“Every so many years The Daily blows up its Thursday insert and tries something new,” said the editor’s note in Thursday’s Daily Northwestern, as if natural forces had done in its last weekly magazine, PLAY. But that’s a little disingenuous: PLAY was blown up for a reason.
The Daily has been having trouble since the fall, when it was forced to combine its city and campus desks. A lack of campus coverage was frequently filled by superfluous wire stories — I remember at one point seeing two facing pages reported entirely by the Associated Press. PLAY, which had originally been 12 pages, was cut to eight, but still looked sloppy and indulgent: There were those editors’ photos with accompanying thought bubbles on the latest in pop culture, and there were still too many reviews written in preening critical prose like, “It’ll be sure to enthrall.” (Full disclosure: I wrote an article for PLAY in 2006.)
Now The Daily looks like it’s getting its act together. Last quarter, senior Jordan Weissmann, who had never actually been a PLAY editor, was asked to revamp the magazine, one of several signs that The Daily wanted to shed its own skin. Weissmann handpicked his own editorial board without applications, saying in an e-mail to the PLAY listserv, “We’re going to be doing some tinkering.” Two regular PLAY contributors told me they were indignant at being unilaterally ignored in the process, but I also admired how well-contained the whole project seemed. When I mentioned the changes to a Daily reporter near the end of the quarter, she just glared at me — “Something’s happening to PLAY?”
Whatever you think of his tactics, Weissmann’s overhauled magazine, now known as The Weekly, hasn’t just saved PLAY — it might save The Daily, too. The Weekly announces itself in big, bold letters, with smaller preview headlines running across the top in different configurations, New York magazine-style. According to what two former PLAY editors told me, New York and the online media gossip blog Gawker were two names thrown around in early meetings for The Weekly. It’s not new, but it works — The Weekly has a real voice that’s blunt but also playful, smart without taking itself too seriously.
The Weekly, which has been bumped back up to 12 pages, relegates culture coverage to digestible lists, including music review blurbs that humorously designate recent releases for different readers’ tastes — Spice Girls is lowbrow, Nancy Wilson is highbrow — also influenced by New York magazine’s entertainment listings. The magazine’s main currency is campus life and gossip: A somewhat far-fetched “What If” feature (this one posits Lindsay Lohan coming to NU), a catty “Confirmed & Denied” gossip column, and a meatier, 2,500-word cover feature that is unlike anything normally published on this campus. I mean that in a good way.
The huge photo on the cover of The Weekly features the face of a WNUR host profiled inside but, in a way, it’s also a face for Daily readers to finally grab onto. The Daily’s biggest problem has always been its lack of personality, a fact made evident when DIY campus gossip outlets like Overheard at Northwestern started online last year. Even most of The Daily’s news sacrifices narrative for mechanically written inverted-pyramid stories. Features (on campus and off) have become almost nonexistent, and where they do pop up, it’s difficult to gauge whether the newspaper is in fact parodying itself.
What The Weekly does right is talk to Northwestern students in a language they can understand about the things they want to read. At what point before now would the newspaper let a (hilarious) quote from a sophomore about sorority rush stand on its own, or publish a photo of “Fuck Frats” spray-painted by the Rock without a didactic, “What is the administration going to do about this?” story to go along with it?
The design and construction are still shoddy, and some features (like the ticker tape of news bits scrawled on each page) are awkwardly placed and designated. But where the magazine takes risks, it also invents — or, more accurately, re-invents — in ways that didn’t seem possible for The Daily a few months ago. When I asked Jordan Weissmann why he didn’t accept applications from staffers already in the PLAY hierarchy in an e-mail, he wrote, “The bottom line is that applications are not an efficient way to create what, essentially, was a startup magazine. If you’re going to have a guiding vision for the project, you need to have a sense of the people you want involved.” One thing The Weekly has is vision — and that’s exactly what it needed.