RIP to Entertainment Weekly, my pop-culture guide to the 1990s and beyond

I knew the patient was in critical condition for some time, but it’s still hard to say goodbye. The patient wasn’t a person, but a cultural moment, a blip of journalistic history – a magazine that has finally breathed its last.

Entertainment Weekly, a magazine that I read from its very first issue 32 years ago, is folding its print edition, it was announced this week in another one of those ice-cold corporate downsizing memos so familiar to journalism.

The world is too big and fractured now for a general-interest entertainment magazine now I guess, but I’ll still miss it. (It will continue as digital only, but honestly, that’s not the same at all.)

It’s a death among many in the media world and one I knew was coming ever since a couple of years ago when the magazine switched from weekly to monthly publication (and yet bizarrely, kept the name Entertainment Weekly). In a world of digital bits and unending social media outrages and whines, I miss the fading humble magazine. I still subscribe to some of the best – The New Yorker, The Atlantic, NZ’s Listener and North & South – but it’s a battle for eyeballs in a world filled with scrolling distractions.

I guess I’m a bit sad about Entertainment Weekly because I was there from the very, very start in 1990, and carried on my subscription for a good 20 years or so until moving to New Zealand made the cost unfeasible. I was a “charter subscriber” because I saw an advert somewhere and got the first few issues free. I bought my final issue on my trip back to the US just a few weeks ago of the now “Monthly Weekly,” their year-end issue with a seemingly immortal Keanu Reeves on the cover flogging the latest Matrix movie. 

In between, I read thousands of the damn things. Back in the 1990s, as a twenty-something in the pre-internet world, magazines like EW were my guide to the wider shared universe. It was never too fringe or counter-cultural, but for much of its time EW was still pretty egalitarian in its coverage. I learned about movies, books, music and more I’d never heard of, some I came to love. In a pre-Google world, magazines like EW, Spin, Rolling Stone and Premiere were my pop culture tutors. I held on to many of the 1990s issues forever – Brad and Jen forever! – but eventually, they went off to the recycler.  

But I’ve still got a decent pile of old ones in our musty basement decades on – I kept pretty much every “Year In Review” issue with its top ten lists of bests and worsts from 1990 through the mid-2010s or so. I’ve still got their encyclopaedic issues devoted to “Seinfeld” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and they’re still pretty cool. As glossy time capsules do, you could do worse.

I’ve still got the somewhat battered very first issue of Entertainment Weekly, somehow, decades on – dated almost exactly 32 years ago, February 16, 1990, with k.d. lang and Neneh Cherry on the cover (hello, 1990s!). It’s a marvellous little time capsule of that vanished world, with cigarette advertisements galore and an offer to get the ENTIRE James Bond series on shiny VHS tapes from Time-Life Video. (Pay a mere $1 for the first tape and others will follow about one every month.) 

In his opening-issue editorial, Jeff Jarvis sets out a manifesto – entertaining, but honest, no “long, pompous articles,” but also “a voice for quality in a business that needs one.” I wouldn’t argue that EW was high culture, but it introduced me to an awful lot of it along the way.

That first issue touches all the early 1990s icons – Murphy Brown, Fox’s Married With Children, how to install a newfangled car CD changer, or the latest album by some colourful rapper named M.C. Hammer (which gets an “A-,” and “tells important truths,” according to the review).

But it’s also got a lot of strong, in-depth coverage – several pages devoted to thoughtful book reviews, or a look at how the then-recent fall of the Berlin Wall was helped along by repressed artists. EW always balanced on the wire between fluff and substance, but it was a hell of a smarter read than things like People or Us magazine were. There were frequent long, deep reads into pop culture history that made up for the gossipy stuff. 

Like many things, it declined, though, pivoting an awful lot to try and figure out how to beat the internet. In 1990, a weekly magazine was fresh and current. In 2022, a now-monthly magazine was endlessly behind the pop culture beat. 

Yet even in that final January 2022 issue I picked up, there was still plenty worth reading in Entertainment ‘Weekly.’ A solid oral history of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders sits next to an interview with a Booker Prize-winning author and lists of the year’s best movies (Licorice Pizza and Power of The Dog, yes please). It was struggling, but there were still glimpses of its glory days. 

We’re in a world now where a magazine like Entertainment Weekly, with a name that no longer even fit, couldn’t help but seem dated within days of its release. I find that kind of sad, and while I’m still a nut for pop culture and always looking for good books to read, movies to see and music to hear, I tip my cap to the magazine that guided me through so much of the 1990s. We won’t see anything like it again. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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