Owen Matthews

Who killed Newsweek?

Tina Brown can’t just blame the internet

Who killed Newsweek?
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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.’

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.