From Expensing Yachts to Chasing The Onion: I Watched the Newsweekly Die From the Inside
It was 3 a.m. on Saturday, and I was seething. Staring at my phone, I saw that my company, Newsweek Media Group, had put out yet another story that would require a correction if not a retraction. This time it was a story ripped from The Onion. We were treating the fake news as if it were real. OFFS, I tapped under a friend’s Facebook post after seeing it, short for Oh, For Fuck’s Sake. The headline in our sister publication, the International Business Times: “Meghan Markle and Prince Harry Set Up Wedding Registry at London’s Target.” Despite the late hour, I dropped a note to an editor who took the story down off the website. You can see the link on Google, but if you click, you’ll get “Error 404. PAGE NOT FOUND.” There’s no correction, which is what a normal news company might post.
It would be funny if there hadn’t been so many insane errors in recent months. An article in Newsweek on the girlfriend of the suspected Las Vegas gunman breathlessly purported to have discovered that she was married to two men simultaneously. (Not true.) One piece touted a new poll in Japan that showed its citizens were eager to go to war with North Korea—a startling headline that raised alarms in a region fraught with nuclear tensions, and where Tokyo’s occupation of the peninsula during the Pacific War is still raw. (Oops. Not true.) President Donald Trump can defend himself, but Newsweek ran a story following Charles Manson’s death that was both banal and a slur: They both use words to influence people. It had to be walked back. One of the most embarrassing for me as a political reporter is a story from January 2018 announcing that Hillary Clinton, she of the 2016 election, could still become president “if Russia probe finds conspiracy evidence.” What followed was a far-fetched theory of Trump’s removal and Mike Pence handing the reins to Hillary, which seems a tad unlikely.
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All of this was pretty demoralizing. I’ve spent more than 30 years in journalism—more than half of it at what were once the big three newsweeklies—Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. (As far as I know, only one other person, Steve Smith, who also edited the Washington Examiner and National Journal, has managed this hat trick.) But the errors, which overshadowed Newsweek’s very good work, were only part of my middle-of-the-night fuming.
Last week, Newsweek was visited by plagues that seemed to include everything but locusts. The editor of the Pakistan edition tweeted that child rape sometimes “leads to great art”—a line not exactly warmly received in the #MeToo era or any other. The company was raided by New York City police, reportedly as part of an investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney into the magazine’s owners who have ties with a controversial church. The chief content officer of the company, Dayan Candappa, was placed on leave after BuzzFeed reported that Newsweek had hired him after he’d been let go by Reuters just a few months earlier following allegations of sexual harassment. If that wasn’t bad enough, BuzzFeed followed with another piece declaring that the International Business Times had inflated Web traffic and engaged in “ad fraud”—an allegation the company strenuously denies.
Then on Monday, February 5, I reached my tipping point: The two respected editorial leaders of Newsweek, Editor in Chief Bob Roe and Executive Editor Ken Li, were summarily fired along with a strong reporter who was investigating the various Newsweek scandals. It was too much tsouris for me. I submitted a letter of resignation, probably marking the last time I work for a newsweekly. It’s possible in a few years, no one will.
It’s been a strange ride for me and for the newsweekly enterprise that began in 1923 when two recent Yale grads launched Time magazine. “People are misinformed because no publication has adapted itself to the time which busy men are able to spend on simply keeping informed,” Henry Luce and Briton Hadden told prospective investors. Their idea built a 20th century behemoth. Mad Men’s Don Draper moved his ad firm into the Time-Life Building, a midcentury icon of power that Time has abandoned. Today, Time is owned by the Meredith Corp., headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa.
For those of us north of 50, newsweeklies loomed large. It’s telling that Trump, a septuagenarian, hung fake Time covers with his mug in no fewer than five of his golf clubs. When I spoke to him on the phone in early 2015, he asked a lot about Newsweek and noted that he’d been on the cover “twice, at least once.” That’s his famous ego talking, but it’s also hard to imagine a younger pol, future Presidents Cory Booker and Tom Cotton, having an outsize interest in Time or Newsweek.
I was lucky enough to be at the newsweeklies at the end of a flush period. When I became the Atlanta bureau chief of U.S. News & World Report in 1990—a bureau long since gone—there was time and money for me to cover Bill Clinton’s presidential race or to report long-form stories on race and the South. U.S. News is no longer a weekly and it’s primarily known for its Best Colleges list.
When I went to Newsweek in 1996, things were ritzier, sometimes embarrassingly so. I started during the Republican National Convention in San Diego. For a little kickoff dinner, the magazine’s larger-than-life editor—the late and wonderfully ebullient Maynard Parker—rented a yacht for those of us covering the Bob Dole coronation, just so we could have dinner on it and cruise around the city.
