"Zombie" magazines: prestigious publications raised from the dead by hucksters, extremists and morons

At The New Republic, Alex Shephard traces the rise of "zombie" magazines: respected but failed outlets raised from the dead to crank out bizarre, low-quality or extremist content that wears the old masthead's prestigious corpse. Zombie king is "Newsweek", in the news this week after publishing a racist legal falsehood to suggest Kamala Harris is ineligible for high office.

Even by the volatile standards of journalism in the twenty-first century, Newsweek's recent problems are extraordinary. There are the usual issues: a sharp decline in print subscribers, Google and Facebook, the difficulty of running a mass-market general interest news magazine in an age of hyperpartisanship. But Newsweek has also been raided by the Manhattan district attorney's office (a former owner and chief executive pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering charges in February) and has been accused of deep ties to a shadowy Christian cult, amid many other scandals.

It's not just Newsweek

In recent years there has been a rise in "pink slime journalism": outlets that pose as local news outlets but rely on algorithms. These outlets manipulate readers' trust in local news as a means of delivering right-wing talking points. Something similar is happening at Newsweek. The response to the Eastman op-ed suggests that many still see the magazine as the middlebrow, general-interest publication it was in the not-that-distant past—evidence that pink slime has entered the sphere of national publications as well.

I'm not sure Newsweek is a good example of the pink slime phenomenon in local news. Local news runs pink slime because their dearly departed revenues can't be recovered through growth. They have to cut their newsrooms or give it up to media conglomerates that shave expenses to the bone; the resulting conservatism comes free with the "wires" they provide.

With zombies at the national level (like Newsweek), though, growth is the game, the exploitation of a recognizable brand to dress a more explicit political agenda or to generate real traffic and advertising revenue. Pink slime exploits trust and local monopoly; zombie media exploits prestige and traffic. Pink slime is passive, zombies active. A smalltown pink slime news outlet is a fossil forming. A zombie magazine is a gas-filled corpse exploding.

One sign of zombie media is that it tends to pursue strategies for growth that are obviously out of date. The new Newsweek, for example, tried to game social media in the late 2010s the way every else did five years earlier. Forbes (not technically a zombie, but certainly undead) began content farming just as Google began punishing such material in search results. The new Deadspin is an uncanny emulation of its own Fin de Obama-era voice. And so on.