Storytelling takes a body blow: The sale of Newsweek

UPDATE: Dec 5 2012: I just received my current issue of Newsweek, which will be its last print issue. While there are starting to be more longer-form feature story sites online, none are likely to replace the in-depth news provided each week by Newsweek. While Time magazine continues, it won’t face the weekly competition to provide the best look at the news of our world. As any athlete can tell you, its hard to keep your edge in the absence of meaningful competition.

This weekend I was pouring through my Read It Later list and rediscovered this October 2009 article I had saved from Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach. The article begins with the statement that “In our modern click-and-skim world, there’s dwindling time and space for the expertly crafted narrative.”  I guess I just proved that to be true.

1993 cover about the future of technology and its current iPhone app

In the article he describes the challenge that storytelling faces in what he calls “The Age of Twitter” where readers scan and scroll quickly through any long article to find nuggets of information or interest. How does a story survive that? He interviews writer Gary Smith who specializes in long-form story telling for magazines like Sports Illustrated with eight-thousand-plus word stories that take many pages of print to unfold. Ones that provide context, detail, depth, meaning and that don’t fit well on our iPhones or Blackberries.

“A story curls you back into yourself,” he says, “and you need a special time and place and setting and mode for that. If it becomes all one smear with your work life and checking your e-mail, your Facebook, it’s lost all its reason for being.” – writer Gary Smith

The long-form story or article has long been the staple of news magazines like Time and Newsweek. As we know, print publications have been undergoing tremendous turmoil as they struggle to survive plunging revenues as their readership switches to reading online or on their mobile devices. In an effort to remain relevant in this “Age of Twitter,” as well as to stave off falling circulation and rising loses, the venerable Newsweek recently went through a complete redesign and rethink. A key component of the new look was the use of key-word and key-phrases printed in red within articles so skimmers could quickly pull out information from a story. While they may end up knowing the who, what and where its unlikely they would understand much about the why or how. And perhaps most importantly, skimming certainly provides none of the pleasure of reading a well-told story. Unfortunately, the redo didn’t catch on enough to stem the tide of loss and last week the Washington Post, Newsweek’s parent, put the magazine up for sale.

Achenbach’s article goes on to state that “narrative isn’t merely a technique for communicating; it’s how we make sense of the world.” This is precisely the challenge we face in working to translate or transform our methods from the pre-Twitter world into the still unformed post-Twitter landscape. How can we continue further down the path of condensing, key-wording, page scrolling and swiping, while managing to maintain story and meaning? As we live in an increasingly complex and inter-connected society how can we expect our citizens to make sense of it if stories are reduced to key-words and phrases?

The loss of Newsweek would be a major one. There are scant few remaining long-form news magazines and even fewer weekly ones that serve to keep readers up-to-speed with in-depth analysis of our changing world. As we move forward we must work to find better methods to communicate depth and meaning through effective storytelling. And do it in more than 140 characters.

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