So here we go: The Relaunch Issue, on newstands till March 14th. What’s it like? Multiple personalitied, that’s what.
Firstly, the cover: there’s some subtle touches of silver ink (strange echo of NYT mag there, except they used gold), and a slightly bland redrawing of the classic logo – which is then tucked behind Hillary’s head. She’s a good cover star, though it’s a slightly awkward-looking photo.
Also features the smallest bar code I’ve ever seen on a mag cover.
Elements of The Daily Beast design are visible in various places in the magazine – here, it’s in the use of thick black portrait-style frames. Opinion is clearly still a mainstay of the mag – the first thing mentioned is “Columns”, and there are eight of them.
Tina Brown’s intro – called “Notebook” – opens the content. She mentions that this issue is themed “Women in the World”. I suddenly had a dizzyingly exciting feeling of “hey, the entire content is going to be themed around this – every news story through the lens of the female experience. Wow!” And then I realized it wasn’t, and felt a little disappointed.
The piece also asserts the existence of the word “newsmagazine”. I guess “newspaper” gets away with it, but this is on paper too. Perhaps it’ll catch on in other areas, too. Newsnewsprint? Newsglossy? Newsapp? Newstweet?
“Perspectives” is the first of a few Daily Beast-esque pages scattered throughout the issue. It’s about “what they did and said on Newsweek’s website, thedailybeast.com.” It includes quotes from the news, and “The Daily Beast’s take” – single lines, each. Not sure if these are edited from longer pieces on the site, or just reflections from their staff – no links to further reading are suggested.
There’s one of The Daily Beast’s notoriously spurious, headline-grabbing “Top Ten City” lists, a cartoon and a series of “Oops! Leaders cozying with dictators” photos that is remarkably unnuanced in its message given that this is a serious news magazine. This disconnect between gossipy gag and proper analysis continues throughout the issue.
Free! A small white square of card. It’s the flip side of a bound-in subscriber card that appears near the end of the mag. Shame not to use it for something. The first proper piece, underneath its card mask, is a column by a Washington Post writer who makes some interesting and well-written points about female inequality in between reminding us of her book, the fact that she’s met some of the famous people in this issue, and a speech she gave where she said something important. Kind of reminds me of the self-importance of the Bill Keller opening piece in the NYT mag.
Historian Niall Ferguson’s column talks about the fear of male-dominated Asia, then a non-female-focused piece from an American political figure with one of the more demonic byline sketches I’ve seen for a while. Though none of these three really brings any incredible insight or amazing information to the table, there’s a plurality of knowledge and opinion in there that could become pleasing enough.
There are some icons used where drop caps would usually be – which is fine until a couple use a dollar sign, and I instinctively read them as an “S”.
What this Newsweek does do well is the photo editing, particularly in this News Gallery section. Strong images, printed large, with informative captions.
There’s another odd Daily Beast addition with “Xtra Insight” on these pages – sometimes it’s an interesting fact, sometimes it’s a fact and a place to read more, but in the case of a story about Steve Jobs, the best you can get is “Read Wozniak’s book”.
There’s a bigger problem with one of them, which reads “Visit THE DAILY BEAST online for Dirk Vandewalle’s look at the future, “Libya After Gaddafi”. Finally, thinks I, some genuine interplay between online and paper, even if it’s the most traditional kind – and then I go the THE DAILY BEAST, and the piece mentioned wasn’t on the homepage, nor even on their politics page. I had to search for it under the author’s name to track it down. The piece in question says it was originally published in the magazine, so presumably it was spiked at the last minute. Really should have changed that intro.
For an issue about female empowerment around the world, this is a strangely sexist / menacingly misogynist “jokey” headline about Sarkozy and Bruni’s relationship.
The First Report piece about Libya is really excellent. It points a direction for the magazine, and even a reason for its existence. It’s an insightful piece about the diplomatic background we don’t know about, in particular a man called Musa Kusa. The odd thing is that there are no pictures of Kusa used to illustrate the piece – only Gaddafi, who isn’t actually the focus of it. I like the illustration, above, but it really isn’t what the piece is about.
The section name NewsBeast makes me think of CurrencySusan, but maybe that’s just me. Anyway, it includes a timeline with its design taken from The Daily Beast:
Neat synergy, but there’s some strange events included – such as Bin Laden’s 54th birthday, don’t let’s forget about him now – and a strangely gossipy politicised picture caption “John Boehner licks his chops after persuading the Democrats to slash $4bn from the federal budget”. Or he might have had dry lips. It might be very Daily Beast, but such mocking partisanship don’t help the magazine seem impartial or mature.
The next spread feels more like Radar than Newsweek – silly cartoons, short pieces out of context and without explanation, and a very strange sense of levity compared to, say, its columnists and lead feature writers. It doesn’t really work. I’m not saying that all should be frowningly serious, but this style of lifestyle content doesn’t complement the rest of the magazine at all – and can be found in a thousand other mags, done better.
