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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John Sununu levels a false accusation

John Sununu makes a false claim today in his Boston Globe column, which he devotes to a tiresome defense of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

The former Republican senator writes that Brad DeLong, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, had called on Harvard University to fire the historian Niall Ferguson over his recent Newsweek cover story on the alleged failures of President Obama. “A Berkeley professor more or less demanded that Harvard ‘fire his ass'” is how Sununu puts it.

That would be a pretty amazing statement by DeLong if it were true. Sununu is claiming, in effect, that DeLong, a member of the academy, is calling on Harvard to violate a colleague’s academic freedom solely because he doesn’t like what he’s written. As I said: If it were true. It’s not.

In the online version of his column, Sununu helpfully provides a link to DeLong’s blog post. And here is what DeLong actually wrote:

Fire his ass.

Fire his ass from Newsweek, and the Daily Beast.

Convene a committee at Harvard to impose proper sanctions on this degree of intellectual dishonesty.

In an “update,” DeLong clarifies his Harvard reference: “Not that I claim to know what the proper sanctions are, you understand. But we should be inquiring into what they are.”

Now, let me hasten to say that I’m troubled by DeLong’s actual position — that Harvard should look into disciplining Ferguson. But that is a long, long way from calling on Harvard to fire him.

And I should note that DeLong and a number of other critics contend that Ferguson went far beyond expressing anti-Obama opinions, veering into deliberate falsehoods in order to bolster his argument that Obama’s presidency is a failure. (Here is the full bill of particulars compiled by the Atlantic, which I found via the estimable Charlie Pierce.) That could be considered academic misconduct, so DeLong is not completely off the mark — though it strikes me as extreme and unwarranted under the circumstances. Banging out a screed for Tina Brown isn’t exactly the same thing as falsifying academic research.

My issue isn’t with DeLong or Ferguson, though. It’s with Sununu, who has blithely and wrongly slimed DeLong. Perhaps because he didn’t name DeLong, he thought it was all right. Perhaps he thought including the phrase “more or less” would get him off the hook.

Finally, what is up with the Globe’s editors? If I can click on Sununu’s link, so could they.

MSNBC slings it in full-page ad for “Morning Joe”

"Weird"! "Completely unnecessary"!

We can assume any advertisement that quotes selectively from what people have said about the product being touted is going to be at least somewhat deceptive. But I was so taken aback by one quote in a full-page ad for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in today’s New York Times that I thought I ought to do some digging. The ad, titled “The Most Influential Political Show in America,” appears on the back page of the Sunday Review.

I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of “Morning Joe,” as I’ve never been someone who turns on the TV set in the morning, even when I’m home. I caught a bit of it when I was recuperating from elbow surgery last year, and was put off by the smug, insidery tone. The participation of tired, predictable pundits like Mike Barnicle and Mark Halperin, Salon’s Hack of the Year (and the co-author of a book that used anonymous sources to slime the terminally ill Elizabeth Edwards), doesn’t exactly lure me in any deeper.

The quote in the Times ad that caught my eye, “the best morning talk going,” is from Tom Brokaw, which is innocuous enough — except that Brokaw is, well, a regular on “Morning Joe,” as well as a longtime member of the NBC family. Perhaps that’s not quite as bad as quoting Scarborough as saying that “Joe Scarborough is the sharpest political analyst on television,” but it’s close. So let’s keep going, shall we?

Politico, the ad tells us, wants us to know that “Morning Joe’s team has become the insider’s insider.” I cannot find that particular quote anywhere. What I can find, though, is a 2010 story from the Associated Press informing me that Politico and “Morning Joe” are business partners.

That same AP story is the source of yet another blurb from the ad: “An important wake-up call for political and media leaders.” The full quote doesn’t quite contradict that, but nevertheless places it in a rather different context: “An affiliation with Politico that began about six months ago helped cement the program’s status as an important wake-up call for political and media leaders.”

Speaking of different contexts, the ad also blurbs the phrase “appallingly entertaining,” taken from the New Yorker. I looked that one up, and here’s what Nancy Franklin wrote in 2008: “It’s a weird, completely unnecessary show, and it’s appallingly entertaining.” OK, not a 180-degree contradiction of “appallingly entertaining,” but you will note that MSNBC did not grab “completely unnecessary” for the ad.

Moving right along, the ad cites Forbes as referring to “Morning Joe” as “the hottest morning show.” I tracked that one down to a column written for Forbes.com by veteran journalist James Brady in 2008 — who sounded none too pleased with that development. Bear with me, because this one needs a little air to breathe:

Is the media now really the story? Are journalists now the stars? Is all this incestuous, or is it clever reporting? Just consider these recent examples, a few weighty, some trivial, others clearly absurd:

“Morning Joe,” a couple of hours of political dish on MSNBC hosted by a glib onetime congressman, is the hottest morning show around. Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live for a time was getting more ink than the candidates with her wickedly spot-on devastation of Gov. Palin. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post backs McCain and blasts Obama while Rupert himself calls Obama “a rock star.” Larry King gets interviewed and reveals to columnist Cindy Adams that his own first great interview was with Eleanor Roosevelt when her husband was still president. Since FDR died in April of 1945, we learn the precocious Mr. King interviewed the First Lady when he was 12.