Many of the plushest newsmag perks had faded by the time I arrived on the scene at Time in 1999. My then father-in-law, the late Henry Grunwald, once the head of all the Time Inc. magazines wrote in his 1997 autobiography of Time: “Expense accounts were generous; in one case the question arose whether the cost of moving the mistress and the horse of one reassigned correspondent could be charged to the office. Granted.” Time was out of the paramour transport business when I arrived, but it still had a fleet of black Town Cars ready late in the week to ferry researchers and editors alike home lest they spring for a cab. More important than glitz, they did great journalism. Read Time’s award-winning account of 9/11, or its “Is God Dead?” cover from 1966.
At the turn of this century, a series of talented editors and writers kept the news magazine fresh and viable in a digital world. Walter Isaacson, the best-selling author who hired me at Time, created the Time 100 list, and Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and former Newsweek editor, tried to give his weekly more of an erudite feel. Although those journalists had successes, the headwinds facing all print media—but especially magazines that sought a national, general-interest audience—were too strong. After the Graham family of the Washington Post Co. sold Newsweek to the late audio mogul and philanthropist Sidney Harman in 2010, the magazine soon merged with The Daily Beast owned by Barry Diller’s IAC. The much-discussed editor, Tina Brown, tried to rescue Newsweek with her trademark buzz, but the joint hemorrhaged money and the print edition died on her watch. In 2013, Diller sold what he called his “mistake” to the International Business Times, run by entrepreneurs with ties to a shadowy Christian sect that was led by a charismatic Korean American pastor, David Jang.
To our surprise, the new owners seemed serious about journalism and had no ideological leanings so far as we could tell then or now. They tapped Jim Impoco, a respected veteran of The New York Times and Condé Nast and a longtime friend of mine, to revitalize Newsweek. He did it with a simple but great idea: He’d focus on long-form stories and keep the click-bait to the barest minimum. He’d hire great reporters and editors. It seemed to work. He brought the print edition back from the dead, and in 2016 the magazine was nominated for a National Magazine Award for General Excellence for one of just a handful of times in its 80-plus year history. The place showed no signs of weird cultishness. I had worked for headstrong owner/editors like The New Republic’s Martin Peretz and The Washington Monthly’s Charlie Peters, and I used to joke that, by comparison, the new Newsweek wasn’t Jonestown.
Impoco kept the magazine superthrifty. I took buses to New York on my dime instead of the Delta Shuttle (an old newsweekly luxury) or the Acela. Its budget seemed like a rounding error, even compared with today’s leaner Time. But he also fostered creative coverage like a groundbreaking cover story and much-discussed illustration on sexual harassment in Silicon Valley. I covered politics, but no one minded when I took a month off from Washington squabbles to cover a sexual assault case at a New England prep school in depth. That story, brilliantly edited by Bob Roe, landed me on Good Morning America.
But on Valentine’s Day of last year, Impoco was unexpectedly offed, replaced by a Time veteran who in turn lasted only a few months before being replaced. The fourth editor in a year is Nancy Cooper, who took the reins the day Roe was booted. During this year, the place was weirdly Manichean. Great journalism was—is—still being produced in the magazine and on the Web, even as a flurry of talented, ambitious but relatively inexperienced young hires were pushed toward outsize traffic goals that led to crazy errors.
The irony is that this click-bait, aggregation approach is dumb and dated. It’s the approach of The Huffington Post circa 2004, a model HuffPost, as it is now called, has since discarded. These days, Luce’s idea is still viable. People still need what newsweeklies at their best have provided: a way to cut through too much information, as Luce and Briton understood, alongside longer, set-the-national-conversation pieces. The keep-it-short idea built Slate and The Week, and now gives us Axios or Bloomberg’s TicToc. Readers haven’t stopped eating up smart analysis but they want deep, thorough reporting, too. Newsweeklies at their best do it all.
Monetization—to use that clumsy word—is still the goal, and click-bait is its enemy because it’s not a reliable revenue stream. As I said in my resignation letter, “Leaving aside the police raid and harassment scandal—a dependent clause I never thought I would write—it’s the installation of editors, not Ken Li and Roe, who recklessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy, retweets over fairness, that leaves me most despondent not only for Newsweek but for other publications that don’t heed the lessons of this publication’s fall.”
Newsweek may survive its whack-a-mole scandals and reputation damage. It did so once before with great stories under Impoco and Roe and Li. Just recently, Celeste Katz, fired for her investigation of the Newsweek scandals, broke news about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s questionable use of a government helicopter. Jeff Stein, a veteran investigative correspondent, recently wrote a great piece for Newsweek on his return to Vietnam, where he served as an Army intelligence officer, to meet his North Vietnamese counterpart.
A comeback is possible. I hope to read that Newsweek. But the yachts? They’re not coming back. I hope at least the lean, smart version of Luce’s idea reappears.
via POLITICO Magazine
February 10, 2018 at 03:01PMNo tags for this post.