Once upon a time Newsweek magazine sold 4 million copies worldwide and made its owners, the Washington Post Company, healthy annual profits. That was then. It’s just been sold to a man who thinks that journalism does no harm when it’s “disciplined” and who, although he’s 91, hasn’t got a single day’s experience in the media industry.
At the beginning of the week it was supposedly sold for $1, but when Newsweek magazine was launched in New York in 1933 the initial investment capital was $2.5 million, a sum that, by the standards of the age, signaled that the backers were serious. Amongst the first stockholders was Paul Mellon, heir to the Mellon banking fortune, and his stake represented the first foray of one of America’s wealthiest families into the national journalism business. At the time, it wasn’t a bad investment. From its first issue, which featured seven news photographs on the cover – the most prominent of which was of a Nazi rally – Newsweek was destined to join the US media mainstream. Its agenda-setting status was cemented in 1937, when it merged with the weekly journal Today, and again in 1961, when it was bought by the Washington Post Company.
For most of the next five decades, the title retained its position as the second largest weekly news magazine in the United States (the perennially anodyne Time magazine being, of course, the largest). In 2003, Newsweek’s global circulation was around 4 million, with 2.7 million sold on average in the US alone. Its profitability enabled it to launch 12 international editions, including local-language franchises in Japan, Spain, Turkey, South Korea, Poland, the Arabian peninsula and Russia. At its height the publication ran 22 bureaus: nine in the US and one each in London, Berlin, Moscow, Paris, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, Beijing, South Asia and Mexico City.
Then, somewhere in the second half of the first decade of the new millennium, the fairy tale came to an end. In 2007 the magazine stopped making a profit, and in 2009 it lost $30 million. By 2010, US circulation had fallen to 1.5 million, and editor Jon Meacham – who had previously tried to explain away the drastic drop as a “good thing” (something about being able to charge subscribers more) – ran out of excuses. He announced his intention to resign on Monday 2 August.
The obvious question now posed by media commentators: what happened in the last four or so years? Columnist William Murchison, writing in the American Spectator, reflected the common consensus. Murchison pointed out that amongst the causes of Newsweek’s decline is its lack of usefulness in the Internet age. The newsmagazine’s raison d’etre, he suggested, is its ability to place minute happenings within historical frameworks, to provide a bigger context. That reason for existence, according to Murchison, has since expired.
“In its better days, under the Post, [Newsweek] was sort of liberal: never infuriatingly so, and relatively calm about things. For people who liked that sort of thing, that was the sort of thing they liked.
“Newsweek’s recent and present problem is that that sort of thing doesn’t support big newsmagazines. Conservatives don’t yearn to read ‘Raise My Taxes, Mr. President!,’ by Fareed Zakaria, with its reproach to the expiring Bush tax cuts as ‘an irresponsible act of hubris during an economic boom.’ Liberals can get the same stuff anywhere today: the Huffington Post, the New York Times editorial and op-ed pages, featuring Frank Rich and Paul Krugman; E.J. Dionne at the Washington Post; blogs innumerable; and so on. Who needs Newsweek?”
As it turns out, a 91-year-old founder of a stereo equipment company by the name of Sidney Harman needs Newsweek, because he’s just beat out three other contenders in a bid to acquire it from the Washington Post Co. The Post Co’s chairman, Donald Graham, has said in a release that he wanted to sell the magazine to “someone who feels as strongly as we do about the importance of quality journalism,” but, judging from his own statements, it’s not entirely clear that that person is Harman.
“Despite my years, I bring energy and a fresh approach,” Harman told the Wall Street Journal. “And I’m an experienced and knowledgeable businessman. I have a fundamental respect for the role of journalism and I think it has done no harm when you bring discipline to it.”
Done no harm? What sort of “discipline” does he consequently think should be brought to the profession? Then there was this statement, which Harman made before the beleaguered Newsweek staff: “I’m not here to make money. I’m here to make joy.”
Harman, who according to the Wall Street Journal agreed to assume far more liabilities in the acquisition than his bid rivals, has no experience in the media industry. He has none of the operational infrastructure that can keep magazines afloat on the principles of economies of scale – printing presses, distribution networks, etc – and he’ll be taking on expenses of around $180 million for the current year. Also, he plans to keep as much of Newsweek’s 350 staffers as possible.
If there’s joy to be found in that, who’s to deny him?
By Kevin Bloom
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