In his office in the woods, Harman was determined to convince me that business is just one side of a multifaceted and broad-gauge career. He marched me through a history of his notable, if underappreciated, achievements beyond the business world—I could barely get a word in edgewise.
In the Kennedy era, he taught black kids shut out of a Virginia public education system—his car was trailed and bumped, a frightening, exhilarating experience. In 1970, he signed on as president of Friends World College, a small, experimental Quaker college on Long Island, where he lived at the time. “I would get to the [Harman] office before seven in the morning and work until one, a full day, no interruption, then I’d drive myself 40 minutes to campus, eat lunch in the car, change to jeans in the car … and work until midnight, seven days a week,” a schedule that helped end his first marriage. In 1974, at a Harman factory in Tennessee, he spearheaded a kind of utopian experiment, giving employees power to run their work lives. “The first time in American industrial history a serious effort to alter the traditional adversarial relationship between the managed and the management,” Harman explained to me, in case I’d missed the significance. The project led to his appointment as undersecretary of Commerce in the Carter administration, where, he said, “I did innovative stuff.”
In 2008, Harman joined the faculty of the University of Southern California, where he is a “sizable” donor—he finally retired from Harman International Industries in 2008, at age 89. He’s long been a voracious reader, interested in how great thinkers think. At USC, he explained, “I’m developing a totally new college” under the aegis of the Academy of Polymathic Study, which, though it won’t offer college credit, will produce a series of provocative seminars. The Academy is “no … small … damned … thing,” he explained, pausing dramatically between words.
As soon as he heard of the Newsweek sale, Harman phoned the magazine’s longtime writer Howard Fineman, an old friend who happened to have covered Jane’s failed bid for governor of California—a campaign Harman helped finance. Harman invited Fineman to lunch at the Hay-Adams Hotel, where the health-conscious nonagenarian ate a salad with mushrooms and listened intently. Fineman saw himself as explainer, not salesman. “Newsweek is a great brand, damaged but great,” Fineman began. It has a global reach, which few news organizations still do. Fineman thinks of Harman as “a great citizen, a super-citizen.” Newsweek is a home for great reporting, which, Fineman explained, “is worth saving.”
The deal fell apart over control. “I didn’t buy this magazine to be hands-off,” Harman says.
Newsweek, too, viewed its editorial talent as its “core asset,” and its offering memo mentioned them by name: writers Fineman, Evan Thomas, and Fareed Zakaria, among others. At the Hay-Adams, Harman talked enthusiastically about keeping together the “band of brothers,” as he called the writers and editors, referencing the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V, a passage that Harman could recite from memory.
Harman proved a canny suitor, strategically deploying his avuncular persona. In June, two months before the winning bid was announced, Harman was already telling people he’d locked up the deal. “He’d gamed it,” says a person who spoke to him at the time. Donald Graham, a principal owner of the Washington Post Company, acknowledged the financial necessity of the sale but told me, “I was very, very attached to Newsweek.” He is still overweeningly proud of the company’s heralded journalistic tradition, even as it is kept financially afloat by its test-prep service, Kaplan, as well as its cable company. Graham believed he was passing along a cherished family possession.
“Sidney had figured Don out,” says the person who spoke to Harman at the time. “It was very shrewd.”
The two other finalists, Marc Lasry at hedge fund Avenue Capital Group and Fred Drasner, offered deeper media experience—Avenue Capital is an investor in American Media, and Drasner, former publisher of the Daily News, recruited Alan Webber, co-founder of Fast Company, and Paul Ingrassia, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, to his side. But the teams rubbed some Newsweek management the wrong way. During conference-room presentations, Drasner in particular struck some as pompous.
By contrast, Harman was unassuming,similar in presentation to the 65-year-old Don Graham, which opened doors. “Sidney was given access in a different way,” explained Tom Ascheim, Newsweek’s CEO, who acted as Graham’s agent. Ascheim met with Harman in his homes in Washington and California. “It was just the two of us,” said Ascheim. “It was familial in its own odd way.” Harman didn’t propose cost-saving synergies—he had none to offer. Like everyone else, he would have to cut staff, from about 350 to 250, he said, but Harman assuaged Graham’s guilt over Newsweek’s mismanagement. “I will care seriously about the people, not as spare parts of the machinery, not as inventory, but as fundamental and consequential,” he told Graham. “I’m in this to have a helluva good time, a constructive good time, for myself, the staff, and readers.” Still, his most compelling qualification was probably that he was willing to lose tens of millions of dollars on Newsweek. “I’m not in this to make money,” Harman made clear, another bond with Don Graham.