News-bleak! Or Is It? Grahams Succumb to Panic

Conventional wisdom says the traditional newsweekly is doomed—but it ain’t necessarily so

One of the more remarkable features of our current cultural moment is that otherwise mature adults have been spooked by economics the way children are frightened by thunder. Consider the way the Washington Post Co. has handled Newsweek, one of its flagship assets, which is now up for sale.

Let’s say you own a candy store. For years, the store has been a viable enterprise. It was worth holding on to through cycles of bust because the boom times always returned sooner or later. Part of what made the store worth hanging on to was the fact that it had become so much a part of people’s lives that it was half a commercial and half a civic institution. That comforting familiarity was one reason you knew the store would pull through hard times. That, and the certainty that hard times always came to an end.

Sure enough, another bad stretch hits the store. But this time, economic recession is compounded by a new trend: Rival candy stores are giving away treats and other stuff for free! All the neighborhood candy stores are hit. They all lose money and customers to the new “free” candy stores. Your certainty that the cycle will come to an end is being assaulted by loud local gossip to the effect that this crisis is unprecedented, and that the free stores are a revolution in candy.

What do you do? Do you close a store that during its almost 80 years of existence has become a neighborhood institution? Do you try to sell it at precisely the moment when the very fact of putting it up for sale is the strongest argument against buying it? Do you ignore decades of experience of cycles of boom and bust and believe the hysterical cries announcing the end of retail as you know it? Or do you calm yourself, take a look around and notice that all the nearby stores are doing badly but that yours is doing the worst of all? In that case, instead of closing the store, you might replace your brother-in-law, whom you hired to run the store because you’ve known him forever, because you appreciated his ingratiating style and felt flattered by the fact that he sounded so smart in public and had lots of glamorous friends. So what if your sister won’t talk to you for a while; she’ll get over it.

It is scandalous that the Post Co. has decided to sell Newsweek before replacing the editor under whom the magazine has foundered so badly. Can you imagine the Sulzbergers doing that? Murdoch? Can you imagine any group of people who have, as the Grahams are legendarily said to have, journalism running through their veins preserving an individual over a valuable and viable journalistic institution?

Newsweek is bleeding money. By every law of capitalism, Jon Meacham should have been replaced. And yet rather than replacing him, Meacham’s overlords allowed him to strip the magazine, precious component by precious component. They stood by while he bought out and laid off some of the magazine’s best editors and writers, reduced the magazine’s guaranteed circulation base in order to attract a more exclusive class of advertiser—a fancy accounting gimmick that had the effect of alienating advertisers looking for a large, guaranteed circulation base—and completely transformed the magazine’s decades-old identity, a gimmick that had the effect of bewildering advertisers eager to match their product or service with a magazine’s familiar identity.

As Newsweek went under, Meacham went higher. The quarterly financial reports brought news of impending ruin, and yet there he was, night after night, beaming before the cameras on every talk show and comedy show you could think of. It was as if Meacham had decided that rather than save the ship from going under, he would turn it into his own private submarine. His editorial policy mostly amounted to his publishing famous friends and acquaintances, whose shopworn names did nothing for the magazine’s fortunes but everything for Meacham’s expanding quid pro quo. There is nothing wrong with being a political animal: on the contrary. But Meacham’s deft maneuverings reaped him recognition and acclaim while his magazine tumbled toward irrelevancy.

Full disclosure: My wife worked at Newsweek for many years and she was one of the two dozen or so people Meacham laid off. The fact that she worked at Newsweek was why I never took after Meacham, as was the fact that he laid her off. But another reason I never criticized Meacham in print was that I had high hopes for the new format he introduced last May. The instant denunciations of him when he explained that he, in effect, wanted to create a counterpoint to the Internet and run longer, more reflective essays in the magazine made me bristle. The American public is restless by definition. It is only a matter of time before people flock to the Internet to find an antidote to the worst and most undeveloped aspects of the Internet, one of them being amateurishly written “news” that is as inaccurate as it is superficial. What appeared to be Meacham’s daring seemed right on the mark.

