"We'll make you think in new ways"

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Let's think of the 76-year-old Newsweek as a once-lovely house in dire need of restoration. The May 25 edition, which editor Jon Meacham calls a "reinvented and rethought Newsweek," offers a bright new paint job, and a focus on tidiness that would move home-organizing consultants to tears. Does it represent a reinvention of the newsweekly genre? Not yet.

My Newsweek subscription expires in late September, and Meacham has described plans to cut the magazine's circulation in half in 2010. If my writing for GetReligion did not concentrate on magazines, I might volunteer to help Newsweek meet its goal of downward mobility.

During the past few months of discussing his plans for Newsweek, Meacham made these candid remarks to John Koblin of New York:

Mr. Meacham was describing his reader, an increasingly nervous-making bit of hocus-pocus all editors are being asked to do these days.

"People who are interested in politics, who are interested in the world, who are interested in business, and who are interested in culture both high and low whether it's Lionel Trilling or American Idol," he offered. "I think it's largely serious-minded people, but people who don't take themselves too seriously."

Finally, he broke it down. He wants readers who are interested in "what I'm interested in."

Most editors would cop to that sort of egocentrism in a private or drunken moment, but saying it publicly is a bold move. (Disclosure: A former and beloved boss, the Rev. Todd Wetzel, once said to me, "I think you consider our readers a necessary evil." He had a point.)

Turning to a few details in the latest Newsweek:

Pedantry lives. This is the summary callout for Meacham's column, which discards "The Editor's Desk" in favor of "Top of the Week": "We know you already know what the news is. With original reporting and arguments, we'll make you think in new ways." Does nobody at Newsweek realize how condescending this sounds?

Similarly, rather than a brisk "Please Recycle" or a description of how much post-consumer paper it uses, Newsweek offers this green homily:

Recycling old magazines, catalogs and newspapers is one of the easiest ways to help the environment. To increase the supply of recoverable wood fiber and to reduce the demand on the world's landfills, Newsweek urges our [sic] readers to support recycling efforts in their communities.

Amid all the moral seriousness, Newsweek publishes a full-page cheesecake shot of Miss California Carrie Prejean -- for which Meacham is teased in the Morning Joe video atop this post.

Dumbing nonpartisan down. More from Meacham's "Top of the Week" column:

We think what we do is important, but in the end what matters more is whether you think so, and in so thinking, whether you find that our work repays the investment of your time. And so the magazine you are holding now -- the first issue of a reinvented and rethought Newsweek -- represents our best effort to bring you original reporting, provocative (but not partisan) arguments and unique voices.

... There will, for the most part, be two kinds of stories in the new Newsweek. The first is the reported narrative -- a piece, grounded in original observations and freshly discovered fact, that illuminates the important and the interesting. The second is the argued essay -- a piece, grounded in reason and supported by evidence, that makes the case for something.

I appreciate the distinction Meacham draws between reporting and "the argued essay," and he shows greater candor about Newsweek's style of covering volatile stories. I also remember that Meacham wrote these words in the Newsweek of Dec. 15, 2008, with its cover story on gay marriage:

Given the history of the making of the Scriptures and the millennia of critical attention scholars and others have given to the stories and injunctions that come to us in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, to argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt -- it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition.

If this is Meacham's idea of reasonable argument, even in the brief space of "The Editor's Desk," I hereby nominate Karl Rove for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Religion is still cool. Meacham has taken religion seriously throughout his tenure at Newsweek, and for that much I'm thankful. The clearest example in this week's issue is Lisa Miller's column that offers public-relations tips to Pope Benedict XVI.

Once she gets past predictable finger-wagging about the Pope's handling of schismatic bishops (once again reduced to the one Holocaust-denying nut in the mix) and his continued opposition to condoms, Miller turns in a witty and informative piece that draws advice from four PR specialists. My favorite advice to the pontiff, amid all the second-guessing: "Be yourself."

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