Prints valiant in covering the war

News weeklies offer traditional alternative to TV

Some pundits expected TV’s saturation coverage of the Iraq war would render newspapers and magazines’ coverage moot. But the print biz has succeeded in stubbornly — and impressively — in holding its ground.

Editors maintain newsweeklies are emerging as the sober refuge for information that is digestible and comprehensible, unlike the small screen’s rapid-fire imagery and sound-bites.

Not to say that anyone denies the landscape is altered.

“The media universe has changed,” says Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker. “The half-life of stories has gotten even shorter. We’ve got to push even harder to do things that people expect monthlies to take months to do.”

News mags also have to worry about dailies that are working overtime.

Most significantly, the Washington Post and New York Times are running special wartime sections and dazzling color photo spreads. The Times has also pushed back some deadlines by a half-hour, and says most readers are getting news that’s published after midnight. The last time the Gray Lady pulled out the stops like this was to cover the 9/11 attacks in 2001 — the result was six Pulitzer Prizes for their reportage on the tragedy.

The New Yorker also is devoting substantial space to war coverage, with Jon Lee Anderson reporting from Baghdad, and a handful of other scribes dispatched throughout the Middle East. Meanwhile, vet muckraker Seymour Hersh is ruffling feathers at the Pentagon with “source” stories critical of the Administration.

“The week after 9/11, when I had 15 minutes to spare, I looked up what the New Yorker had done after Pearl Harbor,” said the mag’s editor David Remnick. “The answer is they did very little. The magazine wasn’t equipped for it, even though it grew up, in the tragic sense, during the Second World War.

“I decided we weren’t going to repeat that process again. Our reflexes are in place. In our way, we try to cope with enormous events.”

Add to this the pressure of jittery advertisers, loath to put pictures of shiny cars and high-tech computer equipment next to images of bloodied Iraqis (advertising pages were down as much as 61% for newsweeklies over the last three weeks), and the news mags have a reason to sweat.

At the same time, in this war more than ever before, the lines between the various media have blurred. Under a “priority access” agreement, reporters from the New York Times appear regularly on CNN. A similar agreement exists between MSNBC and the Washington Post, which owns Newsweek. The alliances also allow for pooled web content.

The editorial choice that has been facing newsweeklies is this: analyze what happened last week or figure out what’s going to happen next week.

Brian Duffy, editor of U.S. News and World Report, says he belongs to the Look Ahead camp. He admitted, however, the risk of looking ahead is that “you can be wrong.”

Newsweek’s March 31 “Shock and Awe” cover was one of those cases. Planned during a week of successful American attacks, by the time the mag hit the newsstands on Monday, the Iraqis were starting to show some muscle.

Another tactic is to focus on something other than news.

At Time, it’s all about photography. Twenty-page photo spreads of cracked-desert vistas and entreating Iraqi civilians have become de rigeur, as the magazine emerges as a Life magazine for the 21st century.

As for the war’s standout print journalists, people say it’s hard to discern voices amid the glut of information.

“I think it’s been hard for journalists to break through, there’s just so much all the time with all those second sections in the Times and Post,” says Time contributing writer and CNN political analyst Margaret Carlson. “You’re more likely to say, Wow, the Post or the Journal is doing a great job. It’s more of a group effort.”

The print media also suffered a loss when Atlantic Monthly at-large editor and Washington Post syndicated columnist Michael Kelly died in a Humvee accident while embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division.

“We lost two of our biggest sources,” says Whitaker, of Kelly and the late TV journalist David Bloom. “It’s sad that any journalist had to die, but it’s doubly sad that in those two you had people who would’ve been seen as journalistic stars.”

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