It doesn’t seem to me that Brady is describing “Morning Joe” as must-see TV.

In 2009, Newsweek described “Morning Joe” as “a serious-minded evening show still wearing its bathrobe and its slippers.” The ad, naturally, does not tell us — as Media Bistro does — that the writer, Colter Walls, had previously worked for MSNBC; that Newsweek and MSNBC were content partners; and that the then-editor of Newsweek, Jon Meacham, was a regular on “Morning Joe.” The conflict-of-interest trifecta!

Some of the blurbs are legit. The New York Times and the American Journalism Review really did give “Morning Joe” a thumb’s up. And some of them are too wonderfully strange for me to want to check. For instance, when you see a quote from Parade imitator USA Weekend calling something “the thinking viewer’s choice,” you just want it to be true.

My bottom line: “‘Morning Joe’ is a … show about politics.”

Photo (cc) by Dave Winer and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Andrew Sullivan’s move is a big loss for the Atlantic

Andrew Sullivan

Interesting that Andrew Sullivan is taking his pioneering blog from the Atlantic to the Daily Beast/ Newsweek even though the Atlantic is one of the few media organizations that seems to have money to spend.

Michael Calderone’s interview with Sullivan makes it appear that Sullivan simply couldn’t say no to Tina Brown. In fact, there’s not even any mention of the Atlantic’s making a move to keep Sullivan. So perhaps Sullivan didn’t give the Atlantic a chance.

This is not good news for the Atlantic. According to M. Amedeo Tumolillo of the New York Times, Sullivan’s “Daily Dish” accounted for as much as a quarter of the Atlantic’s 4.8 million unique monthly visitors as recently as October.

I can’t say I’m much of a Sullivan fan. His blogorrhea makes it impossible to keep up with him. At times, he can be as irresponsible as anyone in blogland. Nevertheless, Sullivan is something of an online phenomenon. This is a big loss for the Atlantic, and a win for Tina Brown.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Tina Brown takes over the Weekly Beast

Tina Brown (right) with Arianna Huffington.

The media world is abuzz this morning over the merger of the Daily Beast and Newsweek, mainly because Tina Brown finds herself running a print magazine once again. I can’t get too excited. I never acquired the Beast habit, and I gave up on Newsweek years ago.

I will say that Brown’s announcement, in which she essentially awards Newsweek columns to Howard Kurtz and Peter Beinart, makes this move sound less than revolutionary, though I’ve got a lot of respect for Kurtz.

Brown’s a quirky, interesting editor, and maybe she can do something with Newsweek. But it won’t be Newsweek — that’s over.

Back in 1999, I wrote about Brown for the Boston Phoenix on the occasion of Talk magazine’s disastrous launch. What? You don’t remember Talk? Neither does anyone else.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Meet the new Big Three weekly news magazines

With the Washington Post Co. having put money-losing Newsweek up for sale, you’re going to hear a lot about how we’ve gone from three weekly news magazines to one (Time) if Newsweek isn’t rescued. (U.S. News & World Report lives, but it hasn’t been a weekly for years.) Cue the dirge.

Except that it’s not true. If Newsweek goes down, we’ll simply have a new Big Three: Time, The Economist and The Week. And unlike the Time/Newsweek/U.S. News trio, which at their peak were all more or less clones of each other, the three survivors have distinctly different missions. The Economist offers a smart, analytical take on the news. The Week is a digest. And Time is — well, who knows these days? Politics, pop culture and lists of stuff, I guess.

You’ll often hear people say that Newsweek and U.S. News were the victims of larger forces, and that the weekly news-magazine genre is no longer relevant. But if that were true, why were they overtaken by competitors within that genre?

And yes, I recognize that The Economist and especially The Week are bare-bones operations compared to the American news magazines in their prime. The fact is, they’re here — and they’re thriving. Newsweek and U.S. News were not done in by cable TV and blogs. They were done in by leaner, smarter competitors who had a better idea of what a weekly news magazine should be.

After all, their various owners never figured out how to overtake Time, either.

Right complaint, wrong picture

palin_doll_20091119A number of critics, including Sarah Palin herself, are going after Newsweek for running a cover shot of her in a sexy running outfit. Palin calls it “sexist.”

I can’t get too worked up about it. Palin, after all, posed for the shot, which was originally intended for Runner’s World. (At Beat the Press, Ralph Ranalli writes that Newsweek may have violated Runner’s World’s exclusivity deal with the freelance photographer.)

But Palin and other critics have a legitimate complaint about Newsweek’s inside photos. I haven’t picked up a Newsweek in many months, but Media Matters has the pictures — a back-to image of Palin’s shapely legs, something she most definitely did not pose for; and a photo of what Media Matters accurately describes as a “Sarah Palin-as-a-slutty-schoolgirl doll.” The latter was used to illustrate a piece by Christopher Hitchens, who is almost as overexposed as Palin herself.

The treatment is further evidence of Newsweek’s plunge into irrelevance. The New York Times this week described the magazine as repositioning itself for a smaller, more intelligent news audience.

But with garbage like this, and with recent cover headlines like “Is Your Baby Racist?”, the only thing editor Jon Meacham seems to be repositioning his magazine for is rack space next to People and Us.