Unsolicited advice for Sidney Harman, the new owner of Newsweek.

Media criticism.
Aug. 5 2010 5:17 PM

Unsolicited Advice for Sidney Harman

Upon purchasing Newsweek from the Washington Post Co.

Sidney Harman. Click image to expand.
Sidney Harman

With your purchase of Newsweek, you've now joined the ranks of the vanity mogul, that restless breed of fat cat who, upon consulting his net worth, decides that he'd like to burn tens of millions of it to join the mug's game that we call journalism.

So far, Mr. Harman, you're acting exactly like the vanity moguls—Arthur L. Carter, Richard Mellon Scaife, Mortimer Zuckerman, Harvey Weinstein, Philip Anschutz, Bill Gates, David Bradley, convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon, et al.—who came before you. According to the New York Times, you picked up Newsweek for pennies but have assumed more than $50 million in liabilities. It lost almost $30 million last year and will likely lose that or more this year.

Even so, you're promising to keep the majority of the staff—the staff that may be wonderful but has failed the market test. You're mouthing platitudes about preserving the magazine's "legacy" and declared it a "national treasure."

Worst of all, you've announced, "I'm not here to make money, I'm here to make joy."

Oh, the joy you'll have until it all comes crashing down on your head.

When last I visited the subject of the vanity mogul in 2004, I charted the life cycle of the vanity mogul as a warning to Philip Anschutz, who had just purchased the ruins of the San Francisco Examiner for $20 million. Assuming you didn't read that piece, I offer here a summary of the vanity-mogul life cycle:

Stage 1: The vanity mogul announces that he'll return the publication to its former glory but says he doesn't need to make money right away. Quality, he says, will attract readers. (That's you, today.)

Stage 2: He replaces the editor with a journalistic star, redesigns the publication, expands editorial and art budgets, moves it to better quarters, and muses about parlaying his single title into a publication empire. (You're writing that memo now.)

Stage 3: As fresh red ink flows, the mogul hires "name" writers to compose columns that will be talked-about and to get invited onto television to build buzz. (I see it in my crystal ball.)

Stage 4: Still losing money, the mogul grumbles, "I'm not running a charity here!" He eliminates employee perks, increases the price of the product, and reduces frequency of publication.

Stage 5: The losses make the mogul want to bail, but can he abandon the rise in social standing that the publication has given him? He wonders how much budget cutting he can do without being compared to Mort Zuckerman, who has amputated and bled U.S. News & World Report to the point of homicide. He sacks the troublesome "star" editor and hires a pushover.

Stage 6: Panic. The mogul does everything that Zuckerman did to U.S. News. Cuts medical benefits. Skips issues during the summer and the holidays. Closes the cafeteria. Reduces the staff to bare bones. Shutters the bureaus. Makes staffers give plasma and confiscates the proceeds. Fires the pushover editor for a paper shuffler.

Stage 7: He finds a new sucker to buy the publication. And we return to Stage 1.

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It's not my role to tell you how to flush your millions, but if you're going to waste them on journalism, a world of headaches and annoyances, let me be your guide.

Avoid thinking that you're a journalist. Almost every vanity mogul makes this mistake. Things that important people tell you at cocktail parties are not news, so don't bother your editor with these tidbits. The ideas you come up with while reading Paul Krugman columns are not news, so keep those to yourself, too. Your business colleagues at Harman International aren't journalists, either, nor are your friends, so don't let them write for the magazine. If you want to be a journalist, put your clips together and call me. I'll get you an internship and some freelance assignments.

Allow Newsweek to savage your herd of sacred cows. Nobody who reads your magazine will respect it unless you do. You're a philanthropist who has dumped millions into the arts—the Shakespeare Theatre Co.'s main stage is named after you. During the Carter administration, you served as deputy secretary of commerce. You're a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a trustee at the Aspen Institute. If you were any more dialed into the establishment, you'd be a rotary phone. Newsweek journalists must scrutinize—and savage where necessary—your business partners, your philanthropies, and your foundation/think-tank/color-guard buddies, or you'll be the most laughable mogul since Sun Myung Moon.

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