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.