Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Wondering How Far Magazines Must Fall
Making a weekly newsmagazine has always been a tough racket. It takes a big staff working on punishing deadlines to aggregate the flurry of news, put some learned topspin on it and package it for readers. But that job now belongs to the Web and takes place in real time, not a week later.
Tina Brown may have understood the digital insurgency that was disrupting the publishing business, but that didn’t stop her from stepping into the maw at the end of 2010, after Sidney Harman bought Newsweek. She married her Web site, The Daily Beast, with Newsweek in an attempt to put the paddles to a franchise gone cold, but Mr. Harman is now gone and his family has withdrawn its financial support. With losses continuing to pile up, that leaves IAC/InterActiveCorp, which also owns The Daily Beast, holding the bag.
As the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, Ms. Brown was an odd choice to be Newsweek’s savior. Even in its diminished state — Mr. Harman bought it for a dollar in addition to assuming some $40 million in liabilities — the magazine is aimed at a mass audience in the kind of Middle America places where Ms. Brown, a hothouse flower of Manhattan media, rarely visits. Still, she has been able to maneuver The Daily Beast into the middle of the conversation and she has never lost her touch for getting people talking. But a newsweekly is a brutal, perhaps unwinnable, challenge.
Because of changes to the informational ecosystem, weeklies have been forced to leave behind the news and become magazines of ideas. Ms. Brown understood that; it’s just that some of her ideas weren’t always very good. Sometimes she tried too hard — Barack Obama was depicted as the first gay president — and sometimes not hard enough, as with last week’s cover about fancy dining around the world.
People who predicted that her effort would come to tears might be tempted to do an end zone dance now. But that would be dumb. The problem is not Tina Brown or her conceptual obsessions, or even the calcified formula of the weekly magazine.