|COVERING THE STORY|
December 15, 1998
TERENCE SMITH: Every weekend the magazine presses run, ensuring that when Monday comes, so do Newsweek, Time, and US News & World Report. Distributed to millions, they are the nation's most widely read weekly news magazines. In this era of 24-hour, nonstop news, the news magazines have to add something special at the end of the week. Ken Walsh is a senior writer at US News.
|The 24-hour news cycle.|
KENNETH WALSH, U.S. News & World Report: Because of this vast outpouring of information and news and entertainment these days, I think people are looking for news organizations that they can trust that will give them information that's important to them and not just sort of a frivolous approach to developments that are going on in the country and the rest of the world.
TERENCE SMITH: But even in the midst of a rolling impeachment crisis, some frivolity sneaks in. Last week, for example, US News fretted over love in the office. Newsweek caught people's attention with a cover on actress Nicole Kidman. Time dealt with "The Prince of Egypt," the new animated movie about Moses. A catchy cover can sell magazines on the newsstand. Old Blue Eyes was a hit, as was Michael Jordan. Each sold several hundred thousand extra copies. Increasingly, the news magazines devote space to consumer concerns, news you can use to feel healthier, invest wisely, and understand technology. All three have Web sites on which they occasionally scoop themselves between editions. This week - with the House vote on impeachment looming - US News has a pensive Bill Clinton on its cover. Newsweek features the first couple in the fight of their lives, and Time wonders will they really do it.
SPOKESMAN: CNN and Time.
TERENCE SMITH: Each week Time extends its reach in a joint television news magazine with CNN. Time Correspondent James Carney talked recently about the frustrations of covering a fast-moving story.
JAMES CARNEY: We zig and zag in all these other different directions, but we end up pretty much where we started, which is on track for a vote to impeach the President of the United States on the floor of the House of Representatives just before Christmas.
TERENCE SMITH: With its many twists and turns the president's predicament is putting a lot of pressure on the weeklies. US News described the House as down to the wire, but so was the magazine. They were holding the national news space open at the end of last week while Walsh and his colleagues were still writing.
KENNETH WALSH: It's trying to look ahead and to try to give people a sense of what's next, particularly in their own lives, as far as policy and government goes. That, I think, really is the challenge for news magazines.
TERENCE SMITH: But there is always room for a little color - a notebook here - Washington whispers there - and the conventional wisdom watch. The three news magazines are locked in a permanent battle for circulation. Currently, Time is in the lead with 4.1 million subscribers. Newsweek sends out 3.2 million magazines, and US News is third, with 2.2 million. It's a big business. Among them, the three magazines gross over $1 billion in advertising revenue annually, money that keeps the presses and the profits running.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining us now to discuss the role of the weekly news magazines are the three top editors: Mark Whitaker, editor of Newsweek; Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time; and here in Washington Stephen Smith, the editor of U.S. News & World Report.
Gentlemen, welcome to you all. Mark Whitaker, let me ask you first - how does a news magazine approach a story as big as this one, the Clinton impeachment story, when it's being covered 24 hours a day on all news channels and genuinely wall to wall?
|Covering the Clinton story.|
MARK WHITAKER, Newsweek: Well, I actually think that this is precisely the kind of story that readers look to the news magazines to help put in context for them, particularly, as you say, in this era of 24-hour cable news coverage, the Internet and so forth, of news saturation from other outlets. You know, we're in a position at the end of the week to really put things into perspective, into context, to wrap the news together with commentary and analysis in a way that people can digest.
TERENCE SMITH: Walter Isaacson, what about you, what angle do you look for when you know a story is going to be the full news diet for the whole week?
WALTER ISAACSON, Time: There's been a full news diet for a year almost and what you try to do is you try to break news. You try to be out there hustling and getting as much reporting as you can. But, like Mark said, you also put it in perspective. You try to get behind the scenes. You want to look at who are the colorful characters and how can we make this come alive? People, you know, get hit with all sorts of misinformation; they get hit with headlines all week. You know, we try to be the reliable source. We try to bring something special. We try to be out there hustling and getting good reporting.
