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Do Newsmags Still Matter?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009 10:49 AM

NEW YORK -- When Rick Stengel joined Time in 1981, every story in progress filled a thick binder -- the reporter's version, the editor's rewritten version, the top editors' version, the fact-checked version -- that would be unimaginable in today's cut-to-the-bone corporate culture.

Many of the recently laid-off staffers, Stengel says, "were people whose jobs really didn't exist any more."

When Jon Meacham joined Newsweek in 1995, "there was a phrase in the culture -- 'We need to get something in on X' -- that we never use anymore," he says. The days of a "newsmagazine of record," Meacham says, are long gone.

The rival editors are turning out weeklies that are smaller, more serious, more opinionated and, though they are loath to admit it, more liberal. They are pursuing a more elite audience, in print and on the Web, abandoning the old Henry Luce notion of catering to the masses. It is nothing less than a survival strategy.

Morale in both shops has been devastated as staffers complain about a blurred identity, lack of direction, management snafus and outsourcing to big-name writers that has left them wondering whether reporters still have much of a role.

Financially, the Time Warner magazine is faring better than Newsweek, which is owned by The Washington Post Co. Stengel says Time was profitable last year, while Newsweek has acknowledged losing money. Time has reduced the circulation guaranteed to advertisers from 4.1 million to 3.25 million. Newsweek has cut back from 3.1 million to 2.6 million and is mulling further reductions. U.S. News & World Report essentially left the field this month, becoming a Web site with monthly editions on consumer issues.

Meacham, wearing a dark sweater in his office overlooking Central Park, says that "we don't edit with the idea that there is a poor and uninformed reader out there who somehow needs illumination." He sees his audience as "the virtual Beltway," which he defines as people who watch Sunday talk shows, read newspapers and buy hardcover books.

Stengel, wearing a dark sweater in his office with a view of the Hudson River, says his philosophy, especially online, is "news for smart people. . . . We are arguably the best-known news brand in the world, and we want to leverage that."

Both magazines have moved away from the health and pop culture covers that were so prevalent in the past. Time ran 19 cover stories on politics last year, others on war, the economy and foreign affairs, and exactly one on a movie star, George Clooney. Time served up such titles as "How Wall Street Sold Out America," "21 Ways to Fix Up America" and "How to Fix America's Schools."

Stengel says his goal is to "make Time lead the conversation, not follow it. To speak stronger with a point of view. To mix more analysis with reporting. Not to ask questions, but to answer them on the cover" -- as with this month's story, "Why Israel Can't Win."

Newsweek ran 26 cover stories on politics last year -- including two on Michelle Obama -- and a spate of serious essays such as "How to Fix the World." The few feature covers dealt with such subjects as addiction, bipolar disease, divorce and surrogate mothers.

"It is a conscious strategy to serve the base," Meacham says. "We have done more politics, more foreign policy, more economics." Editors sometimes debate whether they are getting too wonky, but Meacham says he is "enormously proud," for instance, of putting William F. Buckley Jr.'s death on the cover.

Stengel, 53, who grew up in New York's Westchester County, and Meacham, 39, a Tennessean, are cut from similar cloth. Both are savvy, slightly graying journalists who took over their magazines in 2006. Both are frequent television guests and authors; Meacham's latest book is a biography of Andrew Jackson, while Stengel is working on a book about Nelson Mandela. And both are enamored of ideas and recognizable bylines: Meacham has had Christopher Hitchens and Sean Wilentz writing for Newsweek, while Stengel has enlisted Caroline Kennedy and Zbigniew Brzezinski for Time.

The shift toward analysis carries an ancillary benefit: It is cheaper than shoe-leather reporting. Each magazine's editorial staff -- 215 for Time, fewer than 200 for Newsweek -- is about half the size it was a decade or so ago. But both editors say even their opinion pieces are built on gathering facts. "If you don't have new information, break stories, you do find yourself simply commenting on stories other people break," Meacham says.

Still, both publications handle more of their breaking news online. Newsweek has fared better on the Web, drawing 9.9 million unique visitors in November to Time.com's 7.6 million, according to Nielsen Online.

The magazines are facing the same problems as every other part of the news business: declining revenues, shrinking audiences and a speeded-up digital culture that makes them seem slow. Newspapers scramble to catch up with bloggers; magazines lag behind newspapers; network broadcasts are hours behind the cable news channels. The idea of a weekly news product seems almost quaint. Analysis is great, but how do you stand out in a world that is saturated with opinion?

