05/17/2010 10:13 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Newsweek Blew It

In a speech to the National Rifle Association last week, Sarah Palin claimed that President Obama and Nancy Pelosi "would ban guns and ban ammunition, and gut the Second Amendment" if they "thought they could get away with it." That had me recalling with fondness my late Uncle Marty, a man with a penchant for the Yogi Berra-esque malapropism. My favorite Uncle Martyism was his emphatic "Quote me if I'm wrong," which always seemed absurdly hilarious but now also functions as a reminder of the attention-getting lies of Palin and so many other talk show blowhards, politicians and corporate flacks.

So it was refreshing to hear Washington Post Chairman Donald Graham's candor about the fate of Newsweek, his company's iconic money-hemorrhaging magazine, about which he said earlier this month, "If anyone should take the blame for this ending, it is me -- for not seeing early enough and reacting in the right way to the changes that have come to our industry."

Unrefreshingly, a rep from Allen & Co., the bank handling the auction for Graham, averred that there are "70 parties potentially interested in buying the magazine." In fact, there's anything but a feeding frenzy around Newsweek. But this is corporate America, after all, where candor is seen as the enemy of good business.

Given the vast pension, health care and unfulfilled subscription liabilities Newsweek carries, it's more likely the magazine is headed for extinction. As media analyst Reed Phillips told Ad Age, "I can't tell you that it's [worth] more than a buck, unfortunately. I think their primary objective [in selling] is not to see any objectives from the sale but to off-lay the subscription liability to someone else."

It wasn't just changes in the industry -- read the Internet -- that doomed Newsweek. Two of its competitors, the dominant Time and the upstart The Week, are profitable.

For decades the hippest, most progressive newsweekly, Newsweek has been getting it wrong about a lot of things in recent years. The magazine clearly lost its mojo under Pulitzer-winner and peripatetic editor/author/TV personality Jon Meacham, a very smart guy who seems obsessed with religion, and in particular Christianity. His religion-oriented cover stories -- way too many for a general interest magazine -- have included "The Religious Case for Gay Marriage," "The Decline and Fall of Christian America," "The Politics of Jesus," "Barack Obama's Christian Journey," "The Mormon Odyssey," "Women of the Bible," and, in the Mary department, "What Would Mary Do" and "The Mystery of Mary Magdalene."

The magazine may have dealt itself a fatal blow with last year's hail-Mary design and editorial overhaul, whose main bow to the Internet was that you could no longer easily distinguish the stories from the ads. Though Meacham is himself only 40, New York Magazine reports that most young staffers think the magazine blundered badly with its current incarnation, as described here in a hopeful introduction that now reads like a ghostly premonition.

Newsweek surrendered the power of now in favor of becoming a "thought leader," the windbaggy stepchild of the Economist and the long-defunct Saturday Review. Though Fareed Zakaria and other writers still contribute excellent work, the overall package comes across as gimmicky. Tone-deaf covers of Sarah Palin in short shorts and the misleading "Antidepressants Don't Work" are hardly thoughtful. And as for last week's bonehead article arguing that gay men can't succeed at straight roles, the author only needed to look at the careers of countless conservative Republicans to see the error of his ways.

Newsweek's website is clunkier and harder to navigate than Time's. And check out the differential between Amazon's pricing of the rivals and how they rank in sales, then compare the consumer ratings and reviews. (Hat tip to Bob Adels.)

But Newsweek's problems can't be blamed entirely on recent changes. A 1995 feature in the magazine by Chris Stoll, author of Silicon Snake Oil--Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, pooh-poohed the digital revolution in a piece titled "The Internet? Bah!" which included this howler: "Nicholas Negroponte, director/MIT Media Lab, predicts that we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure." One is tempted to update the oft-scrawled graffiti about God and Nietzsche:

"The Internet Is Dead."
"Newsweek Is Dead."
--The Internet