Wednesday, November 10, 2010

U.S. News, R.I.P.

Journalists are a bunch of softies. While they have a paying job all they can do is bitch and moan and make cynical cracks about what a rag they work for; but when a paper folds, nobody gets more mawkishly sentimental and misty-eyed reminiscing about its bygone glories.

These days when papers and magazines fold in the wink of an eye, death by Internet scarcely merits a mention, much less a tear. Even the once mighty and great are barely squeaking through as ad pages, circulation, and revenues plummet. Exceptions like the Washington Post Company, which just reported "sharply higher" earnings, are exceptions only because they had the wit to cut their losses in the dead-end business of reporting and delivering the news long ago. The Post earlier this year threw the rotting carcass of Newsweek overboard (well, they got $1 for it, a pretty fair price considering that the mag was losing close to $50 million a year); but years ago the company decided to concentrate less on news and more on easy pickings like anxious parents of college-bound underachievers (the Kaplan test-prep business now supplies three-quarters of the company's operating income) or politicians in urgent need of likening their opponents to snarling rabid illegal-immigrant-loving jihadists (the Post's half-dozen TV stations reported income up 68 percent in the third quarter, much of that from political advertising in the just-concluded midterm elections).

So I will try to manfully resist the urge to wax too sentimental over the news of late last week that my erstwhile employer, U.S. News & World Report, will cease publication in December.

Even through the mists of time and nostalgia, there is much that looks stodgy, ludicrous, self-important, and just plain dull about the traditional weekly newsmagazine. And U.S. News possessed added dimensions of unlovable absurdity unique among the once-great triumvirate of newsweeklies. Whenever we felt ourselves in danger of running short of cynical self-pity, we used to leaf through the bound volumes of back issues, particularly from the pre-1973 era when the magazine's founder David Lawrence was still at the helm. U.S. News in the Lawrence age was not only stodgy but cluelessly conservative, and a few minutes of random page flipping was invariably rewarded with some masochistic amusement in the form of cringe-inducing headlines from the not-too-distant past (my personal favorite being the one on a story from the 1960s about the changing demographics of Washington, D.C., which read — I swear this is exactly accurate — "More and More Negroes All the Time").

And yet . . . you can say all you want about the inevitable impact of the Internet, the 24-hour news cycle, and the loss of the commanding place of the mainstream media, but the fact remains that the demise of U.S. News has as much to do with sheer stupidity, vanity, and greed as it does with the inexorable march of technology. And that is worth a word of lamentation even if not a tear.

I arrived there in 1986, two years after real estate developer Mort Zuckerman (invariably referred to in Spy magazine in those days as "the lisping demi-billionaire Mortimer B. Zuckerman") bought the place, and the Mort-induced chaos was even more comical than any of those old David Lawrence headlines; stories would be assigned and canceled multiple times in the course of a week, legions of new editors with vaguely defined duties would appear and disappear (a number of them with British accents, which apparently prevented Mort from realizing that they didn't have a clue what they were talking about), big-name neocon columnists would be hired at lavish sums and, it was clear, with fabulous promises of power, importance, and responsibility within the organization that, equally clearly, only they had been informed about; and when a writer actually did get to report and write a story that survived through the whole week, it would be edited and reedited by multiple layers of editors who not infrequently would pass the story back and forth, repeatedly deleting each other's edits and reinstating their own, while the hapless writer looked on with the kind of horrid fascination one might have while witnessing a slow-motion car crash.

My only real claim to fame in all of my years there was the time when one of those editors was "top-editing" a story I had already dealt with through multiple iterations. He was always affecting in his editorial queries the kind of tough-guy, green-eye-shade, staccato newsman's prose he thought made him sound like he knew what he was doing — all the more comical as it was the complete antithesis of his actual character — and he would pepper the stories he edited with comments of the ilk "WHO HE?" "WHAT MEAN?" and so on.

On this occasion he had typed in a "WHAT MEAN?" following one perfectly plain and patently clear sentence in the piece, and when I got the story back —  having by now absolutely had it with the whole business — I typed in, in reply:


My one contribution to the rich, and now vanished, newsroom lore of U.S. News.

Some day I may also reveal the story of how Mort's editorials were "written."

And yet . . . there was still enough of the venerable machinery of the old U.S. News in place to keep the magazine propelling itself along by sheer inertia, at least for a while anyway, through all the Mort-created turbulence; and in time I came to find those vestiges of the old magazine's approach and temperament and mindset not only admirable but, in a certain crazy way, even inspiring.

For one thing, the place was still unmistakably an institution when I arrived there; it took its obligations to its readers seriously, and everything about the old institutional structure of the place reinforced the idea that it was a serious business. There was a wonderful library that could put its hands almost miraculously on anything a writer asked for; there was a very capable "economics unit" that compiled statistics and data; there was great effort put into producing useful and accurate charts and graphs and tables; there were rafts of foreign and domestic correspondents, and people to transcribe tape recordings of interviews, and regular lunches and breakfasts for editors and writers with important newsmakers.

A few months into my tenure, still reeling from the new chaos more than I was yet appreciating the solidity of its old underpinnings, I remarked to a colleague that it seemed amazing that the magazine actually managed to come out every week.

He replied, "I used to think that too, until I realized there was nothing you could do to stop it from coming out."

The old formula of the weekly newsmagazine was admirable, I thought, and still do, in being focused on serving readers. There was a great deal of self-effacement about the (old) magazine's approach, for all of its seriousness about itself. Bylines were tiny and placed at the end of stories; photographs were small and the design unostentatious; and exactly (in fact) like (some) Internet news aggregators of late, the magazine's unflashy but worthy purpose was to pull together, out of an avalanche of information, the essential nuggets that would help people make sense of a confusing swirl of events. Simply put, in this older way of doing things, journalists didn't blow their own horns; they tried consciously to put themselves in the position of people who were not in the Washington power game; they did not worry about cutting a daring figure among the journalistic in-crowd: they tried more to be reliable guides than wise guys.

