Newsweek's hazy future
Thursday, May 6, 2010; 8:54 AM
Can Newsweek magazine survive?
The answer is that no one, including the people who work there, knows for sure.
With yesterday's bombshell announcement that The Washington Post Co. is putting the magazine up for sale, Time remains the last newsmagazine standing. U.S. News & World Report has long since gotten out of the print weekly business.
Now a perfectly fine buyer may emerge, but it seems a foregone conclusion that Newsweek at best will be a shriveled version of its former self. In fact, some people think that's already the case.
Don Graham, the Post Co. chief executive, told me it was a difficult decision to sell the magazine that his father acquired in 1961 -- the sale was brokered by Ben Bradlee, then JFK's pal and Newsweek's Washington bureau chief -- but harder, obviously, for the people who work there.
Bradlee told me last night: "I hate to see any change because I was so involved with Newsweek. I loved it. It gave me my first shot. It was a great magazine. It is a great magazine."
But, he added, "nobody says you have to keep a magazine that is costing an arm and a leg. I understand why Don put it on the market. Someone's going to run it, I think."
Almost exactly one year ago, Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham was telling me that deliberately cutting its circulation in half -- from what had been a high of 3.1 million to 1.5 million -- would not destroy the money-losing magazine. He and his staff had decided to go upscale. The question, he said, involved advertisers: "Will they accept a more affluent Newsweek demographic, given that they've been acculturated all these years to think of us as a mass vehicle?" The answer is now apparent.
Part of the strategy was a radical redesign. I was not a fan of it, and neither, I can tell you, were a number of people who work there. By lumping a bunch of columnists together, playing up opinion and analysis in what Meacham called the "reported narrative" and the "argued essay," he transformed the magazine into an odd hybrid. In practice, it did seem to turn Newsweek into a version of the New Republic or the Economist.
Sometimes the cover stories were politically or culturally sharp, sometimes not, but they increasingly seemed to lean left. I lost track of the number of Barack and Michelle covers, one of them based on a Meacham interview with the president. And a couple of its top political writers double as MSNBC commentators.
Editorially, though, I've always liked Newsweek (it is based in New York and editorially separate from The Post, and we see ourselves as competitors). I've enjoyed reading Meacham, Jonathan Alter, Howard Fineman, Evan Thomas, Mike Isikoff, Fareed Zakaria, Robert Samuelson and others. But the Web site was stuck around 1999, and in a digital world, that's an unforgivable sin.
Newsweek has had its ups and downs but is intertwined with history. There was the tough story about Adm. Jeremy Boorda and his medals that led to Boorda's suicide; the cover about Vice President George H.W. Bush and the "wimp factor"; the famous decision to hold Isikoff's Monica Lewinsky scoop, which leaked to Drudge.