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Who Killed Newsweek?
Sold for $1, the venerable weekly is about to become one of Tina Brown's media spectacles. By Harry Jaffe
Comments () | Published January 27, 2011

Updated, October 19, 2012: The demise of Newsweek’s print magazine, announced to staff this week by a tearful Tina Brown, was foretold when the Washington Post Company sold its iconic weekly magazine in May 2010.

Pressured by the Post Company board of directors, chairman Donald Graham reluctantly agreed to sell Newsweek to audio magnate Sidney Harman for $1. Harman assumed the magazine’s debt and merged the venerable journal with the Daily Beast, a digital news and gossip site owned by Hollywood financier Barry Diller, who brought in Brown to edit the two-headed media enterprise.

When the Post unloaded Newsweek, it was losing more than $30 million a year. The losses mounted under the hybrid ownership and publishing structure. Newsweek’s circulation peaked at 3.3 million in 1991; in June the number was 1.5 million. Its main rival, Time magazine, has done better in part because it’s backed by huge magazine empire.

“It was a mistake to take this on,” Diller told the New York Times.

Veteran Newsweek staffers still believe it was a mistake for the Post to unload the weekly. Despite the rise of digital news that’s punishing print journalism, especially news weeklies, could Newsweek have survived as part of the Post’s empire?

Read the definitive account of Newsweek’s best days and its tortured final months under the Post in “Who Killed Newsweek?”

• • •

Updated, February 17, 2011: The deal worked out last November to merge Newsweek with the Daily Beast went into effect February 1. Tina Brown, who founded the Web-only Beast is now editor-in-chief of the new combined publication. Sidney Harman, who bought Newsweek from the Washington Post Company for a buck and assumed many millions in the magazine’s debt, becomes executive chairman.

Whoever is actually putting out the weekly has been steering it back toward newsy covers—“Demise of the Dictators” and “Rage Goes Viral” about the Arab Revolution—and full-page pictures from the streets of Egypt. The editors have given former Post fashion critic Robin Givhan room to shine in a terrific piece on Lady Gaga and Giorgio Armani. Another Post refugee, art critic Blake Gopnik, has been penning great essays on design.

But Newsweek is still waiting for Brown’s redesign, which she promises in the coming months. The staff exodus from Newsweek continues. Long-time editor Daniel Klaidman, one of the last of the old guard, left the magazine in January. And the ad situation is precarious: the February 14 issue had 12 ad pages in a 52-page magazine.

Newsweek’s 78th birthday is today. It has a new editor, and a new owner. But what it needs is a radical new plan.

• • •

Donald Graham was in anguish. It was late 2009, and Newsweek, the weekly magazine that his father, Philip, had bought in 1961 and that his mother, Katharine, had cherished—had become an albatross. In the good old days, Newsweek staffers affectionately called his mother Lady Katharine, but now her son was trying to cope with his role as executioner.

Bleeding ad revenue and subscribers, the magazine had lost $16 million in 2008, and the losses would double in 2009. The Washington Post Company’s board of directors had watched the company’s stock drop from nearly $1,000 a share in December 2004 to $322.50 in March 2009.

The Post Company’s board was pressuring Graham to plug Newsweek’s drain on profits and growth. Warren Buffett, the heaviest of heavy hitters among investors and board members, wanted to sell Newsweek and cut its losses.

At 64, Don Graham was the patriarch of the Graham family. Though he wasn’t the eldest, his mother had chosen him to preside over the family’s corporate jewels, first as publisher of the Washington Post and then as chairman of the Post Company, which had grown from a media business to a conglomerate dominated by its Kaplan education division.

The last thing Graham wanted to do was abandon Newsweek. He had installed a new editor, Jon Meacham, in 2006. He had supported redesigns in 2007 and 2009. He had watched Meacham turn the magazine from news and reporting to essays and argument.

Reporters in the Washington bureau rebelled in 2009 over Meacham’s management. “I must tell you,” one wrote in an anonymous letter sent to Graham’s home near DC’s Dupont Circle, “it is no exaggeration to describe what is going on right now as an act of corporate suicide.”

