Who killed Newsweek?

Tina Brown can’t just blame the internet

29 December 2012

So farewell then, Newsweek magazine, which published its last print issue this week. After 79 years — 15 of them as my employer — the venerable old rag is to disappear into an uncertain, web-only future.

Many newspapers and magazines have folded as advertising shrinks and readers go online but Newsweek is perhaps the first of the titans to fall. Its demise is all the more resonant because it was one side of one of the great twin peaks of the press: Time and Newsweek, the New York Times and the Washington Post, the Times and the Daily Telegraph.

In its heyday Newsweek was an essential part of America’s national conversation. It was controversial, liberal, usually half a step ahead of Middle America. In 1963, a year before Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act, it dispatched 40 researchers to conduct 1,250 interviews for a special issue titled ‘The Negro in America’. It was a brilliant example of the kind of show-don’t-tell journalism that American newsweeklies used to do so well — a powerful indictment of segregation, told in people’s own words without polemic. In 1967 Newsweek published ‘Thanksgiving at Dak To’, a powerful report by Edward Behr with a photo-essay by Brice Allen which showed piles of American corpses in the carnage of Hill 875. It showed mainstream America the reality of failure in Vietnam years before it became a political commonplace.

Deep reporting with a cast of thousands was Newsweek’s trademark. Maynard Parker, once the doyen of Saigon’s Cercle Sportif and my first boss at Newsweek, was the last of the great boots-on-the-brass-rail editors. He loved what he called ‘scrambling the jets’ — mobilising Newsweek’s 30 bureaus around the world to swarm a late-breaking story and have the hell reported out of it by the time the magazine came out on Monday morning.  That took massive reportorial firepower, and correspondents with enough clout to get El Jefe on the phone at his private residence at 2 a.m., or buttonhole the secretary of state as he hurried out of a meeting. Journalistic legends like Behr, author of surely the best-named journalistic memoir ever written, Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? (a real quote from a BBC reporter in Congo). Or Mike Isikoff, who uncovered the story of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky (though it was held at the last moment by nervous Newsweek editors). Or Christopher Dickey, who scooped the world with the first interview with the maid at the centre of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair.

Newsweek was certainly a grand operation. When I joined the Moscow bureau in 1995 we had two correspondents, six apartments, two drivers, a photo editor, an office manager, two translators and an archivist. When Lally Weymouth, daughter of the late proprietress Katherine Graham, came to Moscow to interview the prime minister it was like a royal visit — an air-conditioned limo was hired, Russian grandees invited to a gala dinner at her hotel. ‘When I looked at the document of sale, it was like the vestiges of the great galleon it had been,’ Tina Brown, Newsweek’s latest and last editor, told New York magazine last month. ‘It was like that wreck of the Titanic in the James Cameron film — they’re swimming through the rooms, and you see the chandeliers.’

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She has a point — much of the grandeur had probably turned to flab. But it’s easy to look back from a deathbed and point to early signs of decrepitude. Newsweek, for all its profligacy, was profitable as recently as 2006. Time, its older and flashier rival, remains ‘highly profitable’, according to executive Peter Kafka (though critics claim that’s only because much of its overhead gets spread across the Time-Warner media stable). The Economist too, is doing well — its last accounts show operating profit up 6 per cent.

So the death of Newsweek is not the journalistic equivalent of ash-tree dieback — patient zero of an epidemic that will fell the whole forest. Newsweek’s demise was of its own making.

Things started to come unstuck under Jon Meacham, a devoted Episcopalian Christian with an eclectic interest in American history who became editor-in-chief in September 2006. It was under Meacham that Newsweek embarked on the fatal path from news to views. Columnists like George Will and Anna Quindlen had always been an important feature. But as profits began to slide, Meacham hatched a strategy to make Newsweek a ‘magazine of ideas’, with more blocks of text and fewer pictures to signal high seriousness. The idea was to compete with the Economist for the clever, rich readers.

