Newspapers Notice News Mags Are Turning Into Opinion Mags, But Editors Still Deny They Lean Left

On Monday, both The New York Times and The Washington Post noticed a long-simmering trend: Time and Newsweek have increasingly abandoned news reporting in favor of being more opinionated "thought leaders." In the Post, reporter Howard Kurtz bluntly declared, "The rival editors are turning out weeklies that are smaller, more serious, more opinionated and, though they are loath to admit it, more liberal."

Newsweek editor Jon Meacham and Time editor Rick Stengel didn’t want to admit a bias. "I'm not ideologically driven by any means," claimed Meacham. "I'm really conscious of trying to be fair and balanced," argued Stengel, although Kurtz noted he was at one time an aide to the Bill Bradley 2000 presidential campaign.

The New York Times reported Newsweek is undergoing a major change in theme, trying to compete more with highbrow magazines like The Economist than with Time. Meacham strangely claimed that news magazines were like people: "Sometimes they’re the most delightful person in the world, sometimes they get drunk and throw up on you."

In the Post, Kurtz began by noting how a dramatic reduction in the news magazine work force and the increasing acceleration of the news cycle have been tough on these tomes:

The days of a "newsmagazine of record," Meacham says, are long gone. The rival editors are turning out weeklies that are smaller, more serious, more opinionated and, though they are loath to admit it, more liberal. They are pursuing a more elite audience, in print and on the Web, abandoning the old Henry Luce notion of catering to the masses. It is nothing less than a survival strategy....

The magazines are facing the same problems as every other part of the news business: declining revenues, shrinking audiences and a speeded-up digital culture that makes them seem slow. Newspapers scramble to catch up with bloggers; magazines lag behind newspapers; network broadcasts are hours behind the cable news channels. The idea of a weekly news product seems almost quaint. Analysis is great, but how do you stand out in a world that is saturated with opinion?

One answer is to jettison the old straddle-the-center formula in which the newsweeklies spoke with an institutional voice rather than publish bylines. Each magazine's lead columnist -- Time's Joe Klein, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter -- is liberal. Newsweek has been running columns by Jacob Weisberg, the liberal editor of Slate, another Post Co. property. Newsweek also ran a controversial cover last month headlined "The Religious Case for Gay Marriage" -- "one of the last great civil rights issues," Meacham says. And its top writers appear regularly on liberal talk shows on MSNBC, with which it has a news partnership.

"I'm not going to be silly about it," Meacham says. "A lot of people think we're left of center. I think it depends on the week and the issue....I'm not ideologically driven by any means." He notes that Barack Obama's campaign limited cooperation with the magazine when Newsweek ran a cover photo of arugula last spring to symbolize his elitist image. Meacham himself wrote a post-election cover piece on why America is still a center-right nation.

Time ran a column last week by liberal academic Jeffrey Sachs titled "The Case for Bigger Government." This week's issue features Obama, Time's Person of the Year, yet again, and the cover headline "Great Expectations," plus a piece on his wife as "America's Next Top Model."

Stengel, who worked for Bill Bradley's Democratic presidential campaign, says he has tried conservative columnists -- including Bill Kristol, who left -- but has not come up with a star. "I get as many complaints from readers that we're too left as complaints that we're too right," he says. "I'm really conscious of trying to be fair and balanced."

Both editors told Kurtz they were looking upscale for readers, trying to connect with literate news junkies, and not the unwashed masses:

Meacham, wearing a dark sweater in his office overlooking Central Park, says that "we don't edit with the idea that there is a poor and uninformed reader out there who somehow needs illumination." He sees his audience as "the virtual Beltway," which he defines as people who watch Sunday talk shows, read newspapers and buy hardcover books.

Stengel, wearing a dark sweater in his office with a view of the Hudson River, says his philosophy, especially online, is "news for smart people. . . . We are arguably the best-known news brand in the world, and we want to leverage that."

...Stengel says his goal is to "make Time lead the conversation, not follow it. To speak stronger with a point of view. To mix more analysis with reporting. Not to ask questions, but to answer them on the cover" -- as with this month's story, "Why Israel Can't Win."

Meacham said going all political was serving the "base," although it’s a little unclear whether he means his magazine’s subscriber base or the Democratic Party’s liberal base, and the two audiences might have a lot in common:

"It is a conscious strategy to serve the base," Meacham says. "We have done more politics, more foreign policy, more economics." Editors sometimes debate whether they are getting too wonky, but Meacham says he is "enormously proud," for instance, of putting William F. Buckley Jr.'s death on the cover.

In the New York Times, reporter Richard Perez-Pena added more analysis from the magazine brass:

"We’re not in the business of telling people the news," said Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time, a product of Time Warner’s Time Inc. division. "News has become a commodity. They already know the news."

For expert analysis, the Times went over to the far left for an endorsement:

"Time and Newsweek have definitely become more about views," said Victor Navasky, a journalism professor at Columbia University, and a former publisher and editor of The Nation. And as a strategy, he said, "I think that makes sense."

Later, Perez-Pena explained the planned Newsweek overhaul:

Newsweek, owned by The Washington Post Company, is planning a major overhaul this year. It has not made its new vision public, but executives have said it will strive to be a "thought leader," competing more with The Economist than with Time – in other words, a big stride in the direction it was already headed. The strategy includes a major reduction in circulation and operating costs and a focus on an elite audience to attract advertisers.

"I think a weekly magazine is a standing dinner date, or the fourth person in your bridge game," said Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek. "Sometimes they’re the most delightful person in the world, sometimes they get drunk and throw up on you. But enough times in a year, when something happens, that’s the first place you want to go to hear what they have to say."

Here’s one example of imposing your liberal personality on the readers:

Newsweek has tried harder to be controversial; its cover article in December, "The Religious Case for Gay Marriage," generated hundreds of thousands of e-mail messages, and leading bloggers weighed in on it for several days.

Meacham's declaration to the Post that he was "not ideologically driven" is belied by his Editor's Note on that issue, daring the religious right to write in and protest, even though they were on the losing side of history: "History and demographics are on the side of those who favor inclusion over exclusion."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis