Tina Brown's Newsweek redesign: not so hot.

Media criticism.
March 7 2011 5:13 PM

What's Not Hot? Newsweek.

Editor Tina Brown lays an egg in her redesign.

Newsweek.

The problem with Jon Meacham's Newsweek, somebody said to me last week, was that he didn't like the news and he didn't like the week. Tina Brown's redesigned Newsweek suffers a similar Meacham-esque avoidance of newsiness and the week. One would think that with the Arab world spinning apart, political insurrection visiting Capitol Hill and the state houses, and the NFL going on sabbatical, the week would be so hot that Brown could stir-fry its ingredients for a sizzling meal.

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Instead, Brown puts the queen of cold, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on the cover and fills the corresponding article with hagiography. Also on the cover, she leans on the oldest trick in the magazine playbook—a list—which she runs over the nameplate ("150 Women Who Shake the World"). She continues the women theme inside. Several new big-name columnists appear in the front of the book—Kathleen Parker, Niall Ferguson, Leslie H. Gelb, and Joanne Lipman—but none of them turns a phrase or casts a thought you haven't heard a million times before. This is a meal that a homeless person would walk away from.

The issue fails not just by my measure or by the homeless guy's but by Brown's. In her introductory note, she writes that the new Newsweek will be "about filling the gaps left when a story has seemingly passed, or resetting the agenda, or coming up with an insight or synthesis that connects the crackling, confusing digital dots." Having read the new issue front-to-back, I can report that the gaps remain, the agenda has not shifted, and the crackling, confusing digital dots are still scattered at random on the floor.

I ridicule Brown's first complete issue not because I'm one of those Tina haters but because I expected a lot more from her. Remember, she became notorious for chasing timeliness by tearing up, at the eleventh hour, whole issues of The New Yorker, a magazine that formerly operated with the sort of lead time that made a risotto seem like Rice-A-Roni. Why edit The New Yorker as if you were editor of Newsweek, but then, on becoming the editor of Newsweek, edit that magazine as though it were Harper's? Harper's, in any case, strives for more originality.

Where's the gusto? Where's the transgression? Where's the icon-breaking and the icon-making we associate with Brown's Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and—well, not Talk, but three out of four ain't bad. This issue is only marginally better than the caretaker Newsweeks published after its core talent defected. None of those issues, at least, was hooked to anything as blatantly exploitative as the "Women in the World Summit" that Brown is convening this week in Manhattan—and that she promotes in the 16-page listicle teased on the cover.

I can't decide whether the 150-female-movers-and-shakers package could have been done better with a Google algorithm or by a sixth-grade class studying Women's History Month. Newsweek is nuts for wasting pages saluting Melinda Gates for her attempts to eradicate polio. Gates is obviously a passenger on that effort, helmed by her husband. Could it be that she's gotten this honor because she is one of the featured attendees at Brown's Women in the World Summit event? Well, of course.

Like Rupert Murdoch's Daily, Tina Brown's Newsweek draws the wrong lessons from the decline of print and the rise of the Web. In her introductory note, Brown writes:

What a magazine can offer readers is a path to understanding, a filter to sift out what's important, a pause to learn things that the Web has no time to explain, a tool to go back over the things we think we know but can't make sense of. A magazine allows the reader to play in a different key.

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