Toward the end of 2009, Graham met weekly with advisers and his sister, Elizabeth “Lally” Weymouth, to find ways to shore up the magazine’s finances. He and Weymouth, who had found a home as a writer at the magazine, pitched advertisers. By late 2009, he had three choices: Cut the staff, shut it down, or sell it.

“It was excruciatingly difficult for him,” one of his confidants says.

In May 2010, the world learned by official announcement that the Post Company was putting Newsweek on the block, but the board had voted to sell the magazine four months earlier. In January, Don Graham called close friends and family with the news. Among them were Rick Smith, the Newsweek lifer who had edited the magazine for eight years and retired as CEO in 2007, and Lally Weymouth.

“I was sad,” Weymouth says. “My father bought Newsweek 49 years ago. We cared deeply about the magazine and the people who worked there, but I understood the board’s business decision.”

Few reporters in Newsweek’s Washington bureau understood the company’s decision. Even after stereo-equipment magnate Sidney Harman bought Newsweek for $1 last August and merged it with Tina Brown’s Internet site, the Daily Beast, anguish and recriminations reverberated in DC.

“Newsweek did not have to collapse,” says Richard Wolffe, who covered the White House for the magazine and has written two books on Barack Obama. “We had to work really damn hard at it.”

Some current and former Newsweek staffers say the editorial direction under editor Jon Meacham was largely to blame. “We abandoned what had made us successful—news and reporting,” says Mike Hirsh, a veteran Newsweek writer who went to National Journal.

Whether news and reporting or anything else could have saved Newsweek is debatable, but what’s certain is that the magazine’s Washington bureau was a breeding ground for great journalists. Ben Bradlee convinced Phil Graham to buy the magazine and briefly ran the Washington bureau. The roster of the big-name journalists who found homes at the bureau includes Robert Samuelson, Evan Thomas, Eleanor Clift, Elaine Shannon, David Martin, Gloria Borger, Howard Fineman, Michael Isikoff, and Thomas DeFrank.

“The magazine was a constellation of talent,” says Hirsh. “Truly the best of the best.”

Tensions between the Washington bureau and Newsweek’s New York headquarters always ran high. In the news hothouse that is the nation’s capital, reporters believed they were driving the magazine; in New York, DC was just one part of the “fuel mixture,” in Newsweek lingo.

“New York editors always felt the Washington bureau was too big for its britches,” says Henry Hubbard, who started working for Newsweek in New York but spent years in the DC bureau.

After Meacham became editor in 2006, the tension became toxic, especially when the magazine was redesigned the second time. The phones rarely rang with assignments from New York. Reporters couldn’t get stories into the magazine. The 2009 redesign seemed to design them out, and they felt Meacham ignored them.

“We ran the magazine without the ‘news’ or the ‘week,’ ” says investigative reporter Mike Isikoff, who went to NBC. “We squandered the franchise.”

Meacham has heard the complaints. He scoffed at Washington reporters during a two-hour interview but declined to comment for this article. He was unapologetic about how he piloted the magazine into its final days under the Post, though it was by many measures an editorial and commercial failure.

Amid the bruised feelings and regret lies the saga of the Grahams, Washington’s pre-eminent publishing family, and the rise and fall of a once-proud magazine.

Legend has it that Kay and Phil Graham woke up at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City one morning in March 1961. “Would you go down and buy me a magazine?” Kay asked. Phil went to the lobby, returned to the room, and said: “I just bought Newsweek.”

Good story but not close to the truth.

The Astor Foundation put Newsweek up for sale in 1960. The deal came to Phil Graham, then publisher of the Washington Post, the daily newspaper his father-in-law, Eugene Meyer, had bought from bankruptcy in 1933. Graham wasn’t all that interested.

But Ben Bradlee, then in Newsweek’s Washington bureau, got it into his head that Phil Graham would be the perfect publisher for the magazine. He picked up the phone at 11 one night and told Graham he wanted to talk.

“Why don’t you come over?” Graham said. “Now.”

Bradlee says it was “the best telephone call I ever made—the luckiest, most productive, most exciting, most rewarding, totally rewarding.”

They talked for hours. At 5 am, Graham told Bradlee to write a proposal. Bradlee returned at 9 am.