TERENCE SMITH: Steve Smith, what about US News? You're in the midst of this process right now, I assume.
STEPHEN SMITH, U.S. News & World Report: Right. Well, I think that I speak for both my colleagues here in saying that we - in addition to trying to sort out things for readers that we also try to push ahead a week and see where the story will be going next week -
TERENCE SMITH: Look ahead.
STEPHEN SMITH: -- and the week ahead the way the moderate votes seem to be breaking right now. It looks - unless there's a Hail Mary pass by the White House - that this will probably move on to the Senate, and I imagine that all three magazines will want to take a glimpse of that and see if we can add something to that.
TERENCE SMITH: But, Mark, are you, in fact, preparing for either alternative in terms of the vote to impeach the president?
MARK WHITAKER: Well, we always have to do that. Obviously, we're reporting well along. I think no matter what the outcome, we'll have fresh, original reporting. But, you know, you have to look in this game a week ahead and really focus on what people are going to be talking about next week. Obviously, this week that will depend very much on what the outcome is. So, I mean, a lot of our reporting will hold up either way, but obviously in terms of planning covers and the size and shape of your package, you have to anticipate the number of outcomes.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think, Terry, you might - picking up on what Mark is saying - is that the beginning of the week can be the most terrifying when you really can't tell the shape of the news. It's sort of like skating around on time - not Time Magazine - but on time, preparing alternate covers, does Clinton escape, does Clinton get impeached, and you're trying to work with both covers, you're trying to figure a block out - national news sections that reflect - that can go either way on this - you're trying to gear your reporting so that your reporting is covering both eventualities, and it gets to be a bit of tricky business at the end.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Walter Isaacson, the criticism is often made on this story that there is nothing new, that there hasn't been anything new for quite a while. How do you feel about that? Is there anything new?
|Is there anything new?|
WALTER ISAACSON: Yes. I mean, every week we're trying to digest this as a nation. Every week we come closer to sorting it out. This story has moved at a rapid pace, you know, for 10 months now, and I find it new and fresh every week, and, I hate to say it, but I'm surprised by it every week.
TERENCE SMITH: I wonder what any one of you thinks - Steve perhaps. Where is the line in a story like this between public and private lives? I question whether you could imagine yourself reporting this story in the same fashion 20 years ago.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think that's true. I happened to be a Washington news editor for Knight Ridder Newspapers during the Gennifer Flowers case and felt very strongly that the newspapers should try to - the responsible newspapers in the Knight Ridder chain should try to cover that story and not leave it to the New York Post. I wasn't getting anywhere, and, as you recall, the New York Times and the major papers didn't get into that story till after the "60 Minutes" interview. I think that today, of course, something like that would immediately get into the papers, because I think that we all understand that these kinds of things have an enormous impact on a presidency and provide terrific insights into the character of a president.
MARK WHITAKER: I actually think that in an era when you have the supermarket tabloids, when you have someone like Matt Drudge out on the Internet and so forth, sometimes we're actually providing a service by becoming behind them reporting the stories sometimes, as distasteful as they might be, but actually providing accurate reporting and better analysis than you can get from those sources. As most people know, we had the Monica Lewinsky story before anybody else. We actually initially held the story because we weren't satisfied, as much as we had, that we had met our own standards. But once Drudge broke the story and it started to appear elsewhere, we actually felt that given as much as we knew, that we had heard some of the tapes and so forth, that we actually had almost a duty to report what we knew to help put it in more accurate and reliable context than we had up to that point.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, you mentioned the Internet and the Web sites that, of course, all three magazines have, and that's a significant part. Walter Isaacson, is the Web site for a news magazine not a double-edged sword? I mean, you have at least the potential to scoop yourself.