But the only person on staff with a brain the size of a planet was Fareed Zakaria, whose reported essays — such as the October 2001 ‘Why They Hate Us’ — wove reporting into fluent analysis, and were brilliant. More often stories were twisted out of shape. Rhetorical kookiness took over from straight reporting. The straight story-stories — ‘bodice-rippers’, as the former British editor of Newsweek International Mike Elliot used to call them — were yanked, to be replaced with three-page potboilers on Angela Merkel. The result was, as Tina Brown put it, that Newsweek became ‘like homework’.

So did Tina hasten the end, or postpone it? Two years ago the Washington Post Company sold Newsweek for a dollar to a 92-year-old hi-fi millionaire named Sidney Harman. He brought in media mogul Barry Diller, owner of the Daily Beast — a lively American website — and its star editor Tina Brown, who took over Newsweek in March last year.

It’s true that the patient died on Tina’s watch. But Newsweek did, in its final act, recover much of its old mojo. Dickey’s ‘DSK Maid’ interview was an old-school scoop. And Newsweek International, under Tunku Varadarajan, is witty and elegantly clever — a snappier Economist, with better pictures.

Many of Tina’s editorial decisions have been controversial: a cringe-making ‘Diana at 50’ cover, the weird Obama as ‘America’s First Gay President’ cover, the ‘Muslim Rage’ cover by Ayaan Hirsi Ali which sparked riots. But no one has ever accused Tina of being boring. Editorial cojones can produce toe-curling outcomes — but they’re far better than the snoozefest that went before.

Tina says that ‘every piece of the zeitgeist was against Newsweek’. That’s not quite true — the circulation of Time, the New Yorker  and the Economist have remained relatively healthy while Newsweek’s plummeted. Five years ago, it sold 3.2 million; in June last year, 1.5 million. It was losing $20 million a year, and even to a billionaire like Diller that added up to real money.

Newsweek will live on as a paid app, and will be folded into the free Daily Beast site. But no one has yet succeeded in creating a profitable internet-only news organisation (the Huffington Post doesn’t count, since it aggregates much of its material from blogs and other sites). The odd reality is that even as the buzz and the life of journalism has migrated to the internet, the money has stayed on paper.

Tina called taking on Newsweek ‘a romantic gamble’. She did as much with it as her proprietor’s purse-strings allowed. But her assertion that print ‘is not the right medium anymore to produce journalism’, is mercifully premature. Newsweek died its own death: magazines live on.

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Show comments
  • http://twitter.com/cshbell Christian Bell

    I question Matthews’ choice of description here: “Things started to come unstuck under Jon Meacham, a devoted Episcopalian Christian with an eclectic interest in American history who became editor-in-chief in September 2006.”

    It’s unclear what relevance the descriptor “a devoted Episcopalian Christian” has other than to muddy the waters of readers’ opinion by suggesting that Meacham is somehow a religious eccentric, given that the adjective “devoted” rarely has positive connotation in public religious discourse.

    But beyond that, I question whether or not the description is even true. I did a long-form interview with Meacham as a student journalist six years ago: http://kerux.calvinseminary.edu/2007-01-29/01/

    We talked about his religious beliefs and what influence (if any) those had on his professional work. I asked him, among other questions on the topic, “For yourself, how has your faith shaped the way you’ve gone about the business of reporting the news?” and Meacham replied [in part], “I honestly don’t know. It’s an element in the compound of whatever I bring to whatever I do. It’s an important element. Is it any more important than the fact that I’m a Southerner or the fact that I love history or the sum of the experiences I’ve had along the way? It’s a mystery. I don’t know.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charles-Zigmund/100000590089238 Charles Zigmund

      The commenter Mr. Bell is evidently a Christian protesting the snide implication that Mr. Meacham’s faith played a part in his approach to Newsweek and therefore its demise. As I read people continuing to argue about religion I cannot help feeling the absurdity of their concerns. It is so obvious the desert heat-fostered hallucinations of ignorant nomad herders several thousand years ago are irrelevant to our lives today that one wonders why people continue to get so excited about them.

      • http://www.coffeehousewall.co.uk/ Coffeehousewall

        What a wierd person you are. To be honest it is your views which have no relevance or authority, though clearly you have a very high opinion of yourself.