A week later, Phil Graham was in New York negotiating with Brooke Astor for the foundation’s controlling share. Kay was feeling ill but met her husband in Manhattan.

“I wasn’t a regular reader of the magazine, nor was Phil at the time,” Kay wrote in her memoir, Personal History, “and it had no real emotional appeal for me.”

Philip Graham was in the shower in the Carlyle Hotel on May 9 when the call came through that Brooke Astor would sell him Newsweek. He used a crumpled personal check to pay the $2-million down payment against the total cost of $8.985 million.

The appeal for Kay was that Phil wanted to succeed at something he’d done on his own rather than with a newspaper given to him by his father-in-law.

Phil Graham immersed himself in Newsweek. He went to New York every week. He and Kay set up an apartment and started living the Manhattan life.

Henry Hubbard, then a science reporter in New York, remembers Phil visiting every Newsweek office, pulling up a chair, putting his feet up on a windowsill and asking, “Who are you? What do you do?”

“He seemed confident and enthusiastic about the magazine,” says Hubbard.

Mel Elfin was reporting on education from the New York office in 1962 when Newsweek ran his piece about school superintendents cavorting at a convention. The head of the association called Graham and threatened to cancel 12,000 subscriptions. Graham met with Elfin, stuck with his young reporter, and called the school leader’s bluff.

“Great publisher,” Elfin recalls.

While her husband was running the Post, attending meetings and dinners at the Kennedy White House, and working at Newsweek, Kay Graham was trying to raise four children and run a household. She spent the fall planning her daughter’s coming-out; Lally, the eldest Graham child, had graduated from McLean’s Madeira School in June.

Phil started taking trips to Europe and used Newsweek’s Paris bureau as a base. On an early trip, he requested a secretary, and the bureau chief dispatched Robin Webb, a young Australian trying to make it as a journalist. On a second trip in December, Graham described Webb on his official schedule as “Newsweek reporter and temporary personal shopper, tour director, and femme de chambre for our group.”

“I had no idea what was going on in Paris,” Kay wrote later, “except that I thought Phil was engaged in a very important task.”

That Christmas, Kay picked up the phone and heard the lovers chatting. “It’s hard to describe my total devastation after my discovery of the affair,” she wrote. The marriage began to crumble, and Phil no longer hid the affair.

Graham then broke off the relationship with Webb in 1963 and tried to reunite with his family. He was diagnosed with manic depression and went to Chestnut Lodge in Maryland for treatment. He convinced doctors to let him spend the first weekend in August at Glen Welby, the family’s estate near Upperville, Virginia.

Kay awakened that Saturday from a nap to the sound of a gunshot; she went downstairs to find her husband dead with a 28-gauge shotgun by his side. He was 48.

Kay Graham would become the reluctant publisher of the Post and Newsweek, but she could never shake the sense that the magazine had played a role in the demise of her marriage and her husband.

The feeling made her, she admitted, “depressed” in the early days. But she persevered in the job, flying her old friends Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith to New York to discuss the “back of the book” sections with Newsweek editors.

In Kay Graham’s view, Ben Bradlee had sided with her husband during Phil Graham’s affair with Robin Webb and hosted the couple in his Georgetown home. Bradlee became Washington bureau chief in 1963, before Graham committed suicide. He had grown close to JFK and would write a book, Conversations With Kennedy. He credited Graham with unleashing Newsweek.

“All of a sudden the magazine shed its Chamber of Commerce, pro-business, pro-Republican establishment cast and staked out new ground for itself,” Bradlee wrote in his memoir, A Good Life. “Younger, more creative, less cynically biased than Time. Fairer, less preachy, and more fun.”

Newsweek always measured itself against Henry Luce’s Time. Legions of reporters and editors would pump themselves up by repeating the mantra that they were working for the scrappier, hipper, second-place weekly—more fun, as Bradlee said.

The most fun and important move Bradlee made was relocating Newsweek’s Washington bureau to 1750 Pennsylvania Avenue. Down the block from the White House, the Newsweek suite had great views of the Mall and the Washington Monument.

