Things move slowly in the offices of the Washington Post. It took them until about 2007, a decade after Matt Drudge scooped them by running the story they spiked on Monica Lewinsky, to conclude that the idea of a weekly news magazine was being rendered anathema by the Internet. (Except, perhaps to grace the end tables in dentist office waiting rooms, and the iPad was just around the corner to kill that market). So the Post decided to transform Newsweek, their once staid but popular news magazine into a combination of People magazine and The New Republic, or what Andrew Ferguson memorably declared in 2009 to be “a liberal opinion magazine written by liberals who don’t want to admit they’re liberals.” And the Post decided to make the audience for their magazine as selective, in the Spinal Tap sense, as possible, as their then-editor told an incredulous Howard Kurtz (then still also a WaPo employee himself) that year:
Jon Meacham admits it is hard to explain, even to his own people, why chopping Newsweek’s circulation in half is a good thing.
“It’s hugely counterintuitive,” the magazine’s editor says. “The staff doesn’t understand it.”
That step — along with a redesigned, revamped publication that hits newsstands today — may well determine whether the 76-year-old newsmagazine survives. Newsweek will concentrate on two things — reporting and argument — while kissing off any recap of the week’s developments.
Time has been gravitating in that direction as well. But Newsweek, owned by The Washington Post Co., is accelerating the process because it is bleeding red ink, losing nearly $20 million in the first quarter. Newsweek, whose circulation was as high as 3.1 million in recent years, plans to cut that to 1.5 million by the beginning of 2010, in part by discouraging renewals. The magazine will begin charging the average subscriber about 90 cents an issue, nearly double the current rate.
“If we can’t convince a million and a half people we’re worth less than a dollar a week, the market will have spoken,” Meacham says. The newsstand price will also jump from $4.95 to $5.95, a buck more than Time.
Good news! The market spoke, and Newsweek was indeed worth a buck. Bad news: that was the price the Post negotiated to offload the magazine in 2010 to stereo tycoon Sidney Harman, who passed away the following year at age 92.
Having replaced Meacham with Tina Brown, the Harman-era Newsweek went from imitating Time (during both magazines’ glory days) to TNR, to really imitating People, circa 1993, with covers featuring Princess Di, Hillary Clinton, and Woody Allen.
Now there’s cutting edge material.
But then, as Andrew Ferguson noted in the run-up to the 2010 midterms, “The reinvented newsmagazine has pursued a fantasy life of its own:”
To cite one obvious example: newsweeklies annually marked Christian holidays with a cover story on a religious theme, always respectful and sometimes celebratory in tone. I’m sure it was a strain, an exercise in self-denial; few journalists are religious in any conventional sense. The new Newsweek, by contrast, published holiday issues that any good secular journalist would like to read. One issue near Christmas offered a long and fallacious cover story on “The Religious Case for Gay Marriage.” Easter came and the magazine feted “The End of Christian America.” Pieces like this weren’t so much a challenge to traditionally religious readers as a declaration of war. Why not just put a bullet in the Easter Bunny while you’re at it?
The reinvented newsmagazine has pursued a fantasy life of its own. The fantasy is a reverse of the one the old editors enjoyed. The expense accounts may be gone, the bureaus may be shuttered, and not even Meacham gets to travel first class. But editors and writers have dispensed with the necessity of satisfying a large and reliable readership and can indulge their literary aspirations at last. They get to write long “argued essays” and make “original observations” and lace them with their own (minority) opinions on politics and culture. They have released themselves from the obligation of giving readers what readers came to them for: that straightforward and comprehensive account of what just happened.
What happens when the MSM screws up in reverse, and actually creates a product designed to appeal to the mindset of its readers, and not to its inside-the-Beltway cocktail party hosts, and releases this as a cover story:
Surprise, surprise, Ad Age reported somewhat churlishly on Thursday, the day of Mitt Romney’s GOP acceptance speech:
The Aug. 27 issue urging a Romney victory “may have just knocked one out of the park on newsstand sales,” according to the Magazine Information Network, or MagNet, which tracks magazine sales.
The early read on sales suggests the issue could double Newsweek’s newsstand average, MagNet said. It’s also on track to land among the title’s top three newsstand sellers since 2010, according to MagNet data.
A spokesman for Newsweek and The Daily Beast wasn’t immediately able to confirm MagNet’s newsstand numbers but said the issue sold well. “All reports indicate the August 27th issue was a strong performer both in print at the newsstand and on tablet,” the spokesman said.
IPad edition downloads on the issue’s first day were 4.3 times higher than usual, the spokesman said.
But c’mon — how did it really happen? During a recent Ricochet podcast featuring Rob Long, Jonah Goldberg and John Podhoretz, after warming up by getting out the way the correct pronunciation of columnist Niall Ferguson’s first name (it’s pronounced the same way that NBC pronounces the name of the first folk rocker on the moon), Podhoretz proffers the best explanation of how the cover came to be:
PODHORETZ: Here’s how I see it. Here’s what happened: Tina and Niall are having lunch or dinner. And Niall says, “I like this Paul Ryan. I had dinner with him a couple of years ago; he’s a remarkable person.”
And Tina Brown says, “REALLY?!! No one I know says anything like that. How interesting!”
And then he says, “Because he chose Paul Ryan, I think Romney should be president, and Obama’s done a bad job.”
And Tina Brown says, “You do?! No one I know thinks that! How fascinating! And I can get a cover out of it doesn’t have an aged picture of Princess Diana on it, or a black and white photo of the 97-year old Woody Allen.”
ROB LONG: Or Mitt Romney drenched in blood.
PODHORETZ: Right. So, you know, I think it more that [Tina Brown thought] “Good heavens! Famed historian Niall Ferguson says he thinks that Obama is a bad president. Golly Gee! Shiver my timbers! The conservatives that I know – Andrew Sullivan and David Frum – don’t say that at all!
So what’s next for Tina? Rob Long goofs on the magazine’s immediate future – or lack thereof:
ROB LONG: While I agree with John, I also feel like there’s a part of it where she’s sitting in a room and someone is saying, “Listen, you’ve got six issues of this magazine left, because we don’t have any more money. After six more issues, there’s no more payroll. So you’ve got to make the next six issues something crazy.”
And [Tina] had all these heretical, crazy covers: CANNIBALISM: THE NEW FOODIE OBSESSION. All sorts of crazy things. And she said, “What’s the craziest thing I could do? And that’s run Niall Ferguson’s anti-Barack Obama piece.”
I think. Part of it is just this last dying gasp of this magazine, which won’t make it to election day.
As Hugh Hewitt noted on Wednesday, “If Romney doesn’t win, the country’s finances will look like Greece and Spain in a couple of years.” The Newsweek of the past five years has given us a glimpse of that same sort of short-term thinking in magazine form.