Who Killed Newsweek?
Sold for $1, the venerable weekly is about to become one of Tina Brown’s media spectacles.
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.
Mel Elfin did battle with New York every week to get his reporters’ stories into the magazine. Tension built all week and ended with Elfin screaming into the squawk box in the middle of the bureau’s conference table.
“His battles with New York editors were legendary,” says Howard Fineman. The New Yorkers were seen as upper-crust Harvard types; Elfin and his team were working class.
“They were afraid of me because I was close with Kay Graham,” Elfin says.
Under Graham’s shelter and Elfin’s frenetic pace, the Washington bureau grew in stature. Elfin would drive his reporters all week. He’d summon them to his office, grill them on their latest scoops, and treat them to his peculiar habit of grabbing a scissors and snipping off ends of his hair.“That’s when you knew Mel was really on edge,” says Ann McDaniel, who covered the White House in those days.
Friday nights on deadline, the reporters and editors ate together at the conference table. Saturdays after deadline, Elfin would repair to Sans Souci on 17th Street or Duke Ziebert’s on Connecticut Avenue for a boys-only lunch with Art Buchwald and others. They’d tell jokes, maybe dish about Walter Jenkins, a top aide in the Lyndon Johnson White House who in 1964 had left a party at the bureau rather tipsy and wound up getting arrested for propositioning a boy in a YMCA restroom.
Elfin experimented with television. In the 1980s, he started Bureau Report, a weekly program that showcased his reporters as talking heads.
“It was an early attempt at a TV news talk show,” says Fineman. “Mel would loosen his tie, sit on his desk, and introduce his reporters.”
It gave Fineman, Gloria Borger, and Eleanor Clift their first taste of TV. The program opened with a voice-over saying: “The news never stops.”
By the early 1980s, any heartache Katharine Graham might have associated with Newsweek had healed. She used her weekly editorial trips to Manhattan to see Broadway shows and entertain; she used her Newsweek connections to roam the globe and visit world leaders. That’s when she earned the moniker Lady Katharine.
She’d call editors with tips and critiques from buddies such as Henry Kissinger, Warren Buffett, Jack Valenti, and Truman Capote. They became known as Kay’s “council of darlings.”
As publisher, Kay was neither casual nor frivolous. She weighed in on covers, and she chose the editor.
In 1984, Maynard Parker was in line to assume the top editor’s post, but Graham had someone else in mind. She summoned Rick Smith to her apartment. Smith, a Detroit native, had come to New York and gotten a journalism degree from Columbia. He had gone straight to Newsweek in 1970, risen through the editorial ranks, and gained Kay’s trust. But he was number four in the line of succession.
“One reason I like you is that you’re not afraid of me,” Smith says Kay told him. “It gives me confidence in you.”
“Either you are not very observant,” he replied, “or I’m a great actor.”
Smith got the job—and had to tell Parker that Kay had shoved him aside. For the moment.
Smith ushered in an era of stability following a string of editors that included Ed Kosner, Lester Bernstein, and Bill Broyles. He also became Lady Katharine’s companion in journalism, New York theater, and world travel. Often accompanied by Washington Post editorial-page editor Meg Greenfield, they traveled to Tokyo, Seoul, Moscow, Prague, and Paris.
“She took these trips very seriously,” Smith says. “She went to Tokyo to launch the Japanese edition; she went to Moscow to meet Gorbachev.”
As Kay Graham shifted her sights to Manhattan and beyond, the turf battles between Mel Elfin and New York editors became more lethal. Kay allowed Maynard Parker to fire Elfin in 1986.
In 1989, the Columbia Journalism Review published a cover with a picture of three dinosaurs and the headline the newsmags: is the species doomed?
Television and radio were reporting news by the minute. Who needed a rehash of what had happened the week before?
Editors scoffed publicly, but in private they worried.
“Even in the 1980s,” Rick Smith says, “I knew there was a big advertising cloud over Newsweek.”
In 1991, Kay promoted him to run the magazine’s business side. He recalls attending a Newsweek senior-management retreat in which a human-relations facilitator asked each participant to name the biggest problem facing the magazine. “This magazine has no problem that 100 ad pages wouldn’t cure,” Smith, the only editor present, said. “Our fundamental relationship with readers was not an issue. Our circulation was strong.”
Everyone was talking about how CNN was going to hurt readership, but Smith knew that the real soft spot was advertising.
That same year, 1991, Katharine Graham handed control of the family’s corporate concerns to her son Donald. He took on the title of president and CEO of the Washington Post Company, which placed him in ultimate control of Newsweek.
