By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Newsweek will disappear into the belly of the (Daily) Beast

I still remember a classic lede from Newsweek in the late 1970s — “Sihanouk is still Sihanouk,” or maybe it was “Sihanouk remains Sihanouk.” Whatever, there was a wonderful obscurity and a sense of inside knowledge to it that I found vastly appealing as a twentysomething trying to make sense of the world.

Starting around the time I encountered the Sihanouk story, I read Newsweek cover to cover for a good two decades. But Newsweek, unlike Sihanouk, had ceased to be Newsweek for quite a while. It became official in late 2010, when the Washington Post Co. dumped it and the magazine was merged with Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, a free website builder.

Well, King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia died earlier this week. And Newsweek died this morning with the announcement that its long run as a print publication would come to an end with its Dec. 31 issue. It will continue as a paid online magazine, but we’ll see how long that lasts.

For the past few years I had followed Newsweek mainly through a series of embarrassments, from the Michele Bachmann looney-tunes cover, to Niall Ferguson’s widely mocked, fact-challenged essay on President Obama, to the “Muslim Rage” fiasco.

At such moments I would recall that Brown never wanted Newsweek. In February 2011, Jeremy Peters reported in the New York Times that Brown “felt unburdened” when merger talks looked like they were going to fall apart. And though I can’t find a link to back this up*, I distinctly recall reading that it was Brown’s money guy, Barry Diller, who was convinced that the losses he was underwriting at the Daily Beast could only be stopped by marrying it to a print product. Today’s announcement shows that strategy failed.

I’m sure you’ll be reading and hearing a lot about how newsweeklies like Newsweek have been left behind by the Internet and a changing culture. But I think that’s demonstrably untrue. Years ago, there were three big newsweeklies: Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. There still are, only now the competitors to Time are The Economist and The Week.

No, there’s no longer a place for three general-interest newsweeklies doing exactly the same thing. But The Economist and The Week succeed by serving different niches and different audiences. They may not be mass-market publications the way Time (sort of) still is. Then again, the whole idea of a mass market has broken down in recent years. Time’s continued success meant that Newsweek and U.S. News had to figure out how to narrowcast. They never did.

As for Newsweek’s fate, the paid-digital strategy strikes me as little more than a face-saving move. I can’t believe more than a handful of people are going to sign up. At some point I wouldn’t be surprised if Newsweek becomes just a tab within the Daily Beast — used for the sole purpose of signifying that it still exists. If just barely.

*Update: A Facebook friend came through with this story from Business Insider.

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  1. Mike Benedict

    Here’s what I wrote on Nov. 12, 2010: “Here’s the problem with Brown as I see it: Strip away all the pretense, the glam, the self-appointed style decider, etc., and what do you have? A editor who, as far as I can tell, had one hit (Vanity Fair) that more or less was thanks to a single writer (Dominick Dunne). Since then, through the New Yorker, Talk, that TV show whose name I can’t recall, and the Daily Beast, it appears she has never turned a profit.”

    And here we are, one year later, and one more smashing disaster on Brown’s resume. Not only is the bloom off that rose, the whole damn plant is dead.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: Brown was never going to do a thing with Newsweek. It was already dead. The more interesting question is whether she could have broken even with the Daily Beast if she hadn’t had Newsweek dumped in her lap. Although the answer is: probably not.

      • Mike Benedict

        There are something like 100 million Americans 50 and older. Even if they don’t capture a single subscriber under 50, the suggestion that a well-designed, reported and written magazine can’t capture the 3% of those Americans needed to run it profitably is a failure of the editor and publisher. They certainly had the resources to do it right. They just didn’t have the talent (read: Brown) at the top to make it work.

  2. For what it’s worth, I think your example of The Economist will be a model for how weeklies will thrive in the new marketplace. I’ve found myself migrate to short form, immediate sources for my day to day news (Twitter and the articles it links to, RSS feeds from blogs and local papers, etc) but read The Economist every week for more in depth reporting and a different bias.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    @Mike: I don’t know whether Brown could have saved Newsweek or not. There’s no question that all the publicity she generated for it was bad.

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