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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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.