“Kay’s driven engagement receded,” says Smith. “She wanted to get out of Don’s way.”
Don Graham’s directive to New York was “no surprises.” He still showed up for several editorial meetings a month but could never match his mother’s devotion to the weekly magazine. He directed his attention more and more toward saving his family’s print products from Internet challengers and toward building Kaplan, the company’s profitable education division. When the Post bought it in 1984, Kaplan was a small firm that prepared students for standardized tests such as the SAT; it would grow into an international education company and an online university generating more than half of the Post Company’s revenues by 2008.
Lally Weymouth, Don’s sister, became the family’s physical presence at Newsweek’s New York headquarters. If her mother often seemed shy and self-effacing, the daughter gained the reputation of being imperious and difficult. She saw herself as a journalist.
“I was lucky,” she says over tea in the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue. At 67, she is at once elegant, tentative, and reluctant. “I had a really interesting life.”
Her marriage to architect Yann Weymouth ended in divorce. They had two daughters, Pam, who lives in California, and Katharine, an attorney who went to work at the Post and is now publisher.
Does Lally Weymouth harbor regrets that she, the eldest, wasn’t chosen to run the family’s newspaper back in the 1970s?
“Mom decided on one child—Don,” she says. “I didn’t want to go to the Post. I wanted to make it on my own.” Her brother William Graham, a lawyer, became a financier in LA. Stephen Graham is a publisher and theater producer in New York City.
Weymouth graduated from Radcliffe and became a writer. She covered the Claus von Bülow trial for New York magazine. She interviewed Henry Ford II for the New York Times Magazine and Yasir Arafat and Hafaz al-Assad for the Los Angeles Times.
“I was doing fine,” she says.
In 1986, she explains, Newsweek’s then assistant managing editor, Maynard Parker, asked her to interview foreign leaders for the magazine. “Why don’t you make it your specialty?” he asked.
She did. Which might have helped Parker move up to executive editor in 1991.
In August 1997, Maynard Parker was on vacation; he left Mark Whitaker, his number two, in charge. Whitaker closed the magazine on Saturday and headed to the Catskills for the weekend.
News flashed that Princess Diana had been in a car wreck.
“I saw pictures of the car,” Whitaker says. “I knew she wasn’t going to survive.”
He called Rick Smith and convinced him to stop the presses. He drove back to Manhattan. They ripped up the magazine and put Diana on the cover. It sold a record 1.2 million copies.
“That’s what we specialized in,” says Whitaker. “That’s what I learned from Maynard—the instinct of being really aggressive.”
Parker rallied his reporters with military exhortations. “Scramble the jets!” he’d yell. He presided over the heyday of hard news. He took chances. Some didn’t pan out—such as the cover story on the “Hitler diaries,” which turned out to be fabrications.
Parker died of leukemia in 1998, and Whitaker succeeded him. Katharine Graham feted her new editor with a grand affair at her Georgetown mansion.
The first African-American to run a newsmagazine, Whitaker had started interning for Newsweek while at Harvard in 1977; he came to stay in 1981 and worked his way up from writer to editor. But when he assumed the top job, schooled in Parker’s instinct for news, he sensed a need for change.
“We arrived at a point where news wasn’t enough,” he says. “We could no longer be about ripping up the magazine at the last minute to be faster. We had to scramble the jets—and analyze.”
Whitaker moved the magazine toward in-depth features, investigative projects, and analysis. He points to covers on the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War: “Trail of Terror,” a 7,500-word piece by Evan Thomas; “Why They Hate Us,” by Fareed Zakaria, whom he had hired; “Hell Bent on War,” a skeptical piece about the run-up to the war.
“Every piece was rooted in smart reporting,” Whitaker says.
Newsweek’s reporting and presentation won four National Magazine Awards during Whitaker’s years at the helm.
He and Rick Smith also ordered special packages on science, health, and education that brought in advertising dollars. “That’s how we made money when I was editor,” Whitaker says. “They were fantastic years.”
In the tech-boom days, Newsweek made $60 million a year in profits. The bust of the tech bubble ten years ago hurt ad sales, but profits climbed back up to $53 million in 2004 thanks to a 9-percent increase in ad revenues over the previous year, according to Washington Post Company SEC reports.
But Rick Smith, who had worried about advertising revenues for two decades, started to see a threat from the Internet.
“The first time it hit me was when I went to buy a car in 1999,” he says, “and I went first to Edmunds.com. I was aware, intellectually, of the problem.”
