“Hey Hayden, can you say caption?” Those five words haunt me still, more than a dozen years after I first heard them. The set up: an article I’d been working on about wooly mammoths had, in the course of a week, been incrementally demoted from a full page down to – no joke – a longish caption under a publicity photo for an upcoming documentary. And here I’d spent days calling nomads in Siberia. Moments after the news was delivered – by an awesome editor whose terse gallows humor I usually appreciated – I punched a dent in a heavy metal fire door, thereby making my most lasting impression as a writer at Newsweek.
Founded in 1933, that venerable publication will let out its final sad whimper as a print publication at the end of this year. (That it will live on as a digital product would be more heartening if the magazine hadn’t already been turned to shit some time ago.)
It’s easy to bemoan the loss of yet another one-time outlet for mass-market science reporting. And it is sad to see the end of a publication that used to be able to drop detailed stories about molecular biology and particle physics and evolution and climate change into 4 million homes, schools and dentist’s offices each week. But here’s the thing about the good old days: they were and they weren’t.
They say you can tell the quality of a story by how good the material is that you have to leave out. And back in the late 1990s Newsweek practically specialized in producing entire, perfectly good stories that never saw the light of day. It could be maddening, of course. But the brutally high bar for inclusion in the magazine also led to some of the best science and medical reporting anywhere. (I refer not to myself but to colleagues including Sharon Begley, Geoffrey Cowley, Jerry Adler, Claudia Kalb, Adam Rogers and Erika Check.*)
But the reality is that science stories were told infrequently. All together, we produced an average of what, maybe 1,000 words a week? (You could go back and calculate it out. Which, if I still had a job like that Newsweek gig, is exactly what I would have spent all yesterday afternoon doing.) They were deeply reported, carefully chosen words, but still, the capacity to output ratio was off the charts.
It’s hard to get my head around it now: all that talent and enthusiasm, and all those great science stories, just sitting around waiting for blogs to be invented. (Adam Rogers, typically ahead of the curve, almost stumbled into doing that, by the way: he was pitching a very bloggy outtakes column called “Held/Killed” as early as 1997. The Newsweek bosses, of course, didn’t bite – they started not getting it very early on.)
Newsweek, along with Time and US News & World Report, used to be nearly ubiquitous. They had impact that’s hard to imagine with today’s fractured and distracted audiences – and yes, I realize I’m sounding really old right now. But they also kept a lot of voices and stories out of the conversation. There are so many outlets now for science writing, so many more opportunities to explore, experiment and participate, that taken together they almost achieve a ubiquity of a new sort. Everyone has to work a little harder now – to make a living, or just to find the best work and sort it from the dross. But the sheer volume of quality science writing today makes it easy to let Newsweek fade into memory, and to feel optimistic about the future of science journalism. And besides, writing about science still beats hell out of trying to make a living as poet or a philosopher. And at the end of the day, who can really ask for more than that?
* Erika being Newsweek’s most lasting impression on me, incidentally.
Images Top: Newsweek’s first cover, February 17, 1933. Middle and Bottom: classic Newsweek ads pilfered from the Newsweek alumni Facebook page.