In a blog posting last June, I wrote that due to its incomprehensible new business strategy of deliberately positioning itself as the laughingstock of American journalism, Newsweek would be out of business in eighteen months. The end has come sooner than I had predicted. As it continues to lose money, the Washington Post, the owner of Newsweek, has decided to put the once venerable newsweekly up for sale.
Although it is tempting for conservatives to engage in Schadenfreude and blame Newsweek’s demise on its inexorable lurch leftward, its decline is principally due to the rise and primacy of the internet. Many other newsweeklies in particular and long-established magazines in general have met the same fate. Newsweek’s 20th century business strategy was one that could not succeed in a fragmented 21st century media environment. Newsweek was a horse and buggy business model in an automobile world. In an age of Twitter, news aggregator sites and a plethora of commentary and opinion freely available on the internet, Newsweek’s business strategy was doomed from the start.