Says Whitaker: “I knew the Internet was becoming increasingly important. But did I think the roof was going to fall in? No.”
The roof was about to fall in on President Clinton in 1998, and the reporter helping pull it down was Michael Isikoff, an investigative reporter in Newsweek’s Washington bureau.
Isikoff had moved from the Washington Post to Newsweek in 1994. In 1997, he started fielding reports that Clinton had had an affair with an intern named Monica Lewinsky. Bureau chief Ann McDaniel, having covered the White House, knew that the facts on presidential infidelity had to be rock solid. “It was horrifyingly difficult,” she says.
Isikoff worked sources and pushed hard to break the story in early January after learning that prosecutor Kenneth Starr had started a criminal investigation of Clinton. On Saturday, January 17, Newsweek editors huddled and argued. Isikoff, backed by Evan Thomas, wanted the story in the magazine; New York overruled him and McDaniel.
Based on Isikoff’s unpublished reporting, the story broke on the online Drudge Report, but Isikoff and the magazine got the credit for leading the pack,
“We never lost control of the story,” says McDaniel. Newsweek won a National Magazine Award for its coverage.
McDaniel had joined Newsweek in 1984 as a legal reporter in Washington. She covered the Bush White House from 1988 to 1992, moved up to chief of correspondents and then Washington bureau chief. After Mel Elfin got sacked in 1986, the bureau had been run by Morton Kondracke and then Evan Thomas.
McDaniel presided over a bureau of top-notch reporters. Isikoff and his partner, Mark Hosenball, worked the investigative side. Eleanor Clift covered the White House. Howard Fineman wrote on national politics. Mike Hirsh became a must-read on business and foreign affairs. Evan Thomas, stepping back from running the bureau, was able to write long, elegant essays in a matter of hours.
“We always had a sense of community and humor,” McDaniel says. “Steve Tuttle, Wes Kosova, and Matt Cooper would crack everyone up at the lunch table. I never had so much fun.”
McDaniel moved up to managing editor in 1998 and split her time between New York and DC. When she switched to the Post in 2001 to become vice president and Don Graham’s close adviser, the power shift to New York became more evident.
On a visit to Sun Valley, Idaho, in the summer of 2001, Katharine Graham fell on a sidewalk and hit her head. She died a few days later, on July 17.
Her funeral at Washington National Cathedral drew thousands of admirers from the ranks of readers, reporters, and politicians.
More than a few Newsweek staffers felt they had lost their protector.
“We were hoping Mrs. Graham would hold on,” says Mike Hirsh. “People worried Don might sell.”
Would Don sell?
Graham visited the New York headquarters and confirmed his commitment to Newsweek. And Lally Weymouth still called it her home reporting base.
Says Evan Thomas: “I never felt the Grahams cared any less after Kay died.”
The Grahams cared very much about Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s rising star.
Meacham, 32 at the time, was in line to become the magazine’s top editor. He and Ann McDaniel had been managing editors under Mark Whitaker.
His colleagues saw him as young and ambitious. Isikoff called him “the boy wonder Nation editor” in his book Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter’s Story, referring to the magazine’s Nation section. But Meacham’s career track was very much in the mold of previous Newsweek editors. Osborn Elliott and Rick Smith had both become editor in their thirties.
Meacham had grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His father was a university professor, his grandfather a prominent judge.
After majoring in English at the University of the South in Sewanee, Meacham expected to be a lawyer, but he took a job with the Chattanooga Times and devoted himself to journalism. He covered courts and crime and the legislature, then came to Washington to work for Charlie Peters at the Washington Monthly.
In January 1995, he signed on as a writer for Newsweek’s Nation section; five months later, at 26, he became the section’s editor.
His colleagues might not have joked about his youth, but they did notice how he seemed to cultivate the right people. Rather than pal around with reporters and editors, he became close to Kay Graham and took a prominent role in Maynard Parker’s funeral arrangements. He asked Evan Thomas to be best man at his wedding. In Washington, he got to know Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn. Meacham and Ann McDaniel became friends.
“The Grahams loved Jon,” says Evan Thomas. “Kay, Lally, Don.”
At Newsweek under Whitaker, Meacham played a strong number two. He helped direct coverage of major news stories, chose covers, managed reporters—basically readied himself to become boss.
Though he was young, Meacham projected an old soul. He dressed in conservative, boxy suits with a pocket square. He drank fine bourbon. The Internet pushed journalists at warp speed, but Meacham approached news—and life—in a methodical, thoughtful way. Colleagues said he was 27 going on 72.
