Newsweek has fallen down and can't get up.

Media criticism.
May 5 2010 5:51 PM

Newsweek Has Fallen Down and Can't Get Up

The institutional forces behind the demise of a magazine.

Newsweek.
Newsweek

The 30-year debate in the journalism reviews, among industry analysts, and over beers between reporters about the fate of the newsweekly category was settled today by Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham, who announced that he wants to sell Newsweek. If the infinitely patient and hideously rich Graham can't see a profitable future for the money-losing magazine, that future doesn't exist. The category has finally gone to mold and will, in another 30 months or 30 years, advance to putrefaction.

Newsweek isn't dead yet, so let's hold the eulogies until its owner or its next owner (Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham is forming a bid) folds the magazine. But once the death spiral grabs a magazine, it's almost impossible for it to escape, unless the magazine is Life, which Time-Life has killed and relaunched with such frequency that it makes the case for reincarnation. Today it's dead. Tomorrow it could be undead for a few months.

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There's nobody to blame for Newsweek's collapse. The Web isn't the culprit; the Columbia Journalism Review depicted the newsweeklies as dinosaurs in a 1989 cover story, which came a good half-decade before the arrival of the commercial Internet. Back then, the newsweeklies were fighting for "survival" against cable news, national newspapers, and specialty magazines, concluded reporter Alex S. Jones in a June 29, 1988, New York Times piece.

Lack of editorial imagination isn't the culprit, either. Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report have been reconceived so many times by so many talented people that their reimaginings blur into one three-decade improvisation. In 2006, Time magazine underwent a makeover that sounded to my ears exactly like the makeover it underwent in 1987 before that makeover was made-over a couple of times by succeeding editors. Less than a year ago, after reconfiguringNewsweek,Meacham described thenew package as a bet "that you want to read more, not less," a bet he obviously lost.

It was only three years ago that Newsweek's Richard M. Smith was telling the American Journalism Review's Rachel Smolkin that his magazine was "solidly profitable last year," but now Newsweek is on pace to lose $20 million this year, according to Reuters. That comes on top of operating losses of $29.3 million in 2009 and $16.1 million in 2008 for the Post Co.'s magazine division, reports the Associated Press. Pummeling the magazine have been the recession, the accelerating decline in advertising (down 30 percent in 2009 from 2008 and off 40 percent in the first three months of 2010, according to Reuters), and a generational change in reading patterns.

Meacham, who moonlights as a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, understands publishing's upheaval better than his fading magazine would indicate. In Smolkin's AJR piece, he said:

What's happening now is that headlines are delivered by the Web. That has pushed newspapers to become more like the newsmagazines were in '82, and it's pushed the newsmagazines to produce a monthly-quality product on a weekly basis, and it's pushed the monthlies into the place of the great quarterlies, and now the quarterlies have become books.

The problem with Meacham's musical-chairs analogy is that he neglects to mention that a chair is removed as each dance begins and that whenever the music stops, a player gets bounced from the game. This week's loser looks to be Newsweek.

Although I wish Meacham well in his search for investors to buy and preserve Newsweek as it is, the magazine market has already expressed its indelible opinions about his editorial vision. Any prospective buyer would obviously want to chart a new direction, not stay the Meacham course.

How much would a buyer of Newsweek have to pay? Probably not much. An investment banker quoted in the Reuters article says it would cost the Washington Post Co. $50 million to $100 million to simply close Newsweek because subscribers who paid in advance would have to be refunded. The businesscould be sold for mere pennies, or the Post Co. might even pay somebody to take it off its hands. Remember, Bloomberg bought BusinessWeek for a paltry $2 million to $5 million last year.

Another alternative—one that I can't imagine the proud Post Co. (which publishes Slate and pays my salary) taking—would be to liquidate Newsweek over time by cheapening the product and collecting money from subscribers who are too stupid to realize it. That's what Mortimer Zuckerman has been doing with U.S. News & World Report for the last decade, extracting whatever value he can by amputating the magazine's fingers, then its toes, then its hands, ears, feet, legs, and arms until it's become a bare-bones monthly instead of a weekly.

We all die. The magazine graveyards teem with publications that stopped satisfying enough readers and advertisers. It will be a sad day for me when Newsweek joins them, because as a teenager in the 1960s, I depended on it for a full-throated account of a world beyond my dismal Midwestern home. But cheer up, readers! There isn't a minute that something new and wonderful isn't being born.

******

When will Slate die? I give it until 2032, when it will be replaced with a neural feed from Christopher Beam's brainstem. Send your predictions to slate.pressbox@gmail.com or accept a slightly damp brainstem feed from my Twitter account. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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