With today’s news that Newsweek will officially quit printing at the end of the year, many many critics will pile on to editor Tina Brown, blaming her for the newsweekly’s demise.
And make no mistake, this is a demise. The Daily Beast, which predates and is different from Newsweek, is the Internet face of that enterprise. There is no good reason to split the brand. Even if Newsweek retains some Internet presence, it will shrink to nothing before long.
Brown didn’t save Newsweek, but she didn’t set it on its death march either. Her tenure as editor was more like very buzz-filled hospice care. She tried to reinvigorate it with Girl Power, and that didn’t work. She tried bringing in names like Andrew Sullivan and David Frum to get more subscribers. Again, a flop.
None of those things would halt the decline, but let’s remember who really pushed the magazine over the cliff: previous editor Jon Meacham. Under his tenure, the magazine went from being a newsweekly to an opinion magazine. Newsweeklies may not be the format that most journalists prefer but they can and still do make money (see: Time, the Economist, The Week, Business Week). Opinion magazines are more writerly, but, with rare exceptions, they just can’t make a buck.
Meacham decided to turn his magazine into a liberal opinion magazine — kind of a dumb Atlantic. Because it frequently took up religious subjects, the media critics at Get Religion quickly renamed it Non-Newsweek and it went particularly hard for gay marriage, which I’m convinced cut into one of its greatest cash cows: the non-offensive reading material for reception areas market.
In a way, Newsweek’s demise is sad. It was once a great mover of American politics and its investigative work in the 1990s, with a push from the Drudge Report, led to the impeachment of President Clinton. Whatever you think of that outcome, the magazine clearly mattered. At the time of its death in 2012, it had been struggling for relevance. I’ll miss the old Newsweek, but not the new one.