newsweek per se and not just their religious coverage (“non-Newsweek”) so from that perspective, we’ve attacked the Washington Times.

    Of course one can find good religion stories in all sorts of places whether it be the NY Times or the Washington Times or even Newsweek.

  • http://biblebeltblogger Frank Lockwood

    Newsweek waited too long to target the “better informed and more intellectually aspirational” (left-wing) demographic. The strategy might have worked 15 years ago, before the Internet, Starbucks and the New York Times popped up in every town across America.

    Unfortunately, Newsweek can’t compete with the Times or, for that matter, with the New Yorker.

  • David Adrian

    See “Newsweek Squeak” by John Podhoretz in Commentary at http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/-i-newsweek-i–squeak-15439.

  • Jonathan S.

    As a former Newsweek subscriber, I feel a twinge of sadness, like seeing a former girlfriend whose life has gone very badly because of poor choices she has made.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    Newsweek’s bias goes back at least to the 1970′s, when it gave us the “progressive” heroes trying to change the Catholic church (pill okay, gay priests okay)…

    The bias is not just in their choice of stories, but in small items in the midst of what are supposed to be hard news stories.

    For example, one “News” article on the Sacajawea coin had a snide remark that “some” might be upset that an unwed mother is on a coin…yet Sacajawea was a married woman, according to tribal custom, so this had no reason to be in the the article except to ridicule Christians…(Ironically, the “real” religious story behind the coin wasn’t mentioned: That baby John Baptiste was the first Catholic ever to make it on a US Coin)…