Stack another on the corpse-pile of 20th Century institutions that wandered, dazed and confused, into the new millennium: Newsweek magazine. The publication’s management can’t seem to find the words to explain to investors why they continue to lose $600,000 each week operating the dishwater-dull newsweekly, and last week began seeking bids from purchasers. Consensus is that there probably won’t be one.
There’s little cachet in owning a failing media property with a ruinous cost-structure in an unappealing market category. Even so, Newsweek had its best days two generations back. That makes the magazine an interesting buy, only to an unconventional proprietor with an out-of-the box business plan. We’re not describing Hearst or Gannett, here — but you could have scads of fun speculating on who might have the will, the bankroll, and the agenda. Rupert Murdoch and Carlos Slim Helú have both said they aren’t interested. (If Carlos Slim Helú wanted to buy any magazine, it would have to be Hello! magazine, just so’s he could rename it Helú!)
That leaves… Reverend Moon? The Chinese Army? Al Jezeera? Hugo Chavez? After 77 years, if the threadbare weekly manages to survive, it seems destined to the kind of after-life experienced by the American Mercury, after H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan: a sporadically produced platform for opinionated cranks pretending to have lineage and legitimacy.
Newsweek was a good magazine once, under the imaginative editorship of Osborn Elliott. Where its larger, older and far richer competitor, Time, remained notoriously stodgy and hidebound well into the 1970s, Newsweek under Elliott was progressive and sometimes inspiring. Elliott was first to provide a page each issue for non-public figures to offer a personal view of a minor, or major, event. This feature, known “My Turn,” remains a staple of op-ed pages everywhere, and may be viewed as the precedent for the current profusion of blogs, including this one.
If Newsweek‘s approach to magazine journalism began to drift, post-Elliott, the title remained committed to demonstrating innovation in other ways. The magazine was an early adopter of interactive media, issuing an experimental CD version well ahead of the pack, and tagging along gamely for the MSNBC experiment, offering multimedia content to the pioneering news website. Newsweek extended its brand into radio and cable TV, regularly inserting its editors as talking heads on nightly news discussions. That exposure may have contributed to the brand’s faded allure. The earlier generation of Newsweek writers and columnists, exemplified by George F. Will, weren’t all that bad as television performers. However, the Newsweek yuppies who turned up in the nineties were uniformly dreadful, presenting a face of the magazine that was condescending, pretentious, smarmy, dismissive, and several other not-so-great things. Jon Meacham had the most annoying TV presence of all, so it stood to reason that he would be appointed editor.
Meacham’s recent plan was to convert the book from a generalist weekly newsmagazine, to an American equivalent of Britain’s The Economist, a magazine of ideas — or, at least, one idea, namely that the reader is an urban smartypants who should be able to comprehend sardonic editorial insights. The Economist appeals to a smallish, elite audience, and is much admired within the global editorial fraternity.
Ken Whyte, the editor of Canada’s newsweekly, Maclean’s, tried exactly the same stunt when he took charge of the listless organ, and still managed to add a dollop of original thinking into his North Americanized adoption of the UK template. His effort hasn’t turned Maclean’s into anything close to a money-maker for owner Rogers Media, but it has become a pretty decent little magazine that provides a reliably entertaining 22-minute read.
You’d be exaggerating to say the same of Meacham’s Newsweek, which a year ago accepted the Economist‘s stem-cells, but, drat the luck, the darned things failed to take. That could only be Meacham’s fault, not nature’s. In notifying his readers of the management decision to sell the magazine, the editor wrote last week, “…while the precise shape of the future is unknowable, we do know some things. First, Newsweek was not closed last week.” Great analysis, Jon. Because when the boss shuts down a magazine, first thing he tends to do is change the locks on the employee entrance. But that didn’t happen, and you’re still in your office turning out the twaddle. Nice bit of deductive reasoning, old stick.
If there was any remaining justification to support the Greater Fool theory of media ownership, I’d suggest that Rogers should buy Newsweek for a loonie (trading at 97.45 US cents, this morning), and combine it with Maclean’s, under Whyte’s watch. That could make for a plausible, and truly exciting, international editorial product — and, as an added benefit, it would cause all those familiar journalistic Beltway Boys, along with their even less-talented and more dreary Canadian opposite numbers, to blow their predictable minds, right on cue. But, Rogers is a publicly traded company, and the analysts would never see any logic in the transaction. The analysts would be right. Rogers is already sinking money into inexplicable attention-diverting sidelines such as a losing baseball team, dying video-rental shops, and many dubious print publications. In addition, no one has been running Rogers since the founder flat-lined more than a year ago.
In any case, there is a definite pattern taking shape in the 21st Century that can be seen as the three-into-one equation. There used to be three newsweeklies: Time, Newsweek, US News. US News gave up the game, for the most part, a couple of years back, and now Newsweek is teetering. The largest advertisers in the newsweeklies used to be the Big Three automakers, and we don’t need to say another word about any of that. Or about what happened to the three leading investment banks. Or how what once was known as the Big Three television networks are trying to reinvent themselves, amid reports last week about CBS folding its news unit into Time-Warner’s CNN.
Indeed, a bad time for trinities, but an even worse time to be blowing your brains out to the tune of an annual eight-figure loss on an unsustainable publishing franchise. For all the hopeful enthusiasm the olde-media moguls are able to muster these days over the thought of delivering content to the iPad (No more printing contracts for 1.5 million copies! No more mailmen!), there is something about boring, derivative editorial dreck that somehow fails to excite readers — whether it’s dreck on paper, or dreck on an LCD screen. We’re prepared to get all nostalgic about the lost glory that was the American magazine industry, just don’t ask us to pretend that Newsweek has been serving any purpose to anyone for these last awful 10 years, other than providing a paycheque to some no-talent yuppie cut-ups.