      • Dr Cox

        Have you read the Beatitudes?

    • the viceroy’s gin

      Yes, mentioning Meacham’s religion is just muddying the waters, and serves no purpose. Meacham’s failures were due to his narrow minded leftism, however softly spoken, and not his religion, however milquetoast.

      Meacham’s in love with his own words. Nobody else seems to be.

    • kryon77

      If you judge by deeds, not words, i.e., by the way he edited Newsweek, Meacham’s religion was the Democratic Party, and his personal savior was Barack Obama.

    • therealguyfaux

      “[D]evoted Episcopalian” sounds like some sort of slap at the Church of England, i.e., that it is only outside the bounds of its own land that it could find a devotee such as Jon Meacham, who would actually admit it and not be met with what George Orwell referred to as “the frozen disgust one feels when one hears ‘God’.” As well, it would say something about the Episcopal Church’s having been the Established Church in many colonies pre-1776, that Mr Meacham is old-line main-line Protestant and as such he is of some sort of endangered species in 2013 America, the WASP Ascendancy, even if only a Tennessee “poor relation” (as opposed to a Massachusetts/New York/Pennsylvania/Virginia version, the proverbial St Grottlesex man of days of yore). To me, it has the same stench as the “staunch Roman Catholic” (no pun) formulation I heard when I was a child, in regard to someone who was considered to be fighting a war that in practical terms, outside Northern Ireland, had long ceased fire.

  • fitz fitzgerald

    The woman did not exactly over-exert herself on Newsweek’s behalf … F is for failure …

  • D B

    Patient zero? Zero is not a number.

    • Remittance Man

      Actually it is – talk to mathematicians.

  • Wilhelm

    ” a special issue titled the negro in America, a indictment on segregation.

    Hmm, just look up the crime statistics for black on white crime.

    • Max

      Breivik (aka Eddie, Hypocrisy Spotter), you really are a race-obsessed headcase. This is about print journalism, but all you comment on is race. Nutter. You really should see a psychiatrist. You live in lily-white Wales but you have a massive hang-up about anybody with brown or black skin. You are a racist, nasty piece of work. Would love to know how the white supremacist manifesto is coming along! Keep drinking the kool aid, and writing letters to your hero namesake in Norway. Daft racist.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UYR3IHIHPDYUMXU24QD5575JEE Mitchell

        “You live in lily-white Wales but you have a massive hang-up about anybody with brown or black skin.”

        White British people have now become a minority in their own capital city. Mass immigration is nothing but slow motion ethnic cleansing.

        • Max

          Black, brown, white – what difference does a person’s skin colour make to you, Mitchell? It makes none to me, and even if it did, a multicultural, multiracial and cosmopolitan UK is a fact now, so get used to it! To speak of ethnic cleansing is laughable. If a white person chooses to leave London, they do so of their own accord; nobody is forcing them to do anything. This is rather different from the actual ethnic cleansing which went on in Rwanda, for example, where particular groups were forced from their homes with a gun pointed to their head, or else simply massacred without the chance to flee. Do you not feel a bit stupid bandying terms like “ethnic cleansing” about in respect of London? You should actually feel ashamed to use this kind of language, Mitchell. Vote BNP, by all means – I’ll cancel you out at the next election by voting Labour, don’t worry.

          • Fergus Pickering

            You’re a bit of an arse.

          • Max

            I love constructive criticism, Fergus: well done!

          • HemRey

            Ethnic cleansing is where a racial or cultural group is forced to leave an area through violence or the threat of violence. A white person who leaves London because they are targeted by black criminals or are intimidated by non-white terrorists blowing up buses and trains is, by definition, being ethnically cleansed.

            The truth is that you and Mitchell agree on the crux of the matter: you both accept that Britain’s ethnic make-up is changing dramatically thanks to non-white immigration. He thinks this is a bad thing, you do not. Difficult to see why you two hate each other so much, unless it is rage generated by the idea that seeing your views challenged in print might force you both to reassess them.