WALTER ISAACSON: I love a Web site. And, as you may know, I spent two years away from the magazines developing new media few years ago because I believe the Internet, the Web are an important way to disseminate information. And what we do is we have the same standards, as do the other news magazines, for our Web site as we have for our magazine. I think Henry Luce, who invented the news magazine, would be absolutely thrilled. I think he'd be building a Web site, because you look for new ways to get information out, to put your brand your values of reporting out any way you can.
TERENCE SMITH: But the question is - seems to be one of timing. If you have a remarkable story, one of your reporters brings in a remarkable story tomorrow, Wednesday, or Thursday -
WALTER ISAACSON: There are times, Terry - there are times we put it on the Web because it's not going to hold until the next week. There are times we put it on the Web because we feel it's an important flow of news for that week. We only put it the Web if we're sure it's right and we're sure it meets the standards that would go in the print magazines. But, look, you know, if we're afraid to cannibalize ourselves, somebody else is going to cannibalize us. So if we've got some great news, yes, let's get it out there sometimes.
TERENCE SMITH: Mark, it's pushed you both ways, hasn't it?
MARK WHITAKER: It has. You know, and I think we actually still have to be careful. I don't think we want to do it gratuitously. I mean, you know, our Web site is breaking new stuff every day, and we're glad that they are. But the fact is, it still remains the case that I think if we have something really good that we think is going to hold for the magazine, we'll have a tendency to do that. Our threshold is - is it a huge - is it a big enough story to really merit scooping ourselves and is there the danger that it won't hold if we do? Obviously, in the case of the Monica Lewinsky story we went ahead in that first week and published a major story on the Web.
|The role of the Internet.|
WALTER ISAACSON: There are a lot of other reasons you use the Web too. I mean, you use the Web not just to break little stories or scoops, but we have a personal service section of Time and people keep wanting more information after they've read something, so there's always links in the magazine to getting more information, getting the full transcript of the interview, for finding out how to gather more stuff about something, so the Web helps expand what you do in the print product.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Steve. Go ahead.
STEPHEN SMITH: I do think - and I think Mark's sounded this not of caution that we really should do what we do well. I mean, if somebody's looking for breaking news stories, they ought to go to the Associated Press. I mean, they really know how to do it.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you, Steve, all three of you quickly, the sense of competition among you - now, you three seem to behave yourselves quite well on the same show - how aware are you of your competitors, what they're doing during the week, and how much does it affect what you do - the cover you choose?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we're - first off I should say I've worked with both these characters, so I ought to be - and consider them my friends. We're all very aware, and you can tell the news magazines are sometimes lumped together as monolithic - a monolithic publication. In fact, if you look at the covers this week and the way the stories are approached, we're very different. Time has a very eye-catching cover and a question mark that does a conventional - does a real news magazine - Tic Tac - along with some of the moderates - we go heavily into the moderates. Newsweek played - in I think a bit of mischief - thinking that maybe Time has gotten Man of the Year coming up next week with - and wrestling with Mr. and Mrs. Clinton - put both of them on the cover.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Mark, it certainly sounds as though Steve is watching you. Are you watching him?
MARK WHITAKER: Well, three quick points. First of all, we put Bill Clinton on the cover this week because we had some fresh reporting there and we think people want to know what's going on with him behind the scenes. The second is I think that we consider ourselves very competitive not only with the other news magazines but with a lot of other publications and television as well. And I think that makes us stronger. The third point is - to the degree that we are competitive with each other I think that makes us all better. The news magazines are never better than when all three of them are doing a pretty good job.
TERENCE SMITH: Walter.
WALTER ISAACSON: I think we all are doing a pretty good job, and I love the fact that we compete but I also love the fact that we're competing with media all over the place - from the Lehrer NewsHour to all the newspapers and magazines around the world.
TERENCE SMITH: Worthy competitors. Thanks, gentlemen. Appreciate it very much.