One thing the youth of today, and certainly the youth of the future, will never understand is how many random magazines used to end up in people’s homes. I don’t know much about the magazine industry, but the way it seemed to work in the early to mid-2000s was that, if you were subscribed to one magazine, the publisher would try to get you to subscribe to their other titles by offering free issues, usually encased in a plastic baggy (a packing method that, for the sake of the environment, I hope my future kids never experience, either). Sometimes, for whatever reason, you’d keep getting these magazines. That’s how Entertainment Weekly entered my life. It was sent to us as a replacement for some other magazine my mom had subscribed to, and it just kept coming.
I don’t know what prompted me to pick up my first issue. I don’t even know what that first issue was, but I very quickly became hooked. As an introverted, pop culture-obsessed teenager, Entertainment Weekly became my bible and the highlight of my Friday. I’d stretch out below a lamp next to the television and lay the magazine face up, with both pages open, as if I were a medieval sage pouring over some dusty tome of ancient secrets. It was a transportive experience — for an hour or two each week, I’d be whisked away from the pressures of school and extracurriculars and take a tour around the monoculture, sucking up every bit of news and knowledge I could about upcoming blockbusters, the Oscar race, and whatever buzzy TV shows were capturing national attention. Online outlets can do some amazing things with layout and design, but there was nothing quite like getting sucked into a splashy feature on the early days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or just exploring EW’s comprehensive breakdown of what TV shows were airing when and how good they were. It was completely and utterly engrossing.
The earliest issue of EW I have a distinct memory of reading was its 1,000th issue, the one where they unveiled their list of the “1,000 New Classics”: the 100 best movies, tv shows, albums, books, video games, plays, etc. from 1983-2008. I don’t recall why they chose that 25 year stretch in particular (probably because the issue was released in 2008 and 25 is a nice round number), but reading it felt like being given access to the VHS and CD collection of some cool Gen X or old Millenial sibling I never had. Pulp Fiction, Pavement, Interpol, Rushmore — it was the entire gap of cultural literacy between my infancy and my adolescence, that neither I nor my parents were tuned into, filled in at last. Reading about these things wasn’t the same as watching or listening to them, of course, but it provided me with cultural authority separate from my parents and my philistine peers and gave the impression that pop culture was a thing that should be explored and celebrated. It was that mentality which informed what was to become my weekly ritual of reading EW cover to cover. I just felt like I had so much to learn and discover, and those first few issues of Entertainment Weekly were what helped me dive in.
One thing that made EW the perfect gateway drug was its accessibility. Brightly colored and unabashedly populist, it featured criticism, of course, but it was never really “critical” in its tone or coverage. Its features and news items could be said to have a “fan-like” tone, back before denoting someone as a “fan” meant that they were a torch-wielding psycho who harassed people who disagreed with them on Twitter. It was light and informative, but never condescending or gushing. A common criticism of most of the snarky, skeptical blogs and online publications that popped up in the 2000s is that these outlets never seemed to really like the subject they were covering. That certainly wasn’t the case with Entertainment Weekly, whose enthusiasm for pop culture jumped out on every page, no matter how uncool it made them look in comparison to the Pitchforks and AV Clubs of the world.
This isn’t to say that EW’s sunny side up attitude affected its value as a source of criticism. Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum anchored the film review section for the better part of two decades, and, between the two of them, managed to write about pretty much every movie that came out during that time span. Their approach to film writing echoed the magazine’s egalitarian ethos by giving even the silliest sounding blockbusters a fair shake, but they also had the gravitas to pull off 800-word featured reviews of documentaries, be the subjects serious or seriously juicy. And while I had my gripes with the magazine’s music coverage and its shameless focus on some of the most disposable pop ever produced,1My personal tipping point was when, in a bit where they were comparing different songs with the same names, they declared Hot Chelle Rae’s “Tonight Tonight” and superior to Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight Tonight.” it should be noted that Entertainment Weekly was the first place I read about bands like Animal Collective, The Black Lips, and The National, making it a valuable resource for a kid intimidated by the era’s music blogs. It was also probably one of the few magazines of its kind to keep a regular, comprehensive book review section, and its commitment to ensuring the written word stayed a part of the wider cultural conversation shouldn’t be ignored.
Nor should the star power of some of their columnists. In my era of readership, they included Mark Harris, Stephen King, and Diablo Cody. In other words, I was getting the thoughts and musings of one of the most respected film critics and historians in the country, one of the most prolific novelists of all time, and an Academy Award-winning screenwriter sent directly into my brain, all for the price of a magazine subscription. Sometimes their pieces could feel a bit frivolous,2I remember one year King wrote a “Best Songs of the Year” column, but instead of making a list of the best songs of whatever year it was written in, it was the best songs he’d listened to all year, regardless of release date. Write a few iconic horror novels and people will let you get away with anything.sure, but the ones that stuck with me the most provided new lenses through which to think about such pressing concerns as the WGA strike, the Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien Tonight Show debacle, and even gay rights and the Bechdel Test. This approach to writing and discourse — that one can whip up an interesting bit of prose on something as seemingly inconsequential as a FreeCreditReport.com commercial — feels lost in an era of outrage culture and clickbait where writers now have to spend a week re-litigating their work on Twitter, which devalues the original piece by turning it into just another battlefield for the most polarized online voices. Back in the halcyon days of 2010, there was still time to reflect on and contemplate the things you read without feeling the pressure to cook up an instant take on it.