        • Wilhelm

          Mitchell, regarding our troll ‘ friend ‘ Max

          ” Have you ever wondered, perhaps, why opinions which the majority of people quite naturally hold are, if anyone dares express them publicly , denounced as ‘shocking, disgusting, disgraceful ‘ and overwhelmed with a violence and venom quite unknown to debate on mere political issues ? It is because the whole power of the aggressor depends upon preventing people from seeing what is happening and from saying what they see.”

          • Max

            Is it really ‘quite natural’ to be virulently racist, Wilhelm? If everybody held opinions like yours, Nick Griffin would be in No. 10. Fortunately the vast majority of people aren’t hung up on brown and black people like you, so we don’t have a white supremacist government. Such a shame apartheid failed in South Africa – it would have been the ideal system for somebody like you. Ah well, maybe it will come again. Later, Breivik!

      • Wilhelm


        Are you a bit slow on the uptake ? I’ve told you before, do I have to scold you again like a disobedient child ? I’m not Eddie. If you had more than two brain cells, which clearly you don’t, you would notice the different writing styles, duh !

        And with that, you’re dismissed.

        • Max

          Breivik/Wilhelm/Eddie/Hypocrisy Spotter – it’s not so much the writing style, the alarmism, the moral outrage or even the writing style which gives you away; it’s the pathological race hatred! The worrying thing is that you think your nasty, vicious, divisive views are ‘quite natural’. Maybe they are, if you’re pathologically racist, and obsessed with colour.

  • ShoeOnHead

    …waaay before tina brown the culture of the newsweek was no-risk.

    two words killed newsweek:
    establishment churnalism.

    (shoe on head)

  • FifthHorseman

    Who kill Newsweek. It is simple I did. I killed Newsweek, but I had help. I had your help and we killed off another weekly magazine. I get on the average each month from my life subscriptions and all the free magazines around a couple of thousands pages of this that interest me. When it comes for news I have the hourly radio or the nightly 30 minute news program.
    Most ofthe world I have little interest in, even my own government is of little interestin, except that it is going even futher into debit and I myself am to busy doing nothing to really care.
    I pity the poor joutnalist student who has spent huge sums of money for a degree in journalism only to find that so many oters have done the same thing that any job in his field is really in writing pulp fiction.

    • Sixth horseman

      You’ve nailed it. I helped kill it too.
      I expect amazing scoops to be presented for free. I want them dumbed down to black and white with no shades of grey. I want my own knee jerk opinions confirmed and never challenged,

  • Curnonsky

    Newsweek’s problem was that their core audience (smug lefties looking for confirmation of their belief system) migrated to half-literate websites like DailyKos and HuffPost. Why buy a magazine full of drivel (interview scoop with DSK maid, seriously?) when you can get it for free?

    And plagiarist Fareed Zakaria has a “brain the size of a planet”? Ego, perhaps.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      Yes, if Zakaria is what passes for talent, you’re in trouble. He’s a plagiarist AND a phony flipflopper, who’s been on all sides of every issue, at some point. In fact, if there’s one person whose presence signaled the death knell of Newsweek, it’s him. Meacham is a chump, but he was more or less just filling a seat. Zakaria was claimed as the action guy, and the only action he brought on was subscription dumps.

    • http://twitter.com/Waltroon Walter Ellis

      The core readers of polemical magazines, including those who value the Spectator, are ALL look for confirmation of their belief systems. Why turn this into an insult? Or are you, Curnonsky, happy to be described as a smug rightie?

      • Curnonsky

        The Spectator is a magazine of opinion, Newsweek (as the name implies) billed itself as a news magazine. And alas, we righties have little to feel smug about these days except for the impending economic collapse of the Western world.

  • Roy

    Well, did it not get taken over by the left? As have all the ones you mention in your second paragraph. The “left” do not recognise the truth, nor do they know right from wrong, or realise a profit has to be made and is not just a dirty word when it comes to doing business. They all deserve to fold, they have done their dirty business and encouraged the underworld to crawl out from their dismal burrows, to take over the running of the world. Now it will collapse around their ears and they will again blame it on the right, of course.

