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.”