The Demise of Newsweek: Good Riddance to Rubbish
Everyone is falling all over themselves crying in their beer about the demise of one of America’s most cherished cultural institutions.
The Smithsonian wasn’t bombed. The Metropolitan Museum hasn’t been ransacked. Nor has the proverbial fat lady finally sung at the Met Opera.
No, we’re talking about Newsweek. Yes, I was shocked too; not that it was discontinuing its print edition but that it was still printing every week. And if that’s so, is the most recent issue in my dentist’s office always at least 1 year old?
To those who believe that a cabal of 1 percenters repressed an eensy-left-of-center newsweekly, the most obvious culprit is the one you’re using right now. Even if the Web hadn’t made a weekly digest as quaint as receiving news via Pony Express, Newsweek would eventually have fallen victim to the 24-hour-a-day news cycle of cable TV "news’ networks (ironic quotes here), daily syndicated entertainment-journalism programs, and all the other blather that fills airtime between ads for treatments of bizarre ailments.
Newsweek actually has existed for two years on life support. In 2010, its parent company, the Washington Post, got tired of subsidizing its losses and couldn’t unload it until a retired billionaire, Sydney Harman, bought it for $1, which gives a good indication of how the market valued the magazine.
Even more damaging than the exodus of readers to digital media was its obvious cooking of its circulation figures. By virtually giving subscriptions away, it was able to charge more for ad space. But media buyers knew that most readers were barely glancing at the content -- and at ads not at all.
Harman was briefly lauded as a savior of serious journalism until he revealed that he had teamed up with Tina Brown and would merge his new property with her fledgling all-things-to-all-people website, the Daily Beast.
The British-born-and-bred Brown made her reputation early in her career as the editor of a struggling society glossy magazine called The Tatler. She gussied it up with big-name contributors, and covered more of London’s swinging set and less stodgy titled nobility and royals.
Bright, ambitious and ruthless, Brown was the female version of the nasty, brutish Fleet Street reporters satirized in Evelyn Waugh’s novel "Scoop." British journalism has always been more rough and tumble than ours. Reporters routinely use blackmail, bribery, payoffs, sexual favors -- anything to get a story, amply demonstrated by the current unfolding of hacking private phone lines, including the immediate family of a brutally murdered young girl.
Brown also spearheaded relentless press coverage of Princess Diana, about whom she much later wrote a thick book that I devoured. It also showed the dogged searcher of hard facts, the shaper of a narrative, the mistress of breezy English. That she and her cohorts hounded Princess Di to her death in Paris is apparently something, however, that has escaped her piercing gaze.
Brown arrived on these shores to revive another dying venerable magazine title, Vanity Fair. Brown transformed it into an upscale, literate version of People. As a reward, the publisher gave her the most prestigious editing job in English-language magazines, The New Yorker.
Some (many, actually) say she dumbed down the magazine, which is probably unfair. Its famous fustiness was out of date; long articles on series on subjects like the history of the potato seemed stale, irrelevant and, in a world less inclined to linger, too damn long.
She made it relevant again, but also introduced photography and brought in writers far from the suede-patch-sleeved norm there. She badly flubbed her next move when she founded Talk, which represents the worst of her editorial instincts. If Vanity Fair was People for the 1 percent, the short-lived glossy Talk came off as their National Enquirer.
She eventually recovered and became a TV talking head, author, and founder, with (barely closeted) media mogul Barry Diller, of the Daily Beast. Now Diller has decided -- very reasonably, in my opinion -- that a publicly traded company can’t afford the luxury of subsidizing a money pit.
The Article That Made Newsweek Jump the Shark
Brown immediately brought to Newsweek her trademark brand of flashy headlines, bold graphics, shortened content and lots and lots of photographs. But she also brought to the most sober of the newsweeklies in-your-face articles that screamed "Read me, dammit!"
Longtime editor John Meacham was the epitome of the old WASP Establishment. Sober, responsible, intelligent and industrious, in between editing a weekly he managed to write several nonfiction books and even won a Pulitzer Prize for biography.