05.05.10

Who Killed Newsweek?

As the fabled magazine faces a fire sale, the Pulitzer Prize winning editor faces criticism for "absentee" management. Ben Bradlee and other insiders weigh in.

As the fabled magazine faces a fire sale, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor faces criticism for “absentee” management. Ben Bradlee and other insiders weigh in. Plus, Newsweek's greatest hits.

In 2007, when Random House tried to hire Jon Meacham for its top job, the genteel editor politely declined, opting to keep his post at the helm of Newsweek, where he’d worked for more than a decade.

“They’ll have to blow me out of here,” Meacham said at the time.

It looks like they’re about to.

Click Image to See 10 Memorable Newsweek Covers

Newsweek’s Greatest Hits On Wednesday morning, Washington Post Co. President Donald Graham said that after years of saintly patience, he was going to try to sell Meacham’s home out from under him—if anyone’s even in the market for loss-leading newsmagazines these days. Cold business calculations finally won out over familial sentimentality: Fabled Newsweek, which now loses more than half a million dollars a week, would have to go.

“I’m exploring every possibility,” Meacham told The Daily Beast, suggesting that a buyer might be found who would agree to pay little or nothing for the magazine in exchange for assuming its substantial losses—the same dynamic that allowed Bloomberg to take over BusinessWeek in October.

Meacham, a history lover who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, threw in a Churchillian peroration: “I believe in what we’re doing. I am realistic about the economic and journalistic realities. I also believe that Newsweek is an important part of the life of the nation. You can make fun of that, and say it sounds romantic or quixotic, but I happen to believe it. I believe in the people of this magazine. I believe in what we do. I’m not going to unilaterally disarm.”

This is a man whose favorite movie is Jerry Bruckheimer’s Armageddon.

Click Below to Watch Meacham on The Daily Show Wednesday

Video screenshot

Meacham professed surprise at Graham’s announcement—he is said to have learned of it only 18 hours earlier—but any shock must have been mitigated by the near-constant Newsweek deathwatch that has attended his tenure. He quickly regrouped Wednesday morning, addressing his staff and telling us and others about how he just might round up some billionaires and buy the darn thing himself. It would be a fitting end to a fitful period, over which, against all prevailing logic, Meacham has sought to reinvent the 77-year-old magazine into a printed facsimile of… Jon Meacham.

Maybe nothing would have saved Newsweek. But Meacham’s vision, expounded over countless media appearances during his three-year tenure, was certainly unconventional. The new new Newsweek would be like The Economist, only better. He wanted a text-heavy, picture-light magazine filled with high-minded pieces targeted at the intellectual elite. His ideal reader, he said, would be interested in “what I’m interested in.”

Meacham is famously, acutely interested in presidential history, the Founding Fathers, and religion. A frequent television talking head who writes books and travels on lecture tour, he was often away from Newsweek’s New York offices, editing the magazine remotely. He is on contract for two more books—biographies of Thomas Jefferson and George H.W. Bush—and has a new PBS talk show, Need to Know, debuting this week and airing on Friday nights, the same night the magazine goes to press. Wednesday night, he was promoting his new PBS program on The Daily Show and making light of the Newsweek sale, joking to Jon Stewart, “I’ll be over in the morning with the prospectus." Somehow, even while doing all of this and managing a struggling magazine, he finds time to sleep an average of seven hours a night.

According to a Newsweek insider, staffers came away extremely dispirited from a New York meeting six weeks ago at which the results of a reader focus group on the latest redesign were presented. The presentation, for which Meacham was absent, “was unrelentingly bad,” says the insider. “There was hardly anything positive about the magazine. The recurring themes were ‘dull,’ ‘boring,’ ‘like doing your homework.’ Everybody was thoroughly depressed.” Both because of this overhaul and also his hectic professional schedule that veterans liken to being an “absentee landlord,” Meacham has drawn plenty of criticism throughout his term.

Former Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker, whom Meacham succeeded, declined to comment on the news of the sale, “except to say that this is a very sad day for all of us who worked so hard to make Newsweek what it once was.”

Meacham dismissed criticism of his extracurricular activities, which he argues haven’t detracted from his focus on Newsweek. “I have tried to present the magazine well and in different arenas, and I believe that what I have done outside the magazine has ultimately served it well,” he told The Daily Beast. “Honestly, I don’t think that if I had not written a book we would have sold 300 more ad pages.”

Were readers really clamoring for more gray space in print magazines? And more opinion pieces when the blogosphere abounds in opinion?

To be fair, Meacham inherited a magazine from Whitaker in 2006 at a time of dramatically changing news demands. The weekly U.S. News and World Report, with more than two million higher-demographic readers, became a bi-weekly, then a monthly, with a focus on building its service franchise, and boosting its Web site. In the spring of 2008, 18 months into his tenure, Newsweek underwent a brutal round of buyouts that reduced its staff by 111 people, or about 20 percent. Meacham played off the cuts as painful but part of a broader strategy to haul his magazine into the 21st century. The trick, he believed, was to focus on what he insisted was substance over style. In a year and a half, he boasted in an interview at the time, he’d already upped the amount of text in the magazine by 30 percent and reduced the number of photos. (Barry Diller, the chief executive of IAC, the parent company of The Daily Beast, is one of the directors of the Washington Post Co.)

Were readers really clamoring for more gray space in print magazines? And more opinion pieces when the blogosphere abounds in opinion? A year later, Meacham unveiled an over-art-directed redesign.

That new, criticized look came with a new business model: half as many readers (from 3 million subscribers to 1.5 million) who would pay double as much (90 cents per issue, on average) to read it. It’s hugely counterintuitive,” he said at the time. “The staff doesn’t understand it.” He also raised newsstand price a dollar, to $5.95.

Time magazine—long the nation’s dominant newsweekly, which stands to benefit even more if, some predict, advertisers start to migrate there from sickly Newsweek—issued a statement Wednesday that omits mention of its rival. “Time continues to be healthy and profitable, and a trusted source of news, reporting, and analysis for millions of people in America and around the world in print, online and on the iPad. We had a highly profitable year last year and will have an even more profitable one this year.

Time Managing Editor Rick Stengel declined to comment on the sale of Newsweek, other than to say he wishes Time’s competitor well.

Former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, who as a Newsweek correspondent in 1961 was instrumental in persuading Post Co. Chief Executive Philip Graham to buy the magazine from the Astor Foundation, was wistful when reached by The Daily Beast on Wednesday.

“I feel a little sad about it. But I don’t feel sad as a Washington Post person,” he said, suggesting that selling the magazine was best for the company. “I wish them luck in selling it.” As for Newsweek’s future under another owner, “I guess the question has been is there room for two newsmagazines,” Bradlee said, “and I don’t think we have the answer to that yet.”

Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.