Time Vs. Newsweek: Battle Of The Print Dinosaurs

Back in the dark ages of print news, daily papers provided us with the most immediate updates on the world situation -- while Time and Newsweek delivered analysis and trend pieces.

These days, follow-up commentary on every kind of news story -- from earth-shattering to trivial -- can be found almost immediately on the Web. Consider post-Oscars spin, one of my annual guilty pleasures. Three days after the broadcast, I'd already read pieces on everything from Diablo Cody's Pebbles Flintstone look to why Best Picture-winning producer Scott Rudin's shout-out to his male lover wasn't followed by a close-up of said lover. By the time the newsweeklies came out with their Oscar coverage, what else was there to say?

Nothing but cold news leftovers -- perhaps one reason why, over the past 11 years, circulation at both mags has plummeted. Time suffered a cut of roughly one fourth -- from 4.1 million in 1996 to 3.1 million in 2007 -- according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Newsweek's drop (from almost 3.2 million in 1996 to 3.0 million in 2007) was less dramatic but still significant.

It's not just the Web's quality magazine sites like Slate (owned by Newsweek's parent company) and Salon that have stolen the newsweeklies' thunder. There's also print competition from The Week, a sort of Cliff Notes of current events excerpting stories from a wide range of media.

How do the two venerable newsweeklies stack up these days?

The big issue of the week: The Feb. 11 editions came out right before Super Tuesday, a time when many (like me) were still deciding which candidate to favor.

Time addressed this issue more directly than its competitor, with a somewhat simplistic chart, "Voter's Guide To The Issues," set along party lines rather than by candidates -- which would have been more useful. Time's cover story, "Why Young Voters Care Again," had anecdotes and statistics supporting a youth surge for O -- suggesting that perhaps O was more electable than C. For more perspective, I would have liked another stat: the percentage of the actual voting public that the total youth vote represents.

Newsweek's cover profile of McCain wasn't exactly objective positioning for such a crucial political week, but it did include some scary stuff about "Senator Hothead"'s extreme anger -- and an unflattering (wattles and all) close-up photo.

I found Newsweek's piece on head-vs-heart voting decisions a disheartening view of democracy: "It is a core tenet of political psychology that voters know nothing... most cannot or will not learn about and remember candidates' records or positions." At least this story might have assured my co-worker who declined to vote in the primaries, saying, "I don't know enough about the candidates." Apparently nobody else does, either.

First person:Newsweek has a weird mixture of personal essays, from the political commentary of Karl Rove (boilerplate -- the Republicans are down but not out) to the the ickie-poo "My Turn" about "an encounter with a feathered friend" that concludes, "So little birdie, thank you for teaching me" -- not appropriate for any adult publication.

Meanwhile Time wins points with a humorous essay on "the weird world of football side bets."

Extra credit for trend stories:Back in the newsweeklies' heyday, Time, especially, was known for highlighting offbeat regional fads -- like the "left-handed dentists" and "disco banks" stories spoofed in Calvin Trillin's comic novel "Floater," about a Time-like pub. The current incarnation of trend pieces is one of Time's few areas of distinction. For example, I'm tickled to read about regular folks hiring their own paparazzi to make them feel like celebs for a day.

Moving toward the 21st century:Newsweek adds a touch of modern-day snark with features like the chart that rates Bill Clinton's recent temper tantrums from "miffed" to "volcanic."

Time's "10 Questions" has readers asking the questions -- but otherwise is just another boring celeb interview, sometimes with especially clueless queries. For example, anybody who knows anything about Woody Allen's work would never ask him to name his favorite New York City borough.

Bottom Line: I find it hard to tell Time and Newsweek apart -- and neither threatens to become a compelling must-read.

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