One answer is to jettison the old straddle-the-center formula in which the newsweeklies spoke with an institutional voice rather than publish bylines. Each magazine's lead columnist -- Time's Joe Klein, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter -- is liberal. Newsweek has been running columns by Jacob Weisberg, the liberal editor of Slate, another Post Co. property. Newsweek also ran a controversial cover last month headlined "The Religious Case for Gay Marriage" -- "one of the last great civil rights issues," Meacham says. And its top writers appear regularly on liberal talk shows on MSNBC, with which it has a news partnership.

"I'm not going to be silly about it," Meacham says. "A lot of people think we're left of center. I think it depends on the week and the issue. . . . I'm not ideologically driven by any means." He notes that Barack Obama's campaign limited cooperation with the magazine when Newsweek ran a cover photo of arugula last spring to symbolize his elitist image. Meacham himself wrote a post-election cover piece on why America is still a center-right nation.

Time ran a column last week by liberal academic Jeffrey Sachs titled "The Case for Bigger Government." This week's issue features Obama, Time's Person of the Year, yet again, and the cover headline "Great Expectations," plus a piece on his wife as "America's Next Top Model."

Stengel, who worked for Bill Bradley's Democratic presidential campaign, says he has tried conservative columnists -- including Bill Kristol, who left -- but has not come up with a star. "I get as many complaints from readers that we're too left as complaints that we're too right," he says. "I'm really conscious of trying to be fair and balanced."

Stengel's ideal staffer is Mark Halperin, whom he hired from ABC. Halperin created the political tip sheet the Page for Time.com and the magazine, and often appears on television. Both newsweeklies now realize they are competing on the Web as much as on the newsstand.

The cutbacks are taking their toll in more ways than one. As several key women have left Time, nearly all the top editors are now male, prompting considerable internal grumbling. Stengel acknowledges the criticism, saying, "I would love to rectify that."

Once, making the covers of Time and Newsweek was an event. Now, with Stengel having moved his publication date from Monday to Friday, it is more of a cultural blip, one more bit of data in a crowded marketplace.

"Of course, you'd rather be expanding and having everyone do everything," Meacham says. "But we're realists. We've got to make do with what we've got."

Inauguration Watch

As the excitement grows here in D.C. -- there was near-gridlock downtown yesterday with military jeeps blocking off many streets, two days before the actual event -- I've been struck by how nearly everyone sees the Obama swearing-in through the prism of their personal background. If you're black, if you grew up in the South, if you remember, as I do, watching TV shows and newscasts in which African Americans were invisible, you realize how far we have come. Frank Rich adds his voice:

"I cannot testify to what black Americans feel as our nation celebrates the inauguration of our first African-American president. But I can speak for myself, as a white American who grew up in the segregated nation's capital of the 1960s. Barack Obama's day is one that I never thought would come, and one that I still can't quite believe is here. . . .

"Except as household help, black Washington was generally as invisible to us as it was to the tourists who were rigidly segregated from the real Washington while visiting its many ivory marble shrines to democratic ideals."

Not everyone is pumped. Take, for instance, Michelle Malkin:

"I respect the historic tradition of inauguration day, not the cult of personality driving the schlock festivities now taking place.

"Pomp and circumstance have been replaced with pimp and self-aggrandizement -- all topped with a heapful of double standards . . .

"I do not pledge allegiance to The Obama States of America.

"Getting ready for the countdown.

"3, 2, 1 . . . RAAAAAAAACIST!"

Obama himself was careful to tamp things down a bit amid the splendor of the Lincoln Memorial concert, as the NYT reports:

" 'Only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now,' Mr. Obama said to the crowd, which had assembled not only to hear him but also such musical stars as Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé, Garth Brooks and U2. 'Our nation is at war, our economy is in crisis,' Mr. Obama said near the conclusion of the 'We Are One' concert. 'Millions of Americans are losing their jobs and their homes. They're worried about how they'll afford college for their kids or pay the stack of bills on their kitchen tables. And most of all, they are anxious and uncertain about the future, about whether this generation of Americans will be able to pass on what's best about this country to our children and their children.

" 'I won't pretend that meeting any one of these challenges will be easy. It will take more than a month or a year, and it will likely take many. Along the way there will be setbacks and false starts and days that test our resolve as a nation.' "

This WashPost piece is a reminder that more than just policy will change:

"Eleven days after the presidential election, 100 people were invited to the home of Vernon and Ann Jordan. The guest of honor was former Time Warner chief Richard Parsons, but the belle of the ball was Valerie Jarrett, one of Barack Obama's best friends and a newly named White House senior adviser.

"All night the Jordans' guests -- many VIPs in their own right -- surrounded Jarrett, eager to introduce themselves and welcome her to D.C. Business as usual. Every four or eight years, Washington's primarily white, influential, moneyed set rushes to cozy up to the new power brokers in town: Texans when George W. Bush arrived, Arkansas buddies when Bill Clinton came to town. The city's high-level social scene -- dinners, black-tie fundraisers, receptions, ubiquitous book parties -- is the place where money and experience are subtly traded for access and influence.

