Newsweek: Should Jon Meacham get the blame?

As I write this, we are 15 minutes away from seeing what bids have come in to buy Newsweek. So I did a bit of Googling to catch up on the press coverage to see how my old Alma mater was fairing.

The Conventional Wisdom doesn’t look good. Newsmax, TV Guide, some 91 year old guy…But, hey, you never know. And as I wrote at length here–along with my own personal biases and disclosures–I hope the magazine survives.

I did notice a new theme pop up in the last 48 hours. If Newsweek does survive, should editor Jon Meacham be allowed to keep his job?

Lee Siegel, writing over at the New York Observer, does not think so. In fact, he rather strongly believes that Meacham should have been tossed overboard before the Washington Post Company even thought of selling the magazine. Writes Siegel:

Newsweek is bleeding money. By every law of capitalism, Jon Meacham should have been replaced. And yet rather than replacing him, Mr. Meacham’s overlords allowed him to strip the magazine, precious component by precious component. They stood by while he bought out and laid off some of the magazine’s best editors and writers, reduced the magazine’s guaranteed circulation base in order to attract a more exclusive class of advertiser-a fancy accounting gimmick that had the effect of  alienating advertisers looking for a large, guaranteed circulation base-and completely transformed the magazine’s decades-old identity, a gimmick that had the effect of bewildering advertisers eager to match their product or service with a magazine’s familiar identity.

AS NEWSWEEK WENT under, Mr. Meacham went higher. The quarterly financial reports brought news of impending ruin, and yet there he was, night after night, beaming before the cameras on every talk show and comedy show you could think of. It was as if Mr. Meacham had decided that rather than save the ship from going under, he would turn it into his own private submarine. His editorial policy mostly amounted to his publishing famous friends and acquaintances, whose shopworn names did nothing for the magazine’s fortunes but everything for Mr. Meacham’s expanding quid pro quo. There is nothing wrong with being a political animal: on the contrary. But Mr. Meacham’s deft maneuverings reaped him recognition and acclaim while his magazine tumbled toward irrelevancy.

Siegel’s last point is echoed by media writer Jeff Bercovici over at The Daily Finance. It’s also something that I’ve pointed out. Getting on TV all the time doesn’t really help the magazine brand as much as it helps the personal brand of said pundit. Jeff writes:

The idea that editors of print publications need to be multi-platform brand ambassadors has gained a lot of currency in the past few years, for fairly obvious reasons: As consumers spend ever less time with print and ever more with digital media, it’s logical to follow them. But merely getting on TV a lot, as a guest on Morning Joe or Charlie Rose or the Meet the Press, is a pursuit with costs but no obvious benefits, at least for so-called “thought leader” magazines that, like Newsweek, depend only to a minimal extent on newsstand sales. When editors and writers are helping TV producers fill their airtime, they may be “sharing their opinions” in “important conversations,” but what they’re not doing is editing or writing or conducting the type of groundbreaking journalism that sparks those conversations.

Alas, it’s now 5 pm, and all those bids are supposed to be in. Perhaps by the time I hit publish, Newsweek will have a new owner and the same editor…Or a new owner and a new editor…Or no owner and no editor…

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About michaelhastings

Journalist
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2 Responses to Newsweek: Should Jon Meacham get the blame?

  1. Steve Weinberg says:

    Before the rise of the Internet, I subscribed to the print editions of Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report. The identity of the editor in chief at each played almost no role in my decisionmaking about subscribing.

    Eventually, I dropped all three subscriptions–not so much because of the Internet but because I want my magazine journalism in depth. All three news magazines seemed mostly superficial and mostly stale because of reliance on conventional wisdom.

    A couple of years ago, I began missing the print editions. I read all three of the news magazines carefully for a while at the library. I chose Newsweek as the one to which I would resubscribe because the in-depth portions seemed strongest, some of which I attribute to Jon Meacham’s vision.

    Maybe somebody else could have improved the magazine even more than Meacham has. Hard to say. But I don’t see him as a primary reason for Newsweek’s financial troubles.

    I should disclose here that although I have written for dozens of national magazines, I have never written for Newsweek and never had any contact with Meacham.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Yep, I don’t know how fair it is to call him the primary reason–which is why I employed the news magazine trick of putting a question mark in my headline. On the other hand, the magazine was doing okay when he took over, and now the plane has crashed into the mountain. The buck stops here and all that. And if the magazine had thrived under his editorship, I wonder who would be taking the bulk of the credit…

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