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.

(Continued from Page 1)

You're not getting any younger. Yesterday was your 92nd birthday. According to this Social Security actuarial table, you have about 3.3 years to live. Not to be morbid about it, but you probably won't live to see your magazine thrive. This puts you in a bind when it comes to hiring. Unless your heirs are as committed to Newsweek as you are, nobody is going to want to sign on for the long haul as an employee. You need to establish a plan for Newsweek that can be activated once the big magazine vendor in the sky cancels your subscription on earth.

There must be more money. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute explores the notion of setting Newsweek up as a wing of a nonprofit educational foundation. To do so would be to announce that you're giving up. Now, I'm all for nonprofits like Mother Jones and Reason, but they serve important niches. It makes no journalistic sense to set up a philanthropic organization to compete with profit-making mags like Time, the Economist, andthe Week. A Newsweek trust or an endowment would signal your support from the grave, but trusts get broken and sometimes go broke. If you're in this, Sidney, you should be in this to win. Spend like crazy, as if you're going to make money off of Newsweek. You can't take it with you.

Your wife problem. Your beloved, Jane Harman, a Democrat, is a permanent member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She's also 65 years old. As your primary heir, is she the one we should be talking to about Newsweek's future, not you? Additionally, if you can't see the problem of your spouse making policy while you make a magazine, I can't explain it to you, other than to say you don't want Jane to be to you what Rep. Clare Boothe Luce, R-Conn., was to Henry R. Luce.

Although Jane Harman was accomplished before she married you in 1980, her political career is partly of your making. According to the New York Times, much of the $16 million she spent in her disastrous 1998 campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor in California was "family money." So it's not enough for you to have said of Jane, "I've never told her how to run the government and she's never told me how to run the business." Nobody but a moron believes that the king doesn't listen to the queen. As a Shakespeare buff, you've obviously seen Macbeth. Can you avoid making her a sacred cow? (See above.) If only you could put her in a blind editorial trust. As the elephant in the room, she must be quarantined or persuaded to resign from Congress or divorced. Deal with her.

What is Newsweek? For as long as I've been alive, Newsweek has defined itself in terms of its rival Time. While that might have made sense long ago, for better than a decade the Time-Newsweek axis has been under assault bythe Week (a quick digest of the news), the Economist (a pompous British take on the world), People, the Web, cable news, and even TheNew Yorker and New York magazine. Under Editor Jon Meacham, Newsweek imagined itself the Economist, which it wasn't, and following Meacham's love of history it ran covers featuring Lincoln, Churchill, and Lincoln. In its current incarnation, Newsweek has abandoned news for an essayistic treatment of current events. The sooner your new editor answers the question of what Newsweek is, the sooner you can feel good about losing your money on it. If only New York's Adam Moss were available, you'd have a fighting chance.

Do you have enough money to own Newsweek? According to congressional financial disclosure records filed by your wife for 2008, your combined worth was between $112 million and $377 million. If Newsweek continues to lose $30 million a year, you'll be wiped out in four to 12 years. Too bad you're not a billionaire, because chump change like yours won't keep Newsweek publishing in the style to which it's become accustomed. For that reason, you must recant the promises you've made about retaining up to 270 of the 350 or so employees you're inheriting and take back your assertion that you're not in it to make money. The point of your purchase of Newsweek isn't to save jobs; it's to save a magazine. If that's your goal and you don't have the funds to accomplish it, do the right thing. Sell it to the next vanity mogul.

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Disclosure: I receive complimentary subscriptions to the Economist and Time, neither of which I asked for. Would I be nicer to Newsweek if it comped me? Send your speculations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and watch my Twitter feed for my compensation demands. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; 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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