On the side, he wrote about history. In 2003, Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship became a New York Times bestseller. Three years later, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation also hit the bestseller list. His third book, a biography of Andrew Jackson, won a Pulitzer Prize.
By 2006, Meacham was in demand on television, in book publishing, and as an editor.
Still, it surprised Newsweek staffers when Meacham replaced Mark Whitaker, who seemed to be at the top of his game. Conspiracy theories filled the newsrooms, especially in Washington. Most popular was that Meacham was an impatient number two and that Ann McDaniel had engineered Whitaker’s beheading, which was not the case.
Rick Smith, still Newsweek chairman, thought Meacham might jump to Time, and there was no other editor in waiting. Whitaker had had an eight-year run. Graham eased him into a job at the Post Company’s digital division.
Smith and Don Graham offered Meacham the job. He became editor in October 2006 at age 37.
Two months later, Rick Smith told Don Graham he wanted to retire. “I knew it wasn’t going to get any easier,” he says. “I was not thinking there was an imminent crisis.”
Newsweek stumbled in 2005. Ad pages declined by 11 percent from the previous year, but the magazine still turned a $45-million profit. Ads held steady in 2006, but ad revenue fell by another 9 percent in 2007.
The magazine began to shed reporters to try to balance the books. Buyouts started under Whitaker. At the end of 2007, Newsweek had a staff of 520 people; by late 2009, it was down to 348. When news happened and Meacham tried to “scramble the jets,” he lacked pilots.
In an interview with the Washington Post about a month before he took over, Meacham said: “The idea that you can be either entirely analysis or entirely scoop-driven is a false choice. We have to earn people’s attention. Reporting is at the heart of the enterprise. We have to break news like a Web site, tell it like a monthly, and do it every week.”
The first change readers might have noticed after Meacham took over was that the magazine quit emphasizing back-of-the-book coverage of Hollywood, pop music, and culture in general.
Meacham killed Hollywood covers. The new Newsweek would have a strong core identity: politics, economics, foreign policy, and religion.
Where in that mix was news?
Meacham had lost faith in news back when Maynard Parker was editor, and when he took over it died.
To help find a business strategy, Don Graham and Ann McDaniel brought in Tom Ascheim as CEO. Ascheim had a Yale pedigree but came to Newsweek with no experience in journalism. He had spent 17 years at Viacom, where he had risen to head of Nickelodeon, the children’s cable channel. Graham went with an outsider whose expertise was attracting viewers rather than readers.
In October 2007, a year after Meacham took over, Ascheim completed a round of focus groups and unveiled the magazine’s first major redesign. Gone were the news-driven accounts, with Newsweek’s spin, of the week’s major events. In their place, readers got bits of news from abroad, long feature articles, and lots of opinion-driven essays. Out were the series of award-winning news photographs. The magazine’s politics continued to be liberal, with the front of the magazine expressing it in a way that seemed to tell moderate and conservative readers to go elsewhere.
“To get in the magazine,” Meacham often said, “a piece has to have either an argument or a narrative.”
The packages on science, health, and technology that Mark Whitaker had created wound up in the scrap heap. Meacham believed editorial packages had stopped selling.
The new Newsweek continued to lose money. There was a lull in losses in 2007, but by 2008 the recession, combined with competition from the Internet, decimated revenues and profits for magazines across the board. In 2009, advertising in American magazines dropped by more than 25 percent. Gourmet and Vibe closed. Newsweek’s ad revenue was down by nearly 50 percent in the third quarter of 2009.
Time magazine lost ad revenue, too, but it was able to survive because it could sell discounted ad space across multiple magazines such as Sports Illustrated and People.
Ascheim and Meacham—with the blessing of Don Graham and Ann McDaniel—doubled down and aimed the magazine at a smaller, higher-end readership. The mass-market magazine that once had Kurt Cobain on the cover became more akin to a mix of the Economist, the Atlantic, and the New Republic—with Winston Churchill on the cover.
Meacham felt liberated to make a higher-brow magazine.
Newsweek rolled out a second redesign in May 2009. Graham showed up at the New York office to assure staffers he was behind the latest look. The long-running Periscope section became Scope. The Take featured columnists. Features were long essays. The Culture carried a piece or two about books, music, theater, or film. The latest redesign presented more essays and fewer news stories. The result was heady rather than newsy. It gave readers wonky analysis in place of the inside scoops that had built the Newsweek brand over more than 75 years.
