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Who Killed Newsweek?
Comments () | Published January 27, 2011

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.”

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Posted at 01:43 PM/ET, 01/27/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles