A Brit and a woman created and nurtured Newsweek. Now a British-born woman is moving it forward, pinning its hopes on a high-profile, print-digital merger. Can it survive – and is it any good?
I’m dividing this into two pieces, because I think that, in order to better judge and understand the magazine, it would be helpful first to understand something of the history and nature of American news weeklies, and their previous digital forays.
And so, here is a brief runthrough of the back story, gratefully gleaned from David Sumner’s comprehensive book The Magazine Century (2010) and his excellent 2003 piece on the subject, plus Carolyn Kitch’s Pages from the Past (2005), as well as further personal online research, linked to below where relevant.
Weekly news magazines have always been distinct from newspapers and their supplements. The first significant player in the market was/is Henry Luce’s Time, which launched in 1923 with the aim of creating a short, quick-to-read summary of the week’s general-interest news.
Newsweek followed nine years later (eight years before the other big American news weekly, US News & World Report – lesser known internationally because of its lack of overseas presence).
Newsweek was founded by Time‘s first foreign editor, a one-legged Brit called Thomas Martyn (he left the other leg in Yugoslavia during WWI). The prospectus for his “News-week” made it clear who his new publication would aim at: “Time is too inaccurate, too superficial, too flippant and imitative.”
The new magazine was also to be, its early ads stated, “an indispensable complement to newspaper reading, because it explains, expounds, clarifies.” On the cover of its first issue (shown above), there were seven photographs – one for each day of the week.
It struggled in its early years, before merging with another magazine called Today, and relaunching in 1937 without the hyphen and with the slogan “The magazine of news significance.” Newsweek became a success, with circulations topping a million – still less than Time, but more than enough to make it profitable and influential.
This was because, Carolyn Kitch argues, in the 1930s to 1960s in particular, “media had joined the institutions of education, religion, and civic life as an important disseminator of political and cultural ideals. Magazines were leaders in this process because they were the only medium capable of reaching a national audience and using illustrations and then photographs in a large-scale and dramatic way… The stories the newsmagazines told… created and reinforced a particular view of the national character. If film offered varying versions of national identity, the newsmagazines collectively crafted a unified, patriotic vision.”
These were the arbiters of what was news, who the good guys and the bad guys were, and of how America saw itself and everyone else. With combined circulations of up to ten million, the “big three” of Time, Newsweek and US News & World Report had a huge cultural and political impact.
That’s not to say that its own house was in perfect order. In 1961, a rudderless Newsweek was purchased by The Washington Post Company. New editor Osborn Elliott later wrote that “Newsweek was in shambles. Not only had the editor left, the whole staff was shot through with drunks, incompetents, and hacks.”
Following the suicide of Washington Post and Newsweek publisher Phil Graham, the company passed into the hands of his widow, Katherine Graham. She trebled Newsweek‘s editorial budget, improved its design, and made it genuinely become what it had originally been created to be: a serious competitor to Time.
Worthy of note in this period is the moment when, in 1970, 46 female employees filed a groundbreaking gender-discrimination case against the magazine, under the Civil Rights Act. The magazine promised to hire more senior female staff. The 40th anniversary of the event led to much discussion about whether things had much improved since.
There doesn’t seem much to report about the magazine during 1980s, other than that through occasional redesigns, the big three continued to be positioned at the heart of American culture, with Newsweek mostly seen as being politically closer to the Democrats than Time. The rise of cable TV had changed people’s media habits somewhat, but thanks in part to vastly discounted subscription rates, readership remained high.
In 1993, Newsweek was the first of the three to dabble with digital, launching an ill-fated quarterly CD ROM featuring “as many as three original articles” called Newsweek InterActive (“At first, “Newsweek Interactive” will be compatible only with the $999 portable multimedia player introduced last week by the Sony Corporation.”)
Later that year, Time started to have an online presence, teaming up with AOL, and Newsweek followed in late 1994, through a partnership with now-forgotten ISP Prodigy, before relaunching at the end of 1998 as Newsweek.com, combining magazine stories with updates from Washingtonpost.com and MSNBC.com
In the mid-2000s, as news audiences moved online and to 24-hour cable news, and one advertising slump followed another, the large expense of Newsweek combined with falling sales and ad revenues to make it a big financial liability. Its stated subscriber base dropped 50% during 2008-10 – though at 1.5 million, it was still not to be sniffed at.
In 2009, Newsweek relaunched as an opinion and commentary magazine, with some bold, polemic covers but little engaging content. The relaunch didn’t seem to stem the bleeding, and in August 2010, the magazine was sold to nonagenarian millionaire Sidney Harman. At the end of 2010, it merged with two-year-old news-aggregation-opinion-gossip website The Daily Beast, splitting ownership 50:50 between Harman and the owners of The Daily Beast, IAC (who also own ask.com, match.com, vimeo and others.)
Which brings us to today, and the relaunch of Newsweek featuring Thedailybeast.com written at the bottom of every page. Is there still a place for a weekly news magazine? Can it explain, expound, clarify news from the internet? Do Newsweek / The Daily Beast together point to a new hybrid model of publishing? Or is it – and perhaps much of the rest of print news media – destined to become a loss-making way for rich men to gain political access and influence?