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ink-stained wretches

What a Difference a Day Makes for Newsweek Owner Sidney Harman

Suddenly Sidney Harman has the magazine world’s most intriguing project on his hands, if not completely under his control. The 92-year-old stereo magnate has seemed an eminently likable, eminently dismissible media amateur since he bought Newsweek for a dollar in August. Now, after months of hunting for an editor, he has finally landed the formidable talents of Tina Brown and secured a 50-50 partnership with her fast-growing news and opinion site, the Daily Beast.

An earlier attempt at reaching a deal with Tina and her boss, IAC Chairman Barry Diller, fell apart over the question of who would control the Newsweek–Daily Beast combination, and, in particular, its editorial direction. As Harman explained to New York at the time, he didn’t purchase Newsweek as a business venture but as a final project, a capstone to his life’s journey, and he wasn’t about to cede his editorial prerogatives. At the low point following the breakdown in merger talks, Newsweek seemed an old man’s vanity project, and Harman a fumbler who didn’t know what he didn’t know.

In retrospect, Harman may be a cagier and more flexible deal maker, and more perceptive about his limits, than many thought.

Faced with the prospect that Newsweek might quietly expire as he lunched editor after editor, Harman compromised on editorial control while keeping day-to-day operating authority. The deal was sealed in typical Harman fashion, focusing on gentle relationship building — he seemed to believe that if you got to know him, you’d like him; it’s the same approach that won the hearts of the Washington Post company, Newsweek’s owner, despite more-qualified bidders. “Barry and Sidney spent time talking and getting to like each other better. They became comfortable,” explained a source close to Harman.

Now, of course, the work begins. The Newsweek and Daily Beast cultures have little in common other than a propensity for red ink and, now, Tina's ineffable editorial mojo. But the entire newsweekly category faces a dark future, with the survivors chasing an ever-declining pool of advertising dollars. One is the larger, financially healthy Time magazine. U.S. News and World Report announced this week it will stop publishing a print edition. Newsweek has already tried to reposition itself once without success, in a revamp that mimicked The Economist. Another successful U.K. import is The Week, which ruthlessly summarizes and aggregates news from elsewhere.

But none of Newsweek's competitors have Tina, who overnight has become the magazine's key advantage. In addition to her considerable editorial talents, she provides a new story to tell advertisers and readers. “This deal suddenly makes Newsweek hot and the focus of attention, rather than given up for dead,” the source close to Harman said. "And it's great for Tina."

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Photo: Tim Devine/New York Magazine