Thursday, May 6, 2010

Losing Newsweek (the main info medium of my adolescence)

Caveat: I did a short Face- book post about this earlier, but ended up wanting to reflect a bit more deeply, so the short version is on Facebook, the longer on a blog.

I have mixed feelings about the passing of the newsmagazine era. The story positions it as the loss of one of the few remaining mass news media that spoke to non-fragmented audiences. I do remember starting to read Newsweek as a teenager and feeling that I had entered into what Benedict Anderson calls the national imagined community. I gradually felt that I knew more about and identified more with what was going on beyond Kuna, beyond Idaho, maybe even beyond the USA, which was something I had not thought much about before that. But I found myself fascinated, not only by what was going on in Washington, DC, but around the world.

Newsweek was an important national lifeline to me growing up in rural Idaho. It was something you could find in most any library and in magazine racks at a lot of stores. As a farm kid, I could not afford to buy magazines, but libraries were an even bigger informational lifeline in many many ways. I remember exhausting my elementary school library (in a very small room) and getting permission to use
the high school library. That had its own entrance at one side of the school, up some brick stairs that were covered with ivy. You can see it in this photo from my high school senior year annual from 1969, as the backdrop for a photo of the student council of that year.

That may not seem like the Ivy League, but it seemed exotic and exciting to a small boy. A largish (to me) well-lit room with a what seemed like a lot of books, a magazine rack with quite a few things that were not in the supermarket, and archives of old historical magazines and things you could dig through. Now, I have to admit that I was also a fairly typical boy. The only Newsweek cover I specifically remember from high school was the one with Jane Fonda's bare back facing us, in a story about Barbarella.
That definitely leapt out to my eye from the magazine rack in the Kuna High School library.

As I learned what was going on nationally and internationally, I got very interested in both. It really intrigued me to learn about all these people who seemed foreign but interesting. Mad magazine was almost better than Newsweek that way. I was particularly intrigued with East Coast culture and humor. I couldn't figure out who Howard Johnson was at first and why the magazine wanted to make such fun of him.

Perhaps more important, Newsweek helped me figure out what was important to learn to get ahead in the U.S. I found I wanted to get out into that larger pond and Newsweek offered a lot of clues, if you read carefully. One reason I both took and passed the foreign service test was that I had been reading Newsweek's international coverage closely for over a decade. It turns out that was just about the level of knowledge the test was looking for.

Newsweek was where I learned a lot of the cultural or knowledge capital I had acquired before college. When one of my high school teachers was trying to figure out why I was leaving Idaho to go to school in California (what went wrong from his point of view), after talking to me about it for a while, he put the blame (or maybe the credit) on Newsweek.

By the time I got to college, my other big source was Rolling Stone magazine. I figured if I read both Newsweek for the mainstream, establishment view of things, and Rolling Stone for music and counter-culture, I was getting an interesting kind of balance. Now it seems like the interest in knowing what the large scale broadly shared news and culture of the US is has declined, hence Newsweek's decline. Or maybe as the NY Times article asserts, there is no middle anymore, and people are gravitating to more specific points of view, whether Huffington Post, or Fox News, with very little center to aim at. That seems sad to me. I remember the excitement I felt for figuring out what was going on in US politics and culture, trying to figure out where the center of it was. Now, the center cannot hold because it isn't there anymore.