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Newsweek: What Went Wrong

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I'm a saddened by the for sale sign that's been put up at Newsweek. For what it's worth, I hope they find a buyer who can keep the magazine alive. There are bunch of good people working there, and as the magazine's recent cover on Afghanistan demonstrated, Newsweek still has the capacity to put out really strong journalism.

But since I need to get a bit of traffic to my site this month, I'm going to weigh in with my own personal view. What I think went wrong, and why.

Disclosures: I'm biased in ways I probably don't even realize. I still to this day feel a strong emotional investment/connection to the magazine. I'm also in Kabul, overtired and far removed from the New York media world, so take that into consideration when/if you read the following, and please excuse any hint of axe grinding.

I started my career in journalism at Newsweek in the summer of 2002. I loved working there. Over the next six years, the magazine gave me incredible opportunities as a journalist, for which I will always be grateful.

That being said, I left the magazine in the summer of 2008. There were personal reasons for my choice, but I also wasn't too keen on the direction the magazine was taking -- more opinion, less reporting. The waves of layoffs and buyouts hitting Newsweek were sending what I felt was a fairly troubling message: the moment an employee got too expensive or too old, you were shown the door. The era of the 20-year career at Newsweek had ended.

Over the past 18 months, I watched as the many talented friends I still had at the magazine got laid off, leave to other jobs, or quit journalism altogether. What was once a robust corps of some 25 foreign correspondents dwindled to less than five, which accompanied the closing down of almost all the magazine's foreign bureaus. All and all, a pretty sorry spectacle, and the way they treated folks who'd served them loyally over the years was pretty shabby, which I suppose is to be expected from any corporate entity, but nonetheless lame.

So three main observations.

1) Identity crisis: Even as late as April 2008, I sat in at a meeting with top brass where they claimed to still be committed to actual reporting. Reporting is/was/and always will be Newsweek's strength. Its biggest stories are rarely the blustery opinion pieces, but its scoops, exclusives, and thorough pieces of journalism/analysis. (Think of great and inspiring reporters like Mike Isikoff, Chris Dickey, Mike Hirsch, Mark Hosenball, or the expensively reported yet popular Newsweek election project, which comes out every four years.) But soon after that meeting, the dreaded Money Men came in, and as Newsweek "insiders" tell me, said that the reporting paradigm was a no go. (Never trust the Money Men! Really, what do they know about journalism? Aren't we supposed to be the experts on that?) In just a few months, the magazine went from a dedicated "mass and class" strategy to an "elite opinion" strategy. Newsweek then wanted "edgy" voices -- so the powers that be bragged about getting Christopher Hitchens to write for them... (Hitchens, no offense, was edgy in like 1993.) They tried a bunch of gimmick covers, overexposed guest essayists, and took on a sort of junior National Review editorial tone. (Why Dick Cheney Should Be President etc....)

This decision -- to basically abandon reporting -- I think sealed the magazine's fate. Maybe it was inevitable, maybe the Newsweek execs had no choice, but it suggested to me that the end was near.

2) The Damned Interwebs: I'm not going to rehash how the Internet is changing journalism yadda yadda. But what I will say is that some at the top in Newsweek, like many others in the media, were inexcusably clueless about the Web until like 2006, probably 2007 (only about a decade or so too late.) Web stories were treated like second-class pieces of work; the prestige was still about getting your stories in the magazine. (Anecdote: I was offered a position to be an associate editor at Newsweek.com -- I think this was late 2004 or early 2005. I wasn't allowed to take the job -- long story -- but I remember one of the top editors telling me that the Web was "a black hole" for my career...) Anyway, there was basically all sorts of confusion, which was never really resolved.

3) Brand Name versus Magazine Brand: Another longtime Newsweek veteran described the magazine's latest incarnation like so: "It's become a vanity press for [NAME REDACTED] and [NAME REDACTED.]" This points to a larger issue. While the management expected even more from their staff, the top people were out running around building up their own brand names, separate from the magazine. Giving speeches, writing books, doing TV shows. This trend was particularly acute over the past two years. (Leading to this charge, in the Daily Beast, of "absentee landlordism.")

It was certainly the savvy play -- leveraging the Newsweek brand to get all sorts of other side gigs so when the plane did crash into the mountain, you could float safely to the ground. I don't even begrudge them for doing it -- in my own small way, I probably followed their example. But that kind of behavior didn't really leave a great impression on the staff. It was fairly transparent, and cast doubt on a) the magazine's long-term viability b) undermined any loyalty that one might otherwise have had. If the big guys are out there hustling, why not us?

In conclusion: I hope Newsweek survives, as I really think it could be great again. It'd be a shame if it disappeared.

Cross posted from my blog at True/Slant.