Advice for Newsweek from Henry Luce

Has anyone in history ever been as busy as Jon Meacham?

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Has anyone in history ever been as busy as Jon Meacham? When the Washington Post Company announced one day last week that it was giving up the struggle to save Newsweek and looking for a buyer, editor-in-chief Meacham revealed that he already had phone messages from two billionaires that he hadn’t yet gotten around to returning. This is amazing, is it not? You would think that journalistic curiosity alone would propel you to return those calls. I myself have a strict policy of promptly returning all calls from billionaires—whether or not I happen to have a money-losing newsmagazine I’m trying to unload. This is not actually a policy I’ve ever had occasion to apply. No billionaire has ever called me (or I didn’t get the message if he or she did). But I’ve met the odd billionaire at parties (true) and massage parlors (not true) and (true) once bumped into Bill Gates waiting for carryout at a Thai restaurant in Seattle. And my impression—though I could be wrong—is that, like everybody really, they are less likely to take a used newsmagazine off your hands if you give the fever any time at all to pass. Nor do they tend to enjoy hearing or reading in the national media that they mean no more to you than a couple of pink phone messages. Just like ordinary folks, billionaires want love. Or if not love, they want their phone calls returned. Just a guess.

Since we apparently cannot rely on Meacham, I have been looking for clues to saving Newsweek in The Publisher, Alan Brinkley’s new biography of Henry Luce, founder of Time and inventor of the newsmagazine. Brinkley, the first biographer to have access to all of Luce’s letters and other documents, confirms that Time was intended from the start to be what we now call “aggregation” or (if we’re being hoity-toity) “curation.” Although it later succumbed to bureaucratic bloat—an insane system of researchers feeding material to reports who fed it to writers—at the beginning it was just a lot of smart-ass Yalies rewriting the New York Times. Brinkley describes sliced-up copies of the Times and piles of foreign magazines everywhere around the offices. Luce’s idea, and that of his business partner, Briton Hadden, was to condense all the news busy people needed to know into one weekly read. The magazine, Luce wrote, would “serve the illiterate upper classes, the busy business man, the tired debutant, to prepare them at least once a week for a table conversation.” There was not a lot of brooding about other people’s intellectual property rights.

Time was like a web site in another way, too: in its attitude toward “bias.” Basically, Time didn’t care about it. The magazine’s founders wanted it to be informative and accurate, but Luce and his disciples didn’t heartache about “balance” or hesitate to insert their own, strong opinions (especially, and legendarily, Luce’s opinions) into the magazine.

The problem with the newsmagazines is that they have wandered far from this original idea of just summarizing—intelligently, and with attitude—what happened last week. Meacham said at the time of Newsweek’s last remake a year ago that his model was the Economist. The Economist actually does follow pretty closely the Luce formula of lots of short articles about last week everywhere on the globe. (And when I worked in the American department of the Economist, there were plenty of sliced up copies of the New York Times lying about.) But oddly, Newsweek didn’t really do anything like this in its remake.

The magazine that most closely follows the Luce formula today is The Week, which arrived in the US just a few years ago and is having a tremendous success while Time flounders and Newsweek drown. And it’s a success on paper. I have never even been to its website.

If The Week rings up, Jon, take the call. Please.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.