Indeed, in light of The Atlantic’s rising profitability, Meacham’s vision for Newsweek now seems prescient. The Atlantic, borrowing in part from The Economist, has turned itself into exactly the right blend of long-form and short-burst journalism that Meacham seemed to want. And Meacham once had more resources than The Atlantic. He hit the ground with overseas bureaus, and seasoned Washington reporters like Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, and established commentators like Jonathan Alter and Fareed Zakaria. For a while, even Meacham’s boyish poise on camera seemed to bode well; his self-effacing thoughtfulness fit the anti-intellectual atmosphere even as it seemed to elevate the discourse. The guffaws that greeted him when he threw down the gauntlet to the new-media age struck me as automatic responses to a successful media personality and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

But Meacham proceeded to hamstring his own vision and create the magazine in his own image. He hobbled Newsweek with star-struck careerism on the one hand and self-congratulatory pseudo-intellectuality on the other. In his lead essays, Meacham babbled inexplicably on about religion while the world burned and churned around him, or flaunted “contrarian” positions—e.g., America is essentially a conservative country—that had been tested countless times before and were uncontroversial in the extreme.

At the same time, Meacham was dropping names left and right. You scratched your head when Meacham informed readers in the Newsweek issue guest-edited by Stephen Colbert that he knew Colbert’s in-laws in South Carolina. If there is anything that puts off the contemporary reader, it is the feeling that rather than being invited into something, he is being waved at from an exclusive cocktail party on the other side of a wall.

It turned out that the slower, more reflective pace of the magazine actually just gave Meacham more time to spend trimming his sails outside the office. You began to see that the boyish poise on camera was actually an opportunistic blankness, interrupted by “thoughtful” pauses and punctuated by an occasional smug smack of the lips, as though he could not resist planting one on himself in gratitude for being … himself.

In his May 31 New York Times column, David Carr presented the conventional wisdom about Newsweek, which is that time has passed it by. The very idea of a news “weekly” is obsolete; people want instantaneous news, etc. The fact is that in the midst of the worst advertising recession in perhaps 80 years, and the worst general economic circumstances in about as long a time, any kind of prediction about where any type of business is going is irresponsible. In the case of The New York Times, I would pay several hundred dollars a year to read it, but one aspect of the paper that I cannot take seriously is its reporting on other news entities. At a time when The Times is nearly hysterical over The Wall Street Journal’s competition, when the paper has anxiously postponed the implementation of a paywall again and again, when panicking editors are driving their reporters crazy, the expectation that The Times can report objectively on the economic side of the news business is irrational.

So much proclamation of print media’s imminent doom is driven by self-interest, whether on the part of rival news organizations, threatened establishment journalists, established journalists who just want to stay in the game or jealous bloggers. What is truly happening is much less certain. Almost two years ago, the banks were sinking, the automakers were sinking and the country was sliding into a second Great Depression. Well, the banks are flourishing, the automakers are doing fine, more and more people are managing to get by. One man’s hysteria, it seems, is another man’s stock option.

But the Grahams, like just about everyone else in journalism, have succumbed to the loudest voices. Never mind that Newsweek still has the vast resources of a storied magazine that has operated effectively for nearly a century on several continents. Would it have made a difference if the Grahams had, for example, not bought Slate and then proceeded to blur Slate into Newsweek by blending the tone of the two magazines and sharing writers between them? Or if they had had the cojones to beg Tina Brown to take over Newsweek? It doesn’t matter. Don’t ask questions.

Strange how the mainstream news business is the only realm in American life where the Calvinist doctrine of predestination is alive and flourishing. That must be the secret of Arianna Huffington’s success. She believes in free will! On the other hand, a neighborhood candy store makes more money than the HuffPo. In love and business, the fundamentals still apply. What a world-historical shame. By the time the media moguls realize that they have been listening to Chicken Littles driven by ulterior motives, there will be nothing left in the media world worth either buying or selling.

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