Could Newsweek Have Been Saved?

By Robert Wright

Now that the demise of (the physical version of) Newsweek has been widely taken as emblematic of the fate of magazines generally, here comes the backlash view: Actually, according to Ryan Nakashima of Associated Press, things haven't been so bad for the magazine business as a whole:

The water is so warm for the magazine industry that in the first nine months of the year, 181 new magazines were launched while only about a third as many, or 61, closed, according to publication database MediaFinder.com.

So does that mean Newsweek/Daily Beast editor Tina Brown and/or her chief source of financing, Barry Diller, should be blamed for the unnecessary death of an American institution? Nakashima suggests as much, quoting a journalism professor who says, ''Newsweek did not die, Newsweek committed suicide.'' (Yes, I know: If you commit suicide you do die. But you know what he meant.)

I don't have a firm opinion on who, if anyone, is to blame for the death of the corporeal Newsweek, so I solicited the views of two of the magazine's most distinguished alumni: Jonathan Alter, who covered seven presidential elections for Newsweek before relocating to Bloomberg View, and Mickey Kaus, who relocated from Newsweek several times, to various places, and currently resides at the Daily Caller.

Mickey was characteristically pithy and undiplomatic:

Tina Brown didn't kill Newsweek. It was dying already. But her attempted resurrection seems like a fantastic debacle, starting with the first cover story, an ode to Hillary that read like it was written by Kim Il Sung's second-string copywriter. Actually it was unreadable. The whole NewsBeast enterprise oozes desperation and BS PR hype even though she's hired some good people.

Jon focused on what might have been done to save the magazine:

Newsweek is one of the few media brands that is truly global, and giving up its print presence around the world is kissing off a major asset. If he didn't want to sell it, Barry Diller could have cut his losses to the break-even point (and waited for a rebound in the cyclical ad biz) just by slashing the rate base and moving toward a much smaller circulation or even controlled circ. The idea in Tina's statement that we're moving to an "all digital" media environment is wrong. In the 1920s, people (including FDR) thought radio would mean the end of newspapers and in the 1950s they thought TV would mean the end of radio. In truth, old media doesn't die, it just goes from mass media to niche media. The same will happen to print. Baby boomers raised on print won't give it up entirely until they die off four or five decades from now.

As for why the loss of Newsweek matters: Jon put this in historical perspective:

Newsweek has been an important part of the American and global conversation for 80 years so this moment should be seen as sad not just for those of us who worked there but for everyone. Look in the index of almost any book on public affairs--Robert Caro's is only the most recent example--and you will see citations from Newsweek, which provided great reporting not just on Washington but all kinds of things. It's really annoying that someone stupid inside the company at some point sold the online archives to a fly-by-night outfit that makes it really hard to find old stories (more than five or ten years old) and charges for them when you do find them. This is a blow both to historians and to kids writing papers who for generations used the bound volumes of Newsweek for research. One of my many regrets about the demise of Newsweek is that we've gone from being a primary source to going down the memory hole.

If you'd like to read Mickey's entertaining conflict-of-interest statement re him and NewsBeast, it's at the bottom of this post.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/10/could-newsweek-have-been-saved/263903/