As the fabled magazine faces a fire sale, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor faces criticism for “absentee” management. Ben Bradlee and other insiders weigh in. Plus, Newsweek’s greatest hits.
In 2007, when Random House tried to hire Jon Meacham for its top job, the genteel editor politely declined, opting to keep his post at the helm of Newsweek, where he’d worked for more than a decade.
“They’ll have to blow me out of here,” Meacham said at the time.
It looks like they’re about to.
On Wednesday morning, Washington Post Co. President Donald Graham said that after years of saintly patience, he was going to try to sell Meacham’s home out from under him—if anyone’s even in the market for loss-leading newsmagazines these days. Cold business calculations finally won out over familial sentimentality: Fabled Newsweek, which now loses more than half a million dollars a week, would have to go.
“I’m exploring every possibility,” Meacham told The Daily Beast, suggesting that a buyer might be found who would agree to pay little or nothing for the magazine in exchange for assuming its substantial losses—the same dynamic that allowed Bloomberg to take over BusinessWeek in October.
Meacham, a history lover who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, threw in a Churchillian peroration: “I believe in what we’re doing. I am realistic about the economic and journalistic realities. I also believe that Newsweek is an important part of the life of the nation. You can make fun of that, and say it sounds romantic or quixotic, but I happen to believe it. I believe in the people of this magazine. I believe in what we do. I’m not going to unilaterally disarm.”
This is a man whose favorite movie is Jerry Bruckheimer’s Armageddon.
Meacham professed surprise at Graham’s announcement—he is said to have learned of it only 18 hours earlier—but any shock must have been mitigated by the near-constant Newsweek deathwatch that has attended his tenure. He quickly regrouped Wednesday morning, addressing his staff and telling us and others about how he just might round up some billionaires and buy the darn thing himself. It would be a fitting end to a fitful period, over which, against all prevailing logic, Meacham has sought to reinvent the 77-year-old magazine into a printed facsimile of… Jon Meacham.
Maybe nothing would have saved Newsweek. But Meacham’s vision, expounded over countless media appearances during his three-year tenure, was certainly unconventional. The new new Newsweek would be like The Economist, only better. He wanted a text-heavy, picture-light magazine filled with high-minded pieces targeted at the intellectual elite. His ideal reader, he said, would be interested in “what I’m interested in.”
Meacham is famously, acutely interested in presidential history, the Founding Fathers, and religion. A frequent television talking head who writes books and travels on lecture tour, he was often away from Newsweek’s New York offices, editing the magazine remotely. He is on contract for two more books—biographies of Thomas Jefferson and George H.W. Bush—and has a new PBS talk show, Need to Know, debuting this week and airing on Friday nights, the same night the magazine goes to press. Wednesday night, he was promoting his new PBS program on The Daily Show and making light of the Newsweek sale, joking to Jon Stewart, “I’ll be over in the morning with the prospectus.” Somehow, even while doing all of this and managing a struggling magazine, he finds time to sleep an average of seven hours a night.