blog-stained wretches

Talking With the Feisty Newsweek Tumblr Writer

Since late last month, when it was announced that Newsweek was going to go on the auction block, the magazine has received advice and criticism (seemingly more of the latter) from all corners of the Internet. Columnists, bloggers, and even Jon Stewart have weighed in on what the magazine should do, and what it and editor Jon Meacham allegedly did wrong to get the title where it is today. Meacham went on Stewart’s show the day the sale was announced, and has talked about it subsequently on television and in interviews. But the magazine has been responding to critics through another route: its own Tumblr. Written by the mag’s social-media guru Mark Coatney, the Tumblr is at times funnily philosophical about Newsweek’s situation, and at other times fiercely defensive. Last week, Coatney took apart a David Carr column about the sale piece by piece, speaking up for Meacham and poking back at critics. Then this week he “edited” a gloomy Howard Kurtz column on the same subject.

Coatney laid into Kurtz for not being familiar enough with the magazine or its history to come to the conclusions he did. “Howard — Apparently your knowledge of Newsweek’s staffers begins and ends with [Jonathan Alter, Howard Fineman, Mike Isikoff, Evan Thomas, Fareed Zakaria, and Robert Samuelson]; see David Carr’s piece today for an example of a journalist who has actually read Newsweek in the past five years,” he wrote, going on to opine that Kurtz’s pessimistic conclusion was reached without any real knowledge of how many bidders there are for the magazine. Coatney also critiqued Kurtz’s opening (“This lede is a pretty obvious cliché, Howard; pls rework”) and conclusion (“Ah, the classic newsmagazine kicker, in which you sum up your case as if it were fact. Sadly, we don’t buy it. This is a straw argument, and a thin one at that”), and earned himself a response from the clearly ruffled Kurtz. “It’s sad that some folks at Newsweek have gotten so thin-skinned and defensive. I’m the one who broke through the lazy narrative by reporting there were more bidders that haven’t been publicly identified,” Kurtz said. “I want Newsweek to survive as much as anyone, but the hard truth is that the outlook is rather bleak, which is why stars like Mike Isikoff are bailing out.”

We Gchatted with Coatney about his Tumblr, and how he’s out on his own, defending his magazine without any editors or safety line.

So how long have you been writing the Newsweek Tumblr?
Since September of last year. We had one for I think at least a year before that, but it was just an RSS. I’d always wanted to do more, but didn’t really have time, and wasn’t sure what to do with it (as in, what’s the voice of Newsweek? How do you write like that?). But we hired a couple more editors (my day job is as an editor for the site) and suddenly I had some more time, so I kind of jumped in.

So what’s the mandate? Or do you even have one?
I guess it’s a self-mandate … I just started this thing up really because I was fascinated with this as an avenue for reaching readers that we weren’t reaching on the regular site. I really believe in the notion that on the web, especially if you’re a relatively small site like Newsweek, you have to go where the readers are and kind of lure them in, you know? I hate, for instance, that most big websites have Twitter feeds that are just RSS — where’s the value in that? I already have Google reader. What I wanted to do with Tumblr (and to some extent on Twitter, which I also started for Newsweek) is to be more conversational.

So was it your decision to start talking to readers about Newsweek itself when news of the sale came up? Or did someone assign you to be the Newsweek Online Defender?
Oh, that. Yeah, that was totally me — and for the record, I’ve never talked to Meacham about this. And I don’t clear it with anyone here, or even let them know I’m doing it. I’ve long used this as a space to talk about Newsweek, and what we hope to accomplish online (see, for instance, this, which is kind of our Tumblr manifesto), and it seemed only natural and honest to use it as a venue to talk about the sale, which in recent weeks has meant answering criticism. I also think that’s vitally important, actually, that we talk about this in an honest, not-PR kind of way.

So it’s not edited? I think that’s actually pretty revolutionary. It’s pretty hard to imagine another magazine letting this kind of messaging come out without being carefully vetted, and coming from the mouth of anybody but the editor-in-chief.
Yeah, all the typos and poor reasoning are all mine! I think when I started this it was as this kind of behind enemy lines thing where if I’d been captured saying something really stupid or embarrassing Newsweek could deny all knowledge of the Tumblr’s existence. I will say that, for all the criticism Newsweek gets for being this stodgy old place, they were actually really progressive about this — they trusted me to not say anything too awful. Basically, if you don’t trust your journalists there’s something wrong with your organization.

So the response has been good?
Yeah, pretty great both internally and externally. I think that people here appreciate that there’s a place where Newsweek defends itself against unfair criticism — God knows there’s enough fair criticism you can make of us; it’s nice to be able to speak out against the other kind.

Yes. There’s clearly too much coverage of Newsweek’s fate for you to respond to. But other than the two pieces you’ve specifically critiqued, what do you find to be the main problems generally with the coverage of the sale?
I think in general the coverage has been too focused on the journalism, and not so much on the underlying business; I think the stories have been a little credulous (that meme going around that “if the Washpost company couldn’t save Newsweek nobody can” is nonsensical and particularly irksome). And I have to say that I’m surprised at the extent to which Meacham has been singled out for the source of all of Newsweek’s problems, when he clearly is not.

I liked the point you made about Rick Stengel and the Time PR team spinning about having “won” the newsmagazine war. You said, “We would just like to remind them that there but for the grace of Larry Hackett go you all.” As in, without People and InStyle, there would be no Time. Does it feel like they are gloating?
I mainly think that they’re being short-sighted to think of this in such old-fashioned “Time vs. Newsweek” terms. I mean, there are enough people out there writing obits for the entire newsmagazine genre, and while I personally think there’s a lot of life in that kind of thing, both in print and on the web, if Newsweek truly can’t make a go of it then I think that means Time is also another step closer to the grave. In this business right now I think it’s better for everyone if there is a lot of healthy, economically viable competition.

So what do you think is going to happen?
I hope this isn’t too much of a cop-out, but I truly don’t know. I’m sure the Post Company would like to get this thing settled before the end of the year one way or the other. My own feeling — and again, this is without any actual knowledge of what’s going on — is that we’ll get a buyer who will be able to bring some resources to this, and we’ll come out of this okay.

Talking With the Feisty Newsweek Tumblr Writer