And then there’s this Charlie Sheen spread – well designed, but I have my doubts about a spread called “Big Fat Story” fitting snugly as part of the Newsweek brand.
Reliving History is a nice touch – usually the sort of thing that magazines put on the inside back page, to give some historical context to the issue you just read. Here it’s halfway through. I am, admittedly, a sucker for magazine history. Obviously.
The main cover story is a good one – about Hillary’s mostly unreported work to improve the lot of women and girls around the world. It’s sadly lacking in much from the lady herself, though. At six pages plus a double-page opener, it’s the longest piece of journalism in the mag.
The 150 Women Who Shake the World is a strong concept, and well designed – though I can’t help feel that 50 covered in more depth would have done all of them more justice. A few get a couple of paras, some five or six sentences, most a single line that asks more questions than it answers.
And, weirdly, there aren’t 150. I counted 146 pieces, with the subjects of some being of very indeterminate number – “Women of Italy who protested against Burlusconi” is an odd inclusion, as are “Runaway brides in Yemen”. I’m not saying they’re not worth featuring, but if you have a piece ostensibly focused on 150 individuals, perhaps there would have been a better way to talk about these issues elsewhere.
The Feminists in Tahrir Square is the best piece in the mag. It’s a great insider article, carefully researched, showing an unreported angle on a story everyone knows. Again, as with the First Report, it was missing an image of one of the key figures, however: Mrs Mubarak, described in the piece as the country’s Lady Macbeth. It would be good to put a face to such a prominent and hated figure in the article.
The rest of the magazine is pretty lightweight. The Dior piece has a great photo (top), but is a glorified catwalk review with little new to say, the lifestyle Omnivore section (note the Daily Beast iconography again) feels like Reader’s Digest. However, I have to point out some serious reservations about this piece:
It begins thusly: “Popular uprisings, while inspiring and (we hope) good for the citizens who spark them, aren’t just bad news for dictators. They’re often trouble for tourists as well… Political upheaval – in the Middle East or elsewhere – can suddenly limit access to some of the world’s most breathtaking sites. With that in mind, NEWSWEEK offers a guide for seize-the-day types.”
Really, Newsweek? Are you really saying “quick, go visit these pretty dictatorships and give them your money, before the people demand some rights”? Or is that a joke? I can’t decide which I’d rather it was. Whichever, it’s quite absurdly offensive in the context of all the previous pages, including the strong talk about women’s rights.
And though “My favorite mistake” is a cute idea for the inside back page interview, perhaps someone with whose money Tina Brown wasn’t so closely identified in her last big magazine failure (Harvey Weinstein famously part-bankrolled Talk) would have been a smarter choice for this highly scrutinized first issue.
What surprises me most, however, is how little print-digital synergy there is. I can’t easily follow Newsweek journalists talking about events in real time online. The only website featured is The Daily Beast, but Newsweek.com is not only still going, but carries more of the content of the magazine, clearly labeled, and without any Daily Beasting around it.
I can only presume that there will be a proper digital relaunch, and that some synergy will emerge – but right now, the two are as separate as if still produced by different companies. So much for the duality of digital and print. I hope to be able to report something more interesting happening on that front soon – and am surprised it wasn’t at least trailed in the mag. There’s a great opportunity to do something interesting in that area.
There’s some really strong journalism in there, and some really mismatched, poor-taste news-related gossip. And without the excuse of SEO bait, the gossip doesn’t really wash. This magazine has to stand or fall on the authority of its opinions, and the strength of its knowledge.
In a couple of pieces, I felt they were genuinely giving me well-written insight I might not have found elsewhere, on big news items I thought I understood. Much of the rest felt like cheap news-themed gags surrounded by throwaway, poorly researched information – and for that, I’ll stick to the web, thank you. At least there I don’t expect anything better.
As for the design, it’s crisp, clear, does its job, and good photo editing/placement allows the whole thing to work. Not groundbreaking, but serves the content well enough, has some smart nods to its online sibling, and doesn’t shout too loud. Nice to see some illustration in there, too.
Does it justify itself? Not yet. But, despite some missteps, I still feel that it’s a good enough platform from which to build. I don’t have any truck for those who say there’s no space for a weekly print news roundup in the internet age – just look at the success of The Week and The Economist.
The last relaunch had high aims, but thin prose. Tina Brown is known for having better instincts, and if she can get the news balance right, and truly make a content relationship between web and print thrive – for which she has the best opportunity yet to make something interesting, as her web platform existed independently of the mag first – then Newsweek might just become strong and, crucially, relevant again.
Very early days yet, though. Other critics have been sharpening their claws on it. Tina Brown responds to them here. What did you think?
NB: this is not the only model for an interesting, in-depth news magazine. Keep an eye out for my forthcoming review of a very different, new publication about current affairs, which proudly labels itself “The last to breaking news”.