Defending Tina Brown
Tina Brown is more than capable of defending herself. But, such has been the glee at Newsweek’s demise – noticeable among the filthiest, bottom-feeding elements of new media to the point, in the case of John Cook of Gawker, of fairly open and visceral misogyny – that it would be most ungallant and unreasonable if someone did not stick up for her.
Turning around Newsweek was an almost impossible task. When Brown inherited the magazine (or when it was thrust upon her, depending on what you read) it was in a condition of neglect and dilapidation. IAC – run by Barry Diller, it half-owns The Newsweek Daily Beast Company alongside the estate of Sidney Harman – took on a publication with a $40 million debt and a circulation which had been cut from 3.1 million in 2008 to 1.5 million in 2010 under the editorship of Jon Meacham and ownership of The Washington Post.
Never let it said, however, that Brown didn’t get it the old college try. She hired a number of heavy hitters to work on her joint venture – Howard Kurtz on the media beat, for example – adding to the stable of talent The Daily Beast already had, including Eli Lake on national security. Andrew Sullivan and David Frum came on board to blog for the Beast and write longer-form pieces for Newsweek. Peter Beinart in the same vein started up Open Zion to facilitate discussion on Israel, Zionism, and the wider Middle East.
Brown also spearheaded a total redesign of a magazine that become somewhat staid and grandfatherly, giving it a modern edge with more white space, a sharper finish, better quality paper, and a more pointed use of photography and graphic design. Central to this attempted revival too were the much discussed and sometimes derided headlines: “THE FIRST GAY PRESIDENT”; “MUSLIM RAGE”; and “HEAVEN IS REAL”. Call them what you will, but for the first time in a good long while, there was actually a buzz surrounding Newsweek. The issue fronted by Niall Ferguson’s polemic, “HIT THE ROAD, BARACK”, doubled sales on newsstands and increased iPad downloads four-fold.
If there was a problem with this strategy, particularly in the last couple of months, it was that the content behind the headline was often lacking. Ferguson’s attack on Barack Obama, far from being counterfactual, was almost totally non-factual. Paul Krugman called the piece “a plain misrepresentation of the facts” designed “to misinform readers”. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s article the week after on ‘Muslim rage’ instead of focusing on the contemporary happenings in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere was merely a rehash of her life story, albeit an important one. The following issue of Newsweek’s international edition featured a cover story by Husain Haqqani, “Muslim Rage Is About Politics, Not Religion”, which while still being provocative was far more informative, considered, and insightful than Hirsi Ali’s narrative.
In the end, Brown’s efforts were in vain. It is easy to say this in retrospect, but the decline and fall of Newsweek was an inevitable one. Brown was coming up against forces in the clashing spheres of advertising, technology, and media that even she for all her flair and ability to inject a dose of rumble and fuzzbox into proceedings could not overcome. For a start, the viability of the newsweekly had been on the wane long before Brown took over. Circulation for Newsweek’s rivals, Time and U.S. News & World Report, had been dipping for a generation. The latter stopped printing weekly in June 2008 and went out of circulation altogether in December 2010.
What is more, the newsweekly gap in the marketplace has slowly been eliminated by the rise of the internet. With their immediacy and reach, both online news sites and aggregators largely eliminated the need for a product originally designed to bring the news to parts of the United States that did not receive a daily paper. Not only that, but attempts to flirt with considered analysis of events and trends – as happened under Meacham’s reign – was seen as unnecessary and unwelcome, such things already covered ably by The New Yorker and The Economist and the monthlies like The Atlantic, both online and in print.
Brown also could not evade the expenses of print journalism. She revealed Thursday in an online broadcast on The Daily Beast that the cost of manufacturing and distributing Newsweek was $42 million per annum, even before IAC had paid a single journalist or kept open one of its many bureaus. Advertising sales, which would have traditionally supported such an operation, had fallen through the floor with a 16.8% year-on-year slide. The number of subscribers had also declined.
“You cannot actually change an era of enormous disruptive innovation,” Brown acknowledged today. “No one single person can reverse that trend”. Indeed, Newsweek’s problems are not those just of that magazine, but of all media, as it struggles with the revolution from paper to the web. Those journalists currently encircling Newsweek’s corpse like so many vultures around an expired wildebeest should remember during these hard times that there but for the grace of God go you.