The Death of Newsweek

The U.S. is losing something as the publication disintegrates—a magazine with guts and heart.

A copy of Newsweek sits on a newsstand in New York on October 18, 2012. (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

Newsweek is in the news—raided by the police last month as part of a probe into the owners’ shady finances, then subjected to a crude purge on Monday, when the owners sacked the editors and reporters who tried to write about the scandal. This was the cinematic coda to a decade of collapse. Whatever its shortcomings, the country lost something with the demise of classic Newsweek—a magazine with guts and heart.

After years of survivable financial struggles, the magazine—founded in 1933—cratered with the economy in 2008, was sold by the Washington Post Co. for $1 in 2010, and sold again in 2013 by Barry Diller’s IAC to a shadowy company called International Business Times. In the last five years, Newsweek produced some strong journalism and plenty of clickbait before becoming a painful embarrassment to anyone who toiled there in its golden age. Matt Cooper, who also worked at the old Newsweek, resigned from the latest incarnation Monday with a letter saying that in three decades in journalism, “I’ve never seen more reckless leadership.” Ed Kosner, editor in the late 1970s, wrote on Facebook Tuesday, “Time to begin always making the distinction between our Real Newsweek of sainted memory and this shameful Fake Newsweek.”

I went to work at Newsweek 35 years ago last month. Sometime in the early 1990s, when I wasn’t yet 40, the Village Voice joked that I’d have to be carried out prone—and they weren’t far wrong. I stayed for nearly three decades as a national-affairs writer, media critic, and political columnist. Many of my colleagues also worked there for the better part of their lives—unheard of nowadays. We bitched a lot but loved the place. Journalists are sometimes compared to the horses in Black Beauty—all we want is a nice master, a little hay to lie down on, and a sugar cube once in a while. We got that and a lot more from Katharine Graham, now immortalized by Meryl Streep in the film The Post, who until her death in 2001 was the best proprietor imaginable. While more publicly identified with The Washington Post, she would hold monthly editorial lunches at our plush headquarters at 444 Madison Avenue (and later 251 W. 57th) in New York, where travel and expense accounts were generous and even researchers often had their own offices.

Beginning in the 1980s, newsmagazines were written off as dinosaurs, but it didn’t matter. Dinosaurs still roamed the media earth, and the Grahams were satisfied with modest profits at best. The paid global circulation of today’s print edition of Newsweek is said to be 100,000; well into the internet age, ours was at least 30 times larger—3 million paid subscribers and 15 million readers, which encompassed the “pass along” rate in families, doctors’ offices, and foxholes. And we were a distant number two, well ahead of U.S. News but trailing Time, which had a weekly readership of 20 million in the late 20th century, with more than $600 million in annual ad revenue. Now that magazine is perilously thin and was recently sold. Last week, workers replaced the Time Inc sign outside its downtown Manhattan headquarters with Meredith, an Iowa-based company with little interest in news.*

Newsweek was always the scrappy, risk-taking underdog, Avis to Time’s Hertz. As Don Graham, his mother’s successor, liked to say, “We’re the pirate ship and they’re the stately ocean liner sailing off.” Pirates had fun—not raffish newsroom amusement (our offices looked more like an insurance company) but a spirit of adventure every week. “Scramble the jets!” our late editor, Maynard Parker, would shout, and all over the world dozens of correspondents and editors swooped and dove on a Friday afternoon to cover the big, late-breaking story of the week. Within 24 hours, we could produce a polished 7,000-word cover package with arresting, often-exclusive reporting from far-flung locales, fresh columns and sidebars, classy photos and spreads, and—especially if someone like Peter Goldman, Evan Thomas, or Jerry Adler was writing—exquisite narrative “tick tock.” The features and criticism in the “back of the book” were also as good or better than those in more intellectual publications, even if it wasn’t cool in New York to admit that about a middlebrow magazine.

In the rest of the country, news-starved subscribers, unsatisfied by a limp local paper and a half hour of John Chancellor, ripped through every issue, happy to have a cogent way of catching up on everything they had missed during the previous week. Of course technology—first television, then the internet—changed that habit. A tardy summary of the news was no longer as useful. And with the advent of a 24-hour news cycle a decade ago, online newspapers, smaller magazines, and cable-news networks began to eat our analytical lunch.

I’m not going to argue that the dominance that we and a half-dozen other news organizations enjoyed until the turn of the century was inherently better than today’s democratized media ecosystem, which allows thousands more voices into the national conversation. The “My Turn” column by a non-journalist wasn’t enough to broaden access to our pages. Newsweek hired black journalists early—and Mark Whitaker became the first African American editor of a major American publication in 1998—but the magazine was infamously late in promoting women in the 1970s. We sometimes hyped popular-culture stories, were slow to feature investigative reporting, and succumbed too often to covering politics and national affairs as if they were thrill-of-victory-agony-of-defeat sports instead of matters of substance and consequence for real people (though, in an effort to lampoon that superficial Washington frame, a couple of colleagues and I anonymously wrote a weekly feature called “Conventional Wisdom Watch”).

Beneath our coverage lay a journalistic commitment to all of the civic norms now under assault. It would have been too earnest to discuss this around the water cooler, but we were invested in hard-edged democratic accountability (politicians often feared us) and expanding cultural awareness. Millions of people recognized this. They saw Newsweek as a brightly-painted lighthouse in the fog of news—a way to peer through the storm-cloud headlines to distant shores of depth, clarity, and understanding. Like the old big-three television networks—CBS, NBC and ABC—newsmagazines were accused of too much fealty to established institutions and often attacked from both left and right. But our faith in those institutions let us cover them aggressively when they went wrong, and in a way that was compelling enough to attract readers across the spectrum.

Today’s atomization of news and commentary has made that kind of journalism harder to find. “Agenda-setting” by elites is deeply out of fashion. But someone will always set the table for the national conversation, and smart editors did it better than Twitter mobs. Donald Trump’s obsession with Time covers—to the point of hanging fake ones in his resorts—is a product not just of his perverted neediness but of the understanding of anyone over 30 that newsmagazine covers once counted. They propelled the debate forward, often (though not in Trump’s case) to where it needed to go.

In the 1960s, Newsweek—much more than Time—helped bring civil rights and the anti-war movement into the mainstream. In the 1970s, the magazine explained week after week to a bipartisan audience how the evidence stacked up against Richard Nixon, and—thanks in part to Eleanor Clift and Vern Smith—led the pack on the emergence of a peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter. In the 1980s, we put AIDS on the cover before anyone but a few doctors had heard of it, and under editor Rick Smith helped drive coverage of the Reagan era. In the 1990s, Newsweek’s tech coverage, especially Steven Levy’s, was clairvoyant, Osama bin Laden was on the cover before 9/11, and Michael Isikoff and the rest of the all-star Washington bureau helped lead to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, though almost no one thought it should end that way. In the 2000s, Chris Dickey, Rod Nordland, and others exposed the folly of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” claim in Iraq and—in 2004, when he was still an Illinois state senator—Newsweek was the first magazine anywhere to put Barack Obama on the cover.

Unfortunately, finding Newsweek stories online from before 2000 is hard though ProQuest has begun archiving articles. Various owners were too cheap to invest in archiving it properly. Maybe a new owner will remedy that, and find a place for a new Newsweek in the media universe. In the meantime, the real Newsweek of “sainted memory” lives on in the hundreds of people who worked there—and the millions who turned to it each week to better understand the country, the world, and themselves.

* This article originally stated that the Time-Warner sign was taken down. We regret the error.