If you’re a little confused about the elegiac tone of this piece, it’s probably because I’ve buried the lede. Starting in August, Entertainment Weekly will become a monthly magazine, making it the latest in a line of publications that have either significantly scaled down or entirely ceased their print operations in recent years. This announcement felt like it came a little out of left field, but, in hindsight, we probably should’ve known something was up. Serious changes were coming to the magazine as far back as that cherished 1,000th issue, after which it was redesigned with bigger fonts and photos and smaller word counts, and in 2017, the once subscriber exclusive “Must List” became free to access on EW’s website, which necessitated the abolition of its “News & Notes” section.
But, if you were paying closer attention, more subtle changes began to surface. EW began putting out double issues more frequently, decreasing the number of physical magazines they produced a year, and many of these issues focused less on Hollywood’s latest and greatest and more on nostalgia-baiting cast “reunions” of TV shows and movies, which were really nothing more than photo spreads paired with frothy interviews. Even their Oscars previews — once the highlight of awards season for me (and my secret weapon in betting pools) — was altered significantly. Their preview of the 90th Academy Awards eschewed their minor category predictions and anonymous interviews with Academy voters for a glossy Oscars retrospective that was touted as a collector’s item. There’s certainly an argument to be made that such an anniversary called for a shakeup in format, but, considering that they didn’t even bother to put out an Oscar preview issue last year, it’s hard not to read this move as an attempt to squeeze the most money out of something at the expense of tradition.
As soon as the change in publication was announced, Meredith, EW’s parent company, spun it as a positive. New editor in chief JD Heyman proclaimed that the “new monthly cover story will be even more sought after by celebrities” and that each issue would become “an even more highly prized commodity and collectible item for [EW]’s passionate fans.” And, to be fair, it doesn’t seem like EW will necessarily be putting out less content; according to The Hollywood Reporter, Meredith announced that EW will “double down on digital, social, video, and experiential platforms.” These adaptations to the modern media landscape may serve EW’s “brand” well, and the bright and glorious future promised by Heyman and Meredith may even come to fruition. But, even if EW does thrive as a monthly magazine, the visions communicated by those in charge seem to be missing the point.
The notion that EW’s cover will become “even more sought after by celebrities” demonstrates a misunderstanding of what the magazine appealing in the first place. It wasn’t that it featured “celebrities,” rich, famous, and beautiful people that the hoi polloi enjoyed gawking at. It was that, in a kind of roundabout, fanboyish way, EW treated those celebrities as “artists.” Granted, it was usually as artists portraying teenage wizards and mutants with metal claws, but, nonetheless, famous people weren’t the attraction, the work that famous people were doing was. This helped EW become the paper of record for popular art, something much more rich and meaningful than any other magazine that championed fame for fame’s sake.
And while the aforementioned “doubling down” on digital mediums may ensure that EW stays relevant, continues to churn out content, and hopefully gets to employ more people,3 Unfortunately, the transition to monthly has already cost 13 staffers their jobs it’ll lack what made reading Entertainment Weekly so special to me and (I presume) to so many others. Even though its very goal was to keep readers updated on the latest goings-on of popular culture, the act of sitting down and reading a twenty-odd page magazine felt like a break from the noise and churn of digital media’s 12twelve- hour news cycle. For me, it was, as I mentioned earlier, a ritual: one moment of my week where I got to plunge headfirst into the things that interested me most, as well as an affirmation that the things I cared about mattered and that there were other people who thought about them as much as I did. It was cleansing, calming, even: an oasis away from screens and speakers and everything else screaming for my attention. It was one of the few things I could approach at my own pace and savor — something I was able to consume on my own terms.
By becoming primarily digital, Entertainment Weekly will become a part of the noise and churn, and its attempts to grab readers’ attention will only become shriller and more ostentatious. I no longer have a subscription to Entertainment Weekly, so I’m not concerned about my experience so much as that of younger readers. If Millenials truly are the burnout generation, then there’s no doubt that brands’ insistence on cramming their content into our eyes and ears via endless Twitter and RSS feeds has played a role in fostering such widespread exhaustion. But, at least, earlier in our lives we had a surplus of physical media like Entertainment Weekly that taught us how to carve out time every week just for ourselves and the things that interested us most without feeling compelled to make that time efficient or marketable. For most of Generation Z and the generations that will succeed them, content meant to be entertaining has always been instantly accessible and has always existed on the same platforms they work on — pretty soon, keeping up with their favorite TV shows and favorite bands may begin to feel less like a hobby and more like an obligation.
The weekly experience of reading EW was special because it was frequent but not constant — it was comforting because I knew it was going to come every week, but valuable because it only came every week. The unfortunate truth is that Meredith and its fellow media conglomerates don’t care about the intrinsic value of their content: they just want to streamline it for consumption and make it an unavoidable and endemic part of people’s lives. While EW’s physical arm may be going monthly, its digital strategy is, like all other digital strategies, to make the magazine endless, to make the appreciation of popular culture compulsory and unceasing. The chief goal of any media company is no longer providing consumers with the opportunity to check out and dive into something for pure pleasure — instead, it’s the complete and utter dominance of everyone’s eyes and ears. Things will probably get much worse before they get better, but I hope this trend ends — I hope the media and the markets that dictate their behavior begin to value immersion over ubiquity. Because the alternative seems to be a life of unending prodding and stimulation. And, well, I can’t think of anything less entertaining than that.