  • e2toe4

    I don’t know much about Newsweek and the specific reasons for it’s abandoning an offline presence but as someone who works in what’s left of the media ‘business’ I do know that many more titles will disappear from the physical newstands and news agents in the next few years, and the more that do so, the more that will.

    The industry is hollowed out now.. their is still much talk at the top about ‘fine journalism needing to be paid for’ and ‘commitment to preserving standards’, but down where the day to work is done anyone with eyes can see the seam is worked out and there are no more diamonds in the mine.

    Underneath the rhetoric even ‘world class publications’ now expect to pay £40 or £50 for a photograph, and £00.00 for some stories and when one pays hobby past-time, pocket money one ends up with hobbyists eventually.

    Every newspaper or magazine that ‘goes digi-only’ will have specific reasons for their demise in the way every soldier dies of a different wound – but the problem isn’t the sudden outbreak of multiple trauma; it’s the War going on that’s really to blame.

    The transition from what was, to what will be, has already been destructive of jobs, reputations and titles, and will get worse before we reach the new world.

    But I do believe a new viable and (hopefully, possibly, maybe) better ‘journalistic world’ will be reached eventually. The problem, if it is one, is that the old familiar ways of organising journalism (and extracting from it the surplus value to maintain particular structures, such as ‘papers’ or ‘magazines’ or even ‘corporate ownership’) may not survive.

    So while the comfortable abbots, their well padded retainers and their wonderful, magnificent and opulent monasteries may not survive, they will no doubt leave marvellous, albeit, roofless and ruined, reminders of their era, and (mixing the metaphor a bit too much really) the emancipation of journalists and photographers from the rock face underground into the light could create an (minor key) age of enlightenment in the 21st century to match the real one of the 18th

  • the viceroy’s gin

    Newsweek was already on the road to death when I canceled my subscription 16 years ago, and I’m proud to say I dumped them even before they spiked the Bill Clinton story, when they shamed themselves forever.

    And yes, others of their ilk are on the way out, as well. Their customers are dying. And the smart ones still living are dumping their subscription. These legacy publications are living solely on their past.

  • Deke

    Traditional magazines that aren’t special (ordinary quality stock, flat colors, boring features, etc.) are doomed in today’s digital world. Having Tina Brown at the helm guarantees there will be great catering at the goodbye party.

  • Jabez Foodbotham

    If one journalist can commend with a straight face another “who scooped the world with the first interview with the maid at the centre of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair.”
    it is pretty clear how a journal which employed such talents would sink

  • kryon77

    The author thinks Fareed Zakaria is brilliant. The author is dumb.

  • Latimer Alder

    Does anybody in the real world care? I don’t remember ever reading the magazine – bar once in a dentist’s waiting room.

    Journalistic obsession with other journalists is becoming rampant.

  • fitz fitzgerald

    … this bird nearly wrecked the New Yorker — witness the politicised, leftist rag it now is — and she can hardly be said to have exerted herself on the Newsweek front … a trail of wreckage in her wake …

  • JR Levitt

    This is a brilliant piece. I was a long-time reader of Newsweek and Mathews describes the shift exactly right — and the bipolar magazine that resulted. Fareed Zakaria could write those analytic cover essays (anyone who doubts that should check them out, they still read superbly), but no one else could, so the magazine veered strangely between being very upmarket and downmarket. I don’t know what the solution should have been, though, because reporting has become something of a commodity.

  • Ralph Seward

    Smart piece. Problem is, no one needs a newsmagazine anymore. We get news in so many forms that waiting a week to get a roundup doesn’t make any sense. Newsweek tried a bunch of different things but none of them worked. I liked the shift to ideas and opinions because that was something beyond simply the facts, which I could get anywhere. And Newsweek had some great writers. Fareed Zakaria did it best, as the author notes, but there were others as well. But maybe that was not enough for a mass audience. Anyway, for all the critics, I would say, it was a great magazine that couldn’t survive a huge technological transformation. Thanks and RIP.

  • doonvarn

    hmmm, wasn’t Barry Diller on the board of the Washington Post? Did he vote for the sale? How fortunate that the Post chose a buyer that somehow he would end up the beneficiary of a dollar sale of the magazine.

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