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20th Century Dinner Table Talk: The Big Three Newsweeklies

Posted In: State Library Resource Center, History
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By Lisa Greenhouse

How do we decide what to talk about around the dinner table, when we are not discussing the details of our personal lives? Although the number of newspapers with original national and international news content is rapidly dwindling, an ever increasing number of television stations and websites bring us awareness of events in the larger world. For much of the Twentieth Century and the first decade of the Twenty-First, there were also the big three American "newsweeklies", national weekly magazines with a focus on news: Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report.

Time CoverTime was rolled out in 1923 by partners Henry Luce (1898-1967) and Briton Hadden (1898-1929). They originally conceived of Time as a concise aggregator of news and analysis pulled from about 90 other publications. According to Luce’s biographer, Alan Brinkley, it would serve to focus conversation among busy—primarily middle class—people around the dinner table. However, the magazine far surpassed their initial vision, eventually becoming a vehicle for some of the best journalistic writers of the Twentieth Century.

Brinkley writes in The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, "Part of his [Luce's] considerable achievement was his ability to provide an image of American life that helped a generation of readers believe in an alluring, consensual image of the nation's culture."

Newsweek CoverIn his poem America (1956), Allen Ginsberg, representative of a later generation's rebellion against the middle class consensus, asks the nation, "Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time magazine?" Capturing the essence of Time's message, he continues, "It's always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious. Everybody's serious but me."

Newsweek, first published in 1933 by Thomas J.C. Martyn, consistently occupied the second place position after Time in terms of newsweekly circulation. It was bought by the Washington Post Company in 1961.

The first issue of United States News and World Report on January 16, 1948, combined two weekly publications owned by its publisher, David Lawrence. It continued as a weekly until 2008, when it became first bi-weekly and soon thereafter monthly. Unlike its competitors, the magazine did not cover sports and entertainment news. It was especially well-known for its rankings of universities and hospitals.

Newsweeklies on the Internet

All three of the big newsweeklies underwent reinvention in the age of the Internet. Both Time and Newsweek, which in recent decades had moved closer and closer to resembling Luce and Hadden’s original conception of a concise and lightweight digest, repositioned themselves as weightier magazines with in-depth reportage and commentary.

While Time remains in print publication with a successful online presence to complement it, Newsweek moved to an online-only distribution model. By the time it ceased print publication on on December 31, 2012, Newsweek was acquired by The Daily Beast, an online magazine covering hard news as well as culture and the arts, with more emphasis on the latter than the print magazine provided.

US News & World Report CoverBefore ceasing print publication in 2010, the print version U.S. News and World Report leaned to a focus on consumer advice and rankings while publishing news on their successful website.

As a librarian who works extensively with beautiful, historical print periodicals, the passing of influential publications from print to online distribution can be a cause for some lamentation. However, the adaptation of these newsweeklies to the modern market is a fact of life, and library customers can continue to get up-to-date news from them in our public computer centers.

Our Periodicals stacks are so large and varied, students and researchers can find just about everything in them, possibly even the kitchen sink and most certainly the dinner table. One can get pretty good idea of what the average American family discussed around the dinner table for much of the Twentieth Century (or at least what they were expected to discuss) by perusing full runs of the big three newsweeklies in the Pratt Periodicals Stacks.

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Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the vast number of news sources online? The guide Finding and Evaluating Online News Sources, prepared by our Periodicals Department, will help you navigate and evaluate the publications.


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