How Newsweek Lost Zakaria

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Photo: isifa/Getty Images

For months Sidney Harman, the 92-year-old stereo magnate and new owner of Newsweek, had been courting Tina Brown hoping she’d edit the venerable, failing title. Tina did seem uniquely qualified — an editorial powerhouse with a distinguished magazine past and, now, the energetic, newsy Daily Beast, which she’d bring along with her. As far as anyone knew she was Harman’s first and only choice (until the romance blew up last week).

But months before Tina, Harman had secretly wooed another, Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek International’s editor and the magazine’s franchise player.

Harman had begun pursuing Zakaria last June, even before final bids were due to the Washington Post Company, Newsweek’s owner. For months, Zakaria strung Harman along, while Harman kept adding inducements: Zakaria could be top editor with another editor under him to shoulder the day-to-day burden.

Finally, in mid-August, a couple of weeks after the Post sold Harman Newsweek for $1, Zakaria delivered the bad news. “I thought Sidney was delightful,” Zakaria told me, “but I wanted to write and do my TV show. I’d run Newsweek International for ten years. I didn’t want to be an editor in a period when the business model is collapsing and I would have to focus my energies on a turnaround.” Zakaria’s first loyalty was to his own brand, now considerably more robust than Newsweek’s. He has his own Sunday-morning TV show on CNN, under the Time Warner corporate umbrella. Time magazine managing editor Rick Stengel had courted Zakaria for years — he’d been the first person Stengel had taken to lunch after he got the Time job in 2006. Stengel finally sealed the deal, signing Zakaria as a columnist for Time, which among other advantages is financially healthy.

Zakaria agreed to do Harman one favor. He kept the discussions to himself, which allowed Harman to frame the defection in his own way. “Fareed has done us a great favor by leaving,” he told people inside Newsweek, “so we can start fresh,” though he insisted on holding Zakaria to his contract and not a single column less. “Sidney is constitutionally incapable of disappointment,” explained a person who has worked with Harman.” Soon he began telling people that Newsweek now has a rare opportunity to find a new generation of talent.