In 1965, Kay Graham surprised everyone by taking Bradlee to lunch at the F Street Club near the White House and discussing his return to the Post as managing editor. He did come back.

Mel Elfin recalls getting off the elevator in Newsweek’s New York headquarters a few days after Bradlee moved to the Post and running into Osborn Elliott, the magazine’s editor.

“You know that job in Washington?” Elliott asked Elfin. “You’re going to become a candidate.”

Word at Newsweek was that nobody wanted to take the chance of succeeding Bradlee. Elfin, a Brooklyn boy, was settled in New York with his family. A few days later, Elliott grabbed him and said, “The job in Washington is yours. I want you there Monday morning.”

Oz Elliott was a Manhattan blue blood, the son of a Wall Street financier whose Dutch ancestors had arrived in New Amsterdam in the 17th century. But he proved to be an enterprising newsman who pushed Newsweek into covering the civil-rights and women’s movements. He saw a kindred spirit in Mel Elfin.

Elfin’s father drove a truck. Mel had studied journalism on a scholarship at Syracuse and cut his reporting teeth at the Long Island Daily Record. He’d landed a one-week tryout at Newsweek in 1958 as a proofreader and would stay with the magazine 28 years. Why him?

“I never could figure that out,” he says with a laugh. “Maybe it was my good looks.”

Though a New Yorker by birth, he had some roots in the capital. His uncle Jack had a bar on Pennsylvania Avenue east of the Anacostia River. This was back in the days when senators roamed the night. One of them stayed too long too many times at Uncle Jack’s bar, and Elfin heard Jack say: “I don’t care if you are a US senator. You’re nothing but a drunk.” He tossed him out.

Elfin inherited Bradlee’s Newsweek reporters, including John Lindsay, Hobart Rowen, and Jay Iselin. But Elfin’s signature contribution was his ability to spot talent among the correspondents covering Washington for regional papers. Among his hires were Elaine Shannon, Eleanor Clift, David Martin, Tom DeFrank, Jim Doyle, John Walcott, Chris Ma, Gloria Borger, and Howard Fineman, whom Elfin plucked from the Louisville Courier-Journal bureau.

“It was a powerhouse bureau,” says Fineman, who would later parlay his Newsweek reporting into a television gig with MSNBC and then a job with the Huffington Post. But he became a brand at Newsweek. “Pound for pound, we were the best in the city,” he says.

Week after week, Newsweek went head to head with Time. Which would have the best cover? The best White House scoop? Newsweek reporters saw themselves as the nimbler crew. “Newsweek was the first to cover the Vietnam War, civil rights, the sexual revolution,” Fineman says.

But both newsmagazines, along with the third, U.S. News & World Report, struggled with a basic journalistic conundrum: With deadlines at the end of the week, and with readers getting more of their news from television, was Newsweek summarizing the week that had passed or casting the news forward? Hard news or soft on the cover? Hollywood or Third World hunger?

Ed Kosner, who edited Newsweek in the 1970s, set the tone: “Reporting is the soul of Newsweek.”

Mel Elfin and his “murderers’ row” of reporters reveled in it. “I was there when we lived off the news,” he says. “Wars, 1968 riots, Watergate—what an incredible news flow. Circulation and ads were strong. Our reputation was golden. Those were glorious days.”

They were days of transition for Katharine Graham. Says Elfin: “I saw her grow from a housewife to a very good publisher.”

At least three Tuesdays a month, the two flew to Manhattan on the company plane. On the flight up, she reported gossip she’d heard from her friends, then they met with editors in the offices at 444 Madison Avenue. The two sat next to each other on the couch in Oz Elliott’s office. “She would lean over and whisper bits of news and gossip and ask me to tell Oz,” Elfin says. “I would say ‘Why don’t you tell him? You own the magazine!’ ”

But for Kay, Newsweek still held reminders of her husband’s affair with Robin Webb. Longtime Newsweek correspondent and editor Arnaud de Borchgrave had been a friend of Webb’s and might have been the one who introduced her to Phil Graham. Elfin says Kay saw de Borchgrave in the office one day and ordered the editor to fire him. Or send him to Saudi Arabia. She wasn’t serious.


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