Some thoughts on that Rolling Stone cover

22516_lgI’ve been following and participating in the social media debate over Rolling Stone’s cover shot of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev since last night. And I have a couple of contradictory thoughts about it.

First, the positive. The cognitive dissonance makes for a brilliant piece of magazine design. The angelic-looking Tsarnaev juxtaposed with cover type calling him “the bomber” and “a monster.” The knowledge we all have that this is who Tsarnaev was not that long ago — and that he would soon begin his descent into terrorism.

As we know, the cover has been roundly criticized for supposedly glamorizing Tsarnaev. According to Steve Annear of Boston magazine, Tedeschi’s and CVS have both announced that they won’t sell the issue. Tedeschi’s released a statement that says:

Tedeschi Food Shops supports the need to share the news with everyone, but cannot support actions that serve to glorify the evil actions of anyone. With that being said, we will not be carrying this issue of Rolling Stone. Music and terrorism don’t mix.

Needless to say, similarly angelic portraits of Tsarnaev have appeared in just about every publication you can think of, including the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and the New York Times. The outrage, it seems to me, is based on a misperception (reflected in the Tedeschi’s statement) of exactly what it is that Rolling Stone does.

In fact, the magazine publishes a lot of serious news stories and often puts them on the cover. And by way of analogy, I’ve posted a 1970 Rolling Stone cover of Charles Manson looking, if not exactly angelic, then at least somewhat more human than we’re used to seeing. I assume the accompanying story was not a flattering one.

For a little historical perspective, in 1938 Time magazine made Adolf Hitler both its “Man of the Year” and its cover boy. Yes, the start of World War II was still a year off, but Hitler was already a world pariah at that point.

Having said all that, I do have one negative observation to offer about the Rolling Stone cover — not that it glamorizes Tsarnaev, but that it draws attention to him in a way that may make an impression on other alienated people who could be inspired to follow his example.

My Northeastern colleague Jack Levin, a criminologist who’s an expert on serial killers and mass murderers, made that argument in an interview with Fox News. “If they want to become famous, kill somebody,” Levin said.

I’m not sure that we can or should edit with an eye toward how mentally disturbed people will react to decisions we make as journalists. Still, Levin’s point is well taken and well worth thinking about.

Update: Rolling Stone has now posted the story, preceded by the following statement:

Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.
— THE EDITORS

Update II: I’ve now had a chance to read the article, by Janet Reitman. It’s not great, but it’s pretty good. There’s not much new, but it offers a level of detail I haven’t seen previously, including interesting information about Tsarnaev’s abandonment by his family and his gradual embrace of his brother’s radical form of Islam.

No doubt many people will say that the article “excuses” Tsarnaev, but I don’t see it that way. To explain is not to excuse. I certainly don’t excuse him. We need to understand as best we can what happened, and why.

I thought the most chilling part came near the end, when we learn how widespread the belief is among Tsarnaev’s fellow immigrant classmates that 9/11 was an “inside job.”

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Newsweek will disappear into the belly of the (Daily) Beast

I still remember a classic lede from Newsweek in the late 1970s — “Sihanouk is still Sihanouk,” or maybe it was “Sihanouk remains Sihanouk.” Whatever, there was a wonderful obscurity and a sense of inside knowledge to it that I found vastly appealing as a twentysomething trying to make sense of the world.

Starting around the time I encountered the Sihanouk story, I read Newsweek cover to cover for a good two decades. But Newsweek, unlike Sihanouk, had ceased to be Newsweek for quite a while. It became official in late 2010, when the Washington Post Co. dumped it and the magazine was merged with Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, a free website builder.

Well, King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia died earlier this week. And Newsweek died this morning with the announcement that its long run as a print publication would come to an end with its Dec. 31 issue. It will continue as a paid online magazine, but we’ll see how long that lasts.

For the past few years I had followed Newsweek mainly through a series of embarrassments, from the Michele Bachmann looney-tunes cover, to Niall Ferguson’s widely mocked, fact-challenged essay on President Obama, to the “Muslim Rage” fiasco.

At such moments I would recall that Brown never wanted Newsweek. In February 2011, Jeremy Peters reported in the New York Times that Brown “felt unburdened” when merger talks looked like they were going to fall apart. And though I can’t find a link to back this up*, I distinctly recall reading that it was Brown’s money guy, Barry Diller, who was convinced that the losses he was underwriting at the Daily Beast could only be stopped by marrying it to a print product. Today’s announcement shows that strategy failed.