For proof that that is still a noble and useful mission — and one that people will part with good money for — there is no better evidence than The Economist, which charges a hundred bucks a year, has no bylines whatsoever, is serious and factual, and is growing leaps and bounds in a business otherwise sickening and dying. (Its ad revenues increased by an astounding 25 percent in 2008; circulation grew by more than 10 percent in 2009, and was even up a modest amount in the first half of this year, to more than 800,000. In every graph charting the decline and fall of the magazine industry, The Economist is that one line defiantly running the other direction.)

A few of us at Snooze in the 1990s kept pointing to The Economist as a model worth paying attention to. But it was a completely losing battle. On the one hand, there was Mort's inexperience, insecurity, and arrogance as an editor-in-chief and publisher that sent us lurching almost every week in a new direction — I think depending on which of his trendy (Manhattan, Long Island) or wonky (Washington) friends he last spoke with; one week he would order up a multi-page, news-free story on nuclear arms control theory informed mostly by a conversation he had had with some think-tank guru; another week he would furiously insist on lavish photo spreads chasing some sensational and already media-saturated story (memorably, Princess Di's death). Week after week commands would come down from on high to do a story that (a small amount of checking would invariably reveal) originated either in someone Mort talked to at a party or something Mort read in the New York Times; woe to the beat reporter who had real sources who knew that Mort's friend was full of kaka.

Meanwhile the explanatory and analytic journalism that was the essence, I always thought, of why anyone would read a weekly magazine in the first place was increasingly marginalized in the frenetic search for a new magic formula to "reinvent" the magazine.

(I should hasten to add that I have nothing in principle against rich owners, nor even against rich owners who try to run the publications they own. But the ones who succeed at it are the ones who bother to learn the business, and not just assume that because they made a fortune in real estate or consulting they are natural geniuses as editors and writers. The Washington Post Company is a fine example of this; Donald Graham, who succeeded his mother Katherine at the helm, first worked at everything from ad sales to local beat reporting on the Metro section to learn how the business actually worked. Before that, he was a D.C. cop for a few years, figuring that if he was going to be the proprietor of a major metropolitan daily, he really needed to know something about his town beyond what a privileged upbringing had given him. I'm still in awe of that example he set — all the more impressive for how rare such an attitude is. Mort, by contrast, did not even know the names of most of his own staff, much less what they did, or why.)

Undeniably, all of this editorial mishegas at U.S. News was abetted by the vanity of all too many writers and editors themselves. The political reporters all wanted their names in big type and to be big shots in journalistic circles so they could get on TV and rake in extra bucks on the lecture circuit; the photo editor wanted to win photo prizes and be able to brag in her circle about the famous big-name arty photographers whose work she commissioned; the "investigative" reporters wanted to "break" news (they never did, but always failed to do so at great length); the various brilliant senior editors were always vying to come up with a "smart take" or "fresh angle."

And then finally of course, after all the free-wheeling spending on famous American neocons and British-accented nonentities came the inevitable spate of equally mad penny-pinching. David Lawrence, for all of his reactionary ways, was a believer in employee ownership, and the old U.S. News had always treated its staff well. There weren't lavish perks of the kind you hear about from the flush days of Conde Nast or Time, but there was a sense of being valued and treated decently. The offices were designed well and efficiently; there was a pleasant cafeteria that was in many ways the hub of life at the office, where writers and editors who put it in long hours could take a break and bat around ideas and share anecdotes of politicians, wars, and mayhem they had covered in the past; and probably above all — beyond any personal comforts or perks — the experience of walking every morning into a handsome building with the name of the company over the doors out front and a conference room within that could seat the whole staff just made you feel you were working somewhere that mattered.

It took almost no time at all for the building to go from elegantly inspiring to something that made you feel you were experiencing first-hand the waning days of the Soviet Union. The cafeteria and library vanished, equipment was piled up in odd places, the large portraits of the former editors were stuffed away in a closet (and eventually damaged and discarded, I think), two floors including the conference room were sublet to a D.C. think tank, offices were replaced with those dreaded fabric-covered cubicles, and finally the U.S. News name was pulled off the building altogether as part of a deal giving the think tank even more of the space plus its own logo out front.

The effect on morale of things like that is not trivial. I'm sure there was a lot of waste in the pre-Mort days, but the Mort days brought nothing but penny wise and pound foolish decisions (along with some worse-than-foolish asset-stripping). I trace the moment when the last vestige of esprit de corps died to the day Mort's chief henchman appeared in the newsroom with some visitors in tow and loudly declared (in an accent I think he cultivated from careful study of "My Cousin Vinny"), "And this is where we keep the overhead." Charming guy. (Actually, as I recall now, he had earlier ingratiated himself to the staff by informing us — I think at the time we were about to lose the conference room and a few floors of the building — that as a once-employee-owned business there had been a "a lot of excessive life-style enhancement around here.") And then came the final death knell of news organizations everywhere, buyouts and layoffs.

I don't in the least regret the 12 years I worked there; I did well, I got to do interesting things, I learned a lot about writing and life, I made good friends who taught me a lot more about writing and life, and I left on my own two feet before the worst came. What I still resent, though, is that the guy who had the money to buy the place didn't love it and care about it even as much as we cynics did.

In announcing the decision to end print publication, a U.S. News official explained that the move "allows us to continue to grow our online business," which is the modern-day magazine's equivalent of the politician or executive who "wants to spend more time with his family," I suppose.

Sic transit gloria mundi.