"Except for the first time, the face of ultimate power is African American. With a black first family in the White House and a diverse group of appointees and Cabinet nominees, the all-white dinner party feels all wrong."

The Boston Globe delivers a reality check:

"In the opening months of his presidency, Barack Obama is poised to make a host of massive investments -- in federal dollars, diplomacy, political capital, and civil liberties -- that he hopes will over the long term catalyze the transformational change he promised during his campaign.

"And yet the scale and ambition of those investments may put the 44th president on a collision course with public expectations: Though Obama's election raised the hopes of millions of Americans, any big payoffs from his domestic and foreign policy agendas -- from a stable economy to a stable Afghanistan -- are unlikely to manifest soon."

The liberals detested Bush's farewell speech and found it filled with falsehoods. This Arianna missive is typical:

"Thursday night's valedictory speech was quintessential Bush: delusional from beginning to end.

"He made Afghanistan sound like a swell place to take a vacation when, in truth, only those with a death wish venture out these days without an armed convoy.

"He lauded Iraq as 'a friend of the United States' -- without ever mentioning the fact that if Iraq has a BFF it is Iran, not America.

"He said his Medicare prescription drug plan 'is bringing peace of mind to seniors.' Hardly. It's been widely derided as a poorly conceived, chaotic mess. . . .

"In a particularly jaw-dropping moment, Bush asserted that when people 'live in freedom, they do not willingly choose leaders who pursue campaigns of terror' -- a remarkable claim given the fact that Hamas, which has kinda been in the news lately, has leaders who 'pursue campaigns of terror' and were willingly chosen by people given the freedom to elect who they wanted."

Roger Simon floats an interesting theory:

"I don't think George W. Bush ever wanted to be president. Not really.

"In 1992, as 'owner' (he had a 1.8 percent stake) of the Texas Rangers, he lobbied hard to become commissioner of baseball, even though Texas Republican leaders had already asked him to run for governor. Only when his attempt for the baseball job failed did Bush decide to run for governor. But he had to be pushed into it. Just as he had to be pushed into running for president. And there were always people around him willing to do the pushing, seeing him as a vehicle for their agendas.

"I don't think George Bush ever had a passion for the job of president. Nor do I think he ever enjoyed it. I don't view Bush as a tragic figure, but his two terms had tragic consequences: a war in Iraq, a shattered economy, the shredding of America's image around the world."

One journalist says the president has one last piece of unfinished business. Take it away, Fred Barnes:

"It's not quite right to say President Bush owes Scooter Libby a pardon. Having commuted Libby's sentence to 30 months in jail (but not his $250,000 fine), the president has no special obligation to follow up now with a full pardon before he leaves office next Tuesday. Nor does Libby's role as a proxy for Bush's policies on Iraq and the war on terror, and thus an indirect victim of political opposition to those policies, necessitate a pardon.

"But there is a compelling reason for presidential absolution: simple justice. Libby has either been punished far too severely for a very small offense or he is an innocent man. Either way, a pardon is both justified and appropriate."

Punished too severely? The man was convicted and never spent a day in jail.

Karl Rove, you will be happy to know, is now on Twitter. Rachel Sklar gives us the lowdown:

"Rove took to the platform like a pro, dropping links to his website, op-eds and TV clips, replying to random people who messaged him (the Twitter equivalent of a namedrop) and 'following back' everyone who followed his Twitter feed. . . . He thanked everyone for welcoming him. He called Fox News' Trace Gallagher a 'new media ninja.' He used exclamation points!! It was actually sort of . . . cute.

"Wait a second. Karl Rove, cute? There was nothing cute about eight long Bush years. And yet, I felt an unmistakable stab of jealousy when a Tweet from a friend came through triumphantly announcing that Karl Rove had started followed him. I made a decision: I followed Rove. The next day, he followed me back . . . and I liked it . . .

"Karl Rove 2.0 -- a new spin on the old version, just in time for the Obama administration and Change We Can Believe In. And it's working -- in a week, he's amassed almost 4,000 followers -- impressive numbers for Twitter."

And speaking of Twitter, Janis Krums of Sarasota, Fla., who was on a ferry when the "Miracle on the Hudson" US Airways flight hit water, posted a photo from his iPhone 34 minutes after the crash. He is now a media star tweeting his updates:

"Goodmorning. Wanted to give a quick update. I'll be on Goodmorning America today. Not sure what time. Currently in the green room. about 9 hours ago from Twittelator.

"Just did an interview with MSNBC. The last few hours have been intense. Thanks for all the support."

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