High-tech TV presses role of weekly news magazines

Technology has a way of touching everything we do – even what we choose to read. For example, the advent of television news in the late 1950s did in the old Lifemagazine.

Now television coverage of the gulf war is cutting into the heart of the niche occupied by Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report: spectacular color pictures and in-depth analysis by experts around the world.

During the Vietnam War, news magazines provided vivid photos and analysis of the war, including context, relationships, interpretation, implications and forward spin.

But advances in technology now permit television to bring the most dramatic pictures of war almost instantly into our living rooms – including the bombing of Baghdad, Iraq. Viewers can record them on VCRs and replay them in stop-action.

The networks also are providing thoughtful analysis of the political, military, economic and cultural aspects of the war, even a long interview with Saddam Hussein. This is what people expect to get from magazines.

So what does this mean? Should we look for a shakeout in the weekly news magazine business that is also suffering from an advertising slump and growing competition from cable television and new publications that play to niche markets? Probably not, at least in the foreseeable future.

For one thing, new technology is helping the news weeklies produce a better looking product faster. But it also allows television to challenge the news weeklies’ traditional advantage with almost “real time” pictures and timely expert commentary from around the world.

In the future perhaps we’ll see fewer general weeklies and more of the specialized magazines of opinion: like National Review, The New Republic and Nation – a magazine to fit almost any ideological taste.

Even news weeklies are seeking new niches. Time magazine is trending away from hard news toward more features. During C-SPAN’s recent series about Time, Senior Editor Jack White, who heads Time’s Nation section, said he tries to bring the “human element” of a story to readers.

Example: last week’s cover story on a small town in California mourning the death of a local boy, a 21 year-old Marine lance corporal, killed in Saudi Arabia.

James Atwater, a former Time senior editor who is now a professor at the prestigious University of Missouri journalism school, says advances in television technology present problems for the news weeklies, but he insists the magazines’ “old formula may be pretty sound.”

Atwater rightly points out that Sports Illustrated is flourishing, despite all the sports on television – including instant replay and first-rate analysis.

In fact, Time Warner executives may bring back a smaller version of Life, crammed with the best pictures of the week, even though Picture Week, a short-lived Time publication, flopped in 1985.

“In some sense, the networks are usurping the news magazines’ role.” says Dean Mills, head of the University of Missouri journalism school, “but there is still a role for news weeklies – to take a slightly longer look.”

As they say on television, stay tuned.

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