Meacham told the New York Observer he was aiming the magazine at readers who wanted to read “what I’m interested in.”
In the eyes of the DC correspondents, Meacham all but put Newsweek’s Washington bureau out of business.
“Our basic function as reporters was not valued as much in the Meacham world of elite opinion,” says Eleanor Clift, who’s still at the bureau.
After Ann McDaniel had moved up the corporate ladder in 2001, Dan Klaidman had taken over as bureau chief. In 2006, Meacham took Klaidman up to New York to be his deputy and moved Jeff Bartholet down from New York to become Washington bureau chief. “Power shifted more to New York,” says Richard Wolffe.
Meacham’s formula for either argument or narrative seemed to shut out reported stories. To cover the biggest story here—Barack Obama—Meacham assigned himself.
Correspondents in the Washington bureau felt the “Obama on Obama” cover in spring 2009 was emblematic of Meacham’s narcissistic approach to the magazine—and his disdain for them.
The article, they believed, was by, for, and about Jon Meacham. And it had neither surprises nor insight.
When the DC reporters saw Meacham, he was usually on a talk show opining on the week’s news, at a social event, or hosting his new show on PBS. With Sally Quinn he moderated On Faith, a religion blog on Washingtonpost.com. He launched into another book project, a biography of George H.W. Bush.
“There was a sense he became more disengaged from the magazine,” says Mike Isikoff.
Meacham professes that he always cared about Washington, but he can’t help but sneer at Washington reporters. For him, the significance of a minor advance on an investigative story was hard to comprehend and had no place in his magazine. In his mind, Washington reporters wanted to be seen as aggrieved truth tellers, just to comfort themselves as they were aced out of his new Newsweek.
Irritation with Meacham’s editorship roiled beneath the surface in DC and the magazine’s New York headquarters, where veteran editors and reporters said he rarely met or consulted with staff. “He closeted himself in his office and ran the magazine as if he were alone in a cockpit,” says one columnist.
Discomfort with Meacham’s editorship reached Don Graham in the form of an anonymous letter from a Washington bureau staffer to his home in October 2009.
“If we were headed for a cliff before the ‘redesign,’ we have now hit the accelerator,” it read.
Without mentioning Meacham by name, the letter summed up the gripes of the Washington staff:
“Worse than that, the current management team of the magazine is engaged in a strategy that, it seems to me, violates one of the most basic principles of good business. They are marginalizing what has always been the main competitive advantage of the magazine, what almost no one else can do—great team reporting—and following the same course as everyone else by emphasizing unreported essays from ‘name’ writers… .
Washington reporters were irked to read essays by Christopher Hitchens, James Baker, and former First Lady Barbara Bush—who opined on the movie Precious.
Meacham could rent instead of buy.
Washington reporters heard Evan Thomas say one day at lunch: “The only stories Jon likes are the ones he thinks of himself.” Thomas is a Meacham partisan who credits the younger editor with teaching him “how stupid snark is,” but he will allow this: “I wish Meacham had tried a little harder to have fun with Newsweek. He was a little too serious.”
Jon Meacham says he never heard a peep of the complaints at the time.
Complaints reached Ann McDaniel, Don Graham’s emissary and Newsweek’s connection to the Post Company board. She was close to the magazine’s Washington reporters and had helped install Meacham. But her loyalty was to Don Graham.
“The reporters felt Jon wasn’t paying enough attention to Newsweek. I was comfortable that he was. He’d worked with me and the business side to create a new editorial mission for Newsweek. Jon and I occasionally disagreed, but Don and I thought his vision could work.
“Unfortunately,” she adds, “the drop in ad sales during the recession meant we no longer had the time to find out.”
Meacham never got the sense that McDaniel or the Grahams were anything but supportive, right to the end. He told McDaniel he would be happy to write books if she no longer wanted him to be editor.
Neither readers nor advertisers nor critics responded well to Meacham’s Newsweek.
“Under Meacham’s direction, Newsweek has become the dullest weekly read in America,” media critic Charles Kaiser wrote in his blog, Full Court Press.
After the May 2009 redesign, the magazine was smaller and printing fewer copies. The third-quarter operating loss was a tolerable $4.3 million, in part because Newsweek had laid off more staff and production and mail costs had dropped.
“Everyone was concerned,” says Lally Weymouth. “We knew we needed more revenue.”
She and brother Don made personal pitches to advertisers. Weymouth says columnist Fareed Zakaria, editor of the international edition, went on ad calls, too.
