Can Jon Meacham Save Newsweek Now?

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Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The news from this morning's Washington Post Company board meeting that Newsweek is being put up for sale is a public acknowledgment of a fact that has become increasingly apparent to everyone: The magazine is broken. Under Jon Meacham, the 40-year-old who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, the magazine has pursued an ambitious, risky strategy of going upmarket, taking the rate base down from 2.6 million to 1.5 million and creating an Economist-like thought-leader product.

The goal has been to go for what one top editor called "the better informed and more intellectually aspirational readers in the country." It's a noble decision that comes with built-in audience limitations — even the profitable Economist has only slightly over 800,000 readers, half of Newsweek's new rate base, and below that there's The Atlantic, at just under 500,000. Factor in macroeconomic trends away from print advertising that are beyond any editor's control, and the size of the task becomes apparent. Given the difficult climate Newsweek faces, it's not surprising that long before today's announcement, many staffers — particularly younger ones— questioned Meacham's leadership. In fact, in parts of the magazine, one senior staffer says, "morale couldn't be worse. People are openly looking for jobs on their computers, visible to their colleagues and bosses."

Before the announcement, Meacham was unapologetic about the course he'd chosen at the magazine. "The editorial approach that we've taken is not simply on a whim of mine," he told me. "It's a concerted attempt to take serious-minded individuals seriously. You can argue that, and it may not work, but there's no doubt in my mind that I would rather fight on that ground than any other."

Meacham's allies at the magazine concur. "There are plenty of people who felt all along that we had to do something," says one highly placed writer. "Certainly Jon was of that mind. What we were doing wasn't working anymore, and we needed to go in a dramatic new direction. No one could deny that what we've done is a dramatic departure. Time will tell whether or not it works out, but it's been encouraging that they haven't just reshuffled deck chairs on the Titanic. They're serious about trying to save this thing."

According to multiple sources, Meacham enjoys the company of a small camp that is very loyal to him, largely centered on the top of the masthead — including assistant managing editor Mark Miller and editor-at-large Evan Thomas and a handful of longtime writers. "But virtually 100 percent of the employees under 40" believe that Meacham is hurting the magazine, says one such print staffer. "For a journalist, he is bizarrely incurious about the world," this source continues, complaining that Meacham's "interests extend to history, politics, and ... well, that's about it." Younger workers believe that Meacham listens to few people outside of his inner circle and gripe about the obsession with historical figures and staid stories. "There was a focus group recently, and one of their comments was that the magazine feels like homework," said the source. "I'll say this: Jon Meacham is bad for Newsweek."

What's odd about this "employees under 40" claim is that Meacham himself is only 40. He may come across as older than that; with his graying hair and deep, sonorous, southern-accented voice, which makes him sound like he should record Faulkner audiobooks, it's easy to assume that he comes from a different generation. Nobody seems to doubt that Meacham loves Newsweek, where he's worked for fifteen years — indeed, to many inside and outside the magazine, he is Newsweek. He's often reserved the highest-profile interviews, like the one with President Obama that launched the 2009 redesign, for himself. A large photograph of Meacham accompanies each week's lengthy editor's note.

When the redesign debuted, Jeff Goldberg cracked on his blog, "The redesigned Newsweek. (Now with even more Meacham!)" He also pursues an outside work schedule that makes David Remnick look like a slacker. He co-hosts a weekly PBS show and has a two-book deal to write biographies of Thomas Jefferson and George H.W. Bush, on the heels of the success of his Jackson biography. (Like his others, the Jefferson book will be written on weekends and summer breaks; a source says that the George H.W. Bush book, which will involve interviews with people who are still living and access to papers that are still being declassified, will be a years-long, or perhaps even decades-long, project.)

When magazines face hard times, troubles tend to cascade, and the magazine's website has been having difficulties of its own. Having undergone a redesign timed to coincide with the magazine's relaunch last May, it is already scheduled for another one. "The web staff looks exhausted. It's new editorial mandates daily, editors coming and going, a big divide between the edit and business sides," says the senior staffer. "With the appointment of [former Gawker editor-in-chief] Gabe Snyder, Newsweek.com will have gone through five different editorial directors, all with different visions, in two years." Staffers online, however, see a light at the end of the tunnel — Snyder's hire is viewed as a good move, and Meacham's recent assigning of his right-hand man Miller to oversee the digital side is heartening.

Newsweek's struggles come at a time when the entire company — and the entire industry — has been struggling. Newsweek last year had an operating loss of $28.1 million. The company as a whole saw its revenue increase slightly last year, but that is overwhelmingly owed to the success of its educational arm, which features the lucrative Kaplan test-training program. This came during a year when the Washington Post Company jettisoned the money-losing Budget Travel and saw an 8 percent revenue decline in its online publishing businesses, which include washingtonpost.com, slate.com, thebigmoney.com, theroot.com, and Foreign Policy.

Last year, the entire Newsweek operation moved from midtown down to spacious offices on Hudson Street in West Soho — a costly long-term deal struck at the height of the real-estate market. But as a sign of where things stand currently, it is scheduled to move back to midtown this summer so that Kaplan can occupy the fancy new space (that is, unless a buyer moves Newsweek somewhere else first). "We spent way too much money on those offices; fancy furniture, giant plasma TVs nobody uses," says another editor. "Given the larger issues for all of print media, watching our leadership make such obviously boneheaded decisions is not exactly confidence-producing."

Whether or not Meacham's tactics have led Newsweek in the right direction, he's still determined to save it. He told an understandably rattled staff at an editorial meeting today not to lose hope — even though some are wondering if this is the end of the magazine. Some at Newsweek saw the indulgence the Washington Post Company had given its star editor as protection — as long as the company loved Meacham, the magazine was safe. Meacham told his crew that he was not consulted on the decision and that he believes so strongly in the Newsweek voice that he's planning on speaking to investors to put together a bid to save the magazine.