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New `news' in newsweeklies. Shift in emphasis reflects response to competition

The Times they are a-changing. So are the Newsweeks. And the U.S. Newses. Issue by issue, week by week, the three magazines that have epitomized glossy, readable news coverage for millions of Americans have been swiftly evolving in a radically altered news culture.

In the face of increased competition for public attention from such diverse forces as Cable News Network, USA Today, and more sophisticated newspaper journalism, the three newsweekly magazines have sought a new look and feel. In the process, they have subtly, and in some cases radically, changed the view of the world reflected in their pages.

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Time has always been the clear leader in ad dollars and readers and, therefore, has felt less impetus to change. But all three magazines ``are looking for a kind of formula to deal with a far more sophisticated audience,'' says Ben Bagdikian, former Washington Post assistant managing editor, now dean of the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley.

``This is a very difficult time for newsweeklies,'' says Annalyn Swan, a former staff writer with Time and then a senior editor at Newsweek, now editor of Savvy magazine. ``They do have to redefine themselves. Once they had their own turf carved out. Now, the newspapers are making inroads into their territory. USA Today has had a major impact. They are consistently beaten by television news.''

``The newsmagazines appear to be thinking and rethinking what they are - and what they mean in society,'' adds the editor of a leading magazine, who asked not to be named.

In the opinion of many observers, what these newsmagazines mean in society tallies up to much less than it did in earlier decades when, for instance, Time magazine's approach to the Vietnam war was a major issue of public discourse. ``There's no question but that their voice has been diminished in the last 20 years,'' says Mr. Bagdikian, who did a study of newsmagazines in the '50s.

Of even more immediate concern is the fact that advertising revenues and circulation have shown little growth, and ad pages in newsmagazines have declined from 7,436 in 1983 to 6,781 in 1986, according to the advertising agency N.W. Ayer.

Most pressed to adapt and change in this unfriendly environment are Newsweek, the perennial Avis to Time magazine's Hertz, and U.S. News & World Report, which has always trailed significantly behind the other two.

``I don't think the newsweekly format is endangered; but I do think it's challenged,'' says Katharine Graham, chairman of the board of the Washington Post Company, which owns Newsweek.

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``So, it is a challenge to the newsweeklies, without abandoning their franchise ... to make it work in the new environment.''

In fact, in an effort to haul itself out of Time's shadow, Newsweek has launched into a new approach, which its editor-in-chief, Richard Smith, calls ``impact journalism.'' So far, this has meant running cover stories that represent departures for a news magazine, such as a first-person piece by a father who discovers his new baby had a serious birth defect, another cover on depression. These undertakings, as well as a rethinking of the magazine's general content, have led his critics to charge that reporting of cultural, social, and religious topics is being pushed aside by big theme pieces, life style, and pop-culture.

``I disagree violently with that,'' Mr. Smith says. Such subjects ``qualify as news every bit as much as Alan Greenspan taking over the Fed.'' Mrs. Graham agrees: ``While they've done a good many life-style stories, I think that is part of the news.''

Mortimer Zuckerman, who bought U.S. News in 1984, argues passionately and cogently that ``more of our newsweekly [is] being devoted to news, hard news,'' and that he and his editor, David Gergen, are not altering the concept of what a newsweekly should be. But that's not the perception one gets from critics, who say that U.S. News tries new approaches more often than Italy changes governments and wonder if it will ever carve out an identity.

``It looks to me as though they are still trying to find their niche,'' says Katherine Evans, departing editor of Washington Journalism Review. ``They seem to be concentrating on news you can use, like what to do if you break your leg in Karachi and how to grow tomatoes in a pot,'' she adds.

Whatever the approach, it seems to be working with readers: U.S. News reported the most significant circulation growth (over 9 percent) in the field last year. But advertisers are less than pleased; and they are, as usual, talking with their wallets. They are, however, pleased with Time, which carried 2,583 pages of advertising in 1986, far more than the 1,666 pages U.S. News received.

And Time's management seems pleased with itself.

``We are not tinkering with the newsmagazine formula in the way that both Newsweek and U.S. News are,'' says Jason McManus, newly appointed editor-in-chief of all Time Inc. magazines. Mr. McManus, who spent 18 months as Time's managing editor, describes the magazine's course as ``steady as she goes.'' Still, independent observers point to a greatly expanded ``People'' section in the magazine, a steady encroachment of splashy graphics on the writers' turf, and a tendency - noticeable among the other newsweeklies - to seek out more entertainment-oriented material.

``In the past,'' Bagdikian observes, ``the news magazines gave a surface impression of being serious and super-intellectual, writing with a parochial tone, but with the entertainment value sneaked in.'' Now, he adds, ``They do it in an overt way.''

He says he finds the newsweeklies ``infinitely more sophisticated and better written''; but, like many observers inside and outside the magazines, he worries that they may be squeezing out whatever serious cultural, religious, and social analysis was once there.

Or, as Ms. Swan puts it, somewhat resignedly: ``Pop culture seems to be in the ascendancy now.''

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