But Newsweek was in mortal danger, says Rick Smith, the retired Newsweek executive: “It went from a marginally profitable magazine to a major unsustainable loss.”
The Post Company directors were losing their patience in the final months of 2009. The company’s stock had lost half of its value over the previous two years. It had absorbed losses upward of $160 million a year from the newspaper division. And it was facing problems in the very profitable education division.
Kaplan, the education and training division, was under investigation by the General Accounting Office. Its for-profit university division was being accused of overselling its courses and encouraging marginal students to take out federally supported education loans that didn’t get repaid.
The board was prepared to accept losses from the newspaper that gave the company its name, but the prospect of keeping Newsweek on the books with no hope for profit, let alone growth, was too much.
“It was time to plug at least one leak in the roof,” says one Newsweek executive.
Neither Don Graham nor other company board members would comment for this article, but sources say board members Warren Buffett and Barry Diller were strongly in favor of getting rid of Newsweek.
In January 2010, the board voted to put the magazine up for sale.
“I understand the board’s decision,” says Lally Weymouth. “If you are losing money in a public company, you have a duty to shareholders to stop the losses.”
Jon Meacham was furious. He felt the Grahams had given him a commitment to keep the magazine and let him edit it.
“I thought I had two more years at least,” he told staffers the day the sale was announced in May.
Most Newsweek staffers—in New York and Washington—blamed Meacham, but some of the animus was directed at Ann McDaniel.
“I was always doing what I thought was best for the magazine,” she says. “Neither Don nor I wanted to sell. We were both fighting like hell to find a solution to the problems.
“Could we have eliminated 30 to 40 percent of the staff?” she asks. “Would that not have put the magazine in a death spiral?”
As for sharing responsibility for the sale, she says: “I would blame me, too. Sometimes I blame myself.”
In June, the Post Company sent out a 66-page “confidential-information memorandum” to prospective buyers.
“Newsweek’s editorial mission,” it says, “is to break news, identify trends, and provide compelling voices in journalism.”
For months, there were no takers. In August, Sidney Harman agreed to buy the magazine for $1 and assume its debt of as much as $50 million. He told the Grahams he would do his best to keep the staff intact.
Harman, a 92-year-old businessman who built his fortune making and selling audio equipment, is married to Congresswoman Jane Harman, a California Democrat.
He arrived at Newsweek offices that were much diminished from the days when Ben Bradlee partied on the balcony overlooking the Mall. The magazine had given up the balcony to the Huffington Post, a news-and-opinion Web site, and reporters had moved from offices to cubicles. The head ad man offered to give Harman his corner office, which looked out onto a roof with a view of the building’s air-conditioning system.
Harman set up shop in the conference room, where reporters were used to eating lunch together.
In November, Harman merged Newsweek with the Daily Beast Web site; it’s edited by Tina Brown and owned by Barry Diller, one of the Post Company board members who advocated the sale of Newsweek.
The combination of Newsweek—which has a brand and ad revenue—with the Daily Beast, which has neither, might succeed if it can sustain years of losses.
Many of Newsweek’s name writers and editors have found other homes. Evan Thomas is teaching at Princeton, writing a book, and still contributing to Newsweek; Mike Isikoff is a national investigative correspondent at NBC News; Mike Hirsh landed at National Journal. Richard Wolffe has published his second book on President Obama and opines for MSNBC. Jon Meacham is a book editor at Random House.
Lally Weymouth is writing for the Washington Post Outlook section. Besides Eleanor Clift, those who remain at the bureau include Robert Samuelson, Pat Wingert, and Steve Tuttle.
Don Graham is doing damage control in the wake of the ongoing Kaplan investigations. He has lobbied members of Congress against regulating for-profit colleges. “We’ve done our best in the aftermath of the Senate hearings and the GAO report to make sure that everyone at Kaplan is working for the benefit of the students,” Graham told the New York Times in November.
Sticking her finger in Graham’s eye, Tina Brown raided the Washington Post’s top writers. She hired media writer Howard Kurtz to cover the capital for the Daily Beast, then also made him Newsweek bureau chief. She lured away Robin Givhan, who won a Pulitzer for commentary on fashion, and asked her to cover culture for the magazine.
Whitaker, who now runs the Washington bureau of NBC News, offers this imponderable: “What would have happened over the last few years if Mrs. Graham had been around?” But then he adds: “She was a tough businesswoman. If Warren Buffett had told her it was time to sell Newsweek, it’s hard to believe she would not have sold, too.”
This article first appeared in the February 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.