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.

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.

Perhaps that was true when we connected to the Web with 56 kbps modems, counting the minutes as pages loaded on our 14-inch monochrome cathode-ray-tube monitors and printing out long articles for reading later. But as the editor of TheDailyBeast.com for the last two and one-half years, Brown knows better. The speedy Web, smartphones, and iPads have erased (if it ever existed) any special "path to understanding" that magazines may have once delivered. There's nothing in this issue of Newsweek, or any other magazine on my local newsstand, that couldn't be put on the Web. Unless Brown is pretending otherwise for the benefit of a certain Newsweek subscriber in Keokuk, Iowa, who has never seen the World Wide Web, I don't know why she'd write such silliness.

Perhaps the target of Brown's nutty sentence is the 92-year-old Sidney Harman, whose millions rescued Newsweek from the magazine graveyard last fall. But Harman, who made his millions in tech, must see through Brownian bunk like, "There is a time for the quick zap of news on the Web" and "the Web has no time to explain." Brown seems to see through her own bunk when she writes in the same introduction, "Our front section NewsBeast reflects the fast tempo of Web culture."

Anybody who knows how to formulate a Google search can quickly find the reason why the Daily Beast has hooked up with Newsweek—and why Tina Brown is editing it. Barry Diller, whose company, IAC, owns the Daily Beast, wants it that way. In an Oct. 27, 2010, IAC earnings conference call with analysts transcribed by Nexis, Diller said:

And I think, as I said, that one way or the other, I expect we'll either find something or will create, somehow, as Politico did very successfully, a print product to go along with The Beast. Because for advertisers, I think that makes sense.

Recast as a business play, the redesigned Newsweek isn't quite the disaster I've portrayed it as above. There is no more imaginative, talented, ambitious, and relentless editor working in journalism today than Brown, with the exception of New Yorkmagazine's Adam Moss. So I'm hoping that Brown was rushed into redesigning Newsweek to make Barry Bigbucks happy and to make the deadline for her up-with-women conference. I'm hoping that we should regard today's redesign as equivalent to the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark previews. By Newsweek's true opening night, I trust that Brown will have rerigged the wires, that nobody will fall to his death from the masthead, and that we'll be envious of her skill once again.

***

If you're not reading New York, the second-bestweekly magazine in the universe, you're some sort of knucklehead. The Bernie Madoff cover story last week was the Coupe de Ville. What a wonderful bunch of writers in that issue: Steve Fishman, Joe Hagan, Dan Kois, John Heilemann, David Edelstein, Adam Platt, Ben Ryder Howe, et al. Has Frank Rich got the stuff to play with this gang? Send your New Yorkassessment to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Watch me fly without wires on my Twitter feed. (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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