The Washington Post announced yesterday
that it was putting Newsweek
, in recent memory one of the most important news outlets in the country—which the Post
has owned for almost a half-century—up for sale.
Sitting on a panel about the future of media in the spring of 2008 with Johnnie Roberts, a Newsweek
writer, I said, with apparent boorishness: “If Newsweek
is around in five years, I’ll buy you dinner
It is hard to imagine now why that would have caused tisking and umbrage among media grandees. But my flourish was dismissed by almost everybody as not just hyperbolic and rude, but beyond reason. Newsweek
might not be at the top of its game anymore, but certainly there would always be a Newsweek
. After Newsweek
announced a round of layoffs in late 2008, I revised my prediction
to two years: “Sometime around the fourth quarter of next year, Newsweek
will be shuttered (possibly there’s a phase where it goes bi-weekly, or even monthly).” Still I was regarded as a mendacious troublemaker.
My first point is that my prediction is right on schedule—Newsweek
will be closed by the end of this year. The idea that someone will buy it is wishful—or if they do, it will be for scrap. Newsweek
as we know it is done.
The second point is to wonder again why media people—elite media people—are so stubborn about not recognizing their obsolescence. Is that just natural ostrich-ism? Is it hope that the world will suddenly change? Hope that people won’t notice the world has changed? Or is it just something wrong with the people who run our business? It may well be the latter, which, in turn, infects the products we create—they stink of out-of-touch-ness.
My third point is about what Newsweek
became. It is not only a failure of form but of imagination. Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s
editor, failed woefully. Meacham, while only 41, is a perfect example of media insularity and self-congratulation. He’s a turgid, flaccid, and suicidally boring writer (that is, it’s the reader who wants to do himself in) who somehow came to represent high-mindedness and got heaped with awards. Positively reinforced, he turned Newsweek
into a turgid, flaccid, dead-on-arrival magazine that was much more like a corporate annual report than a spiffy newsmagazine. (A story circulated yesterday that Meacham himself might try to put a group together to buy it—fat chance.)
And my fourth point: a moment of silence for spiffiness.
Phil Graham, the CEO of the Washington Post Co., bought Newsweek
, it is said, apocryphally or not, for John F. Kennedy to run after he got out of the White House—a level of media chic one can only imagine.
Some of my best friends have worked at Newsweek
. It was always a sharper group than Time
was institutional, the people at Newsweek
far more openly ambitious. They were better-dressed, more social, more pop than self-serious. For a long time, Newsweek
really had a pulse.
The fact that its future ran out is not necessarily its fault. The fact that it was so leaden and cautious and dimwitted in its efforts to reinvent itself is. Almost anybody could have done a better job and had more of a fighting chance than the bunch who’ve been recently running the place.
Now I am going to call my old friend Kevin Buckley, Newsweek’s
young and swashbuckling chief of the Saigon Bureau all those years ago, for an overdue lunch.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
I knew I was going to get to write this column, but truly I do it without satisfaction.