I’m sure you’ll be reading and hearing a lot about how newsweeklies like Newsweek have been left behind by the Internet and a changing culture. But I think that’s demonstrably untrue. Years ago, there were three big newsweeklies: Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. There still are, only now the competitors to Time are The Economist and The Week.

No, there’s no longer a place for three general-interest newsweeklies doing exactly the same thing. But The Economist and The Week succeed by serving different niches and different audiences. They may not be mass-market publications the way Time (sort of) still is. Then again, the whole idea of a mass market has broken down in recent years. Time’s continued success meant that Newsweek and U.S. News had to figure out how to narrowcast. They never did.

As for Newsweek’s fate, the paid-digital strategy strikes me as little more than a face-saving move. I can’t believe more than a handful of people are going to sign up. At some point I wouldn’t be surprised if Newsweek becomes just a tab within the Daily Beast — used for the sole purpose of signifying that it still exists. If just barely.

*Update: A Facebook friend came through with this story from Business Insider.

Time enters the reality-distortion zone

Back in February, we paid $20 for an 18-month subscription to the print edition of Time magazine. All right, it was a “professional” rate, available to us because I’m a journalism professor. But no one pays the full $4.95-per-issue cover price. If you sign up for a subscription online, for instance, you’ll be charged just $19.95 for six months.

So count Time Warner executives among those who have been sucked into Steve Jobs’ famed “reality-distortion zone.” Because they are groping their way toward a paid-content strategy for Time that makes little or no sense. As explained by the Nieman Journalism Lab here and here, it includes these elements:

  • The magazine is now available as an iPad app costing a flat $4.99 per issue — no discounts, thank you very much. The same folks who understand fully that you won’t pay some $250 a year for the print edition think you’ll gladly fork over the money so that you’ll have something to read on your new toy.
  • The full content of the print edition has been pulled from Time.com, the magazine’s excellent website. There is still a lot of Web-only content available, much of it more, uh, timely and relevant than what appears in print. But when you try to access most articles from the print product, you get a summary and a plea to buy the magazine or the app.
  • The paid app is available only for the iPad, even though it would not be difficult to rewrite it for computers and other devices. (There is a Kindle app for Time that costs a far more reasonable $2.99 per month. Then again, what would Time be without great photography?)
  • The Web-only content is not included in the iPad app, which means that Time’s best customers will have to fire up Safari to see what they’re missing. And, of course, if there’s any Flash content on Time.com, they won’t be able to see it unless they switch to their computer. (There is some extra content included in the app.)

The folks at Time started with the right idea. Within the past year or so some pretty smart people have concluded that print and the Web should be used for different things, with the Web being used for breaking news, community and participation. Just as an experiment, it would be interesting to see whether Time could build a successful website without relying on content from the print edition.

But app fever is clouding Time’s judgment. The print edition arrives at Media Nation without fail every Saturday, and we didn’t even have to drop $500 on an iPad to get it. Slick as the app may be, it’s not as slick as glossy paper.

At the moment, Time is not offering a subscription to its app — it’s sold strictly on an issue-by-issue basis. When subscriptions do become available, Time ought to drop the price so that it’s the same as the print edition. Only then will we be able to see if there’s any demand.

Meet the new Big Three weekly news magazines

With the Washington Post Co. having put money-losing Newsweek up for sale, you’re going to hear a lot about how we’ve gone from three weekly news magazines to one (Time) if Newsweek isn’t rescued. (U.S. News & World Report lives, but it hasn’t been a weekly for years.) Cue the dirge.

Except that it’s not true. If Newsweek goes down, we’ll simply have a new Big Three: Time, The Economist and The Week. And unlike the Time/Newsweek/U.S. News trio, which at their peak were all more or less clones of each other, the three survivors have distinctly different missions. The Economist offers a smart, analytical take on the news. The Week is a digest. And Time is — well, who knows these days? Politics, pop culture and lists of stuff, I guess.

You’ll often hear people say that Newsweek and U.S. News were the victims of larger forces, and that the weekly news-magazine genre is no longer relevant. But if that were true, why were they overtaken by competitors within that genre?

And yes, I recognize that The Economist and especially The Week are bare-bones operations compared to the American news magazines in their prime. The fact is, they’re here — and they’re thriving. Newsweek and U.S. News were not done in by cable TV and blogs. They were done in by leaner, smarter competitors who had a better idea of what a weekly news magazine should be.

After all, their various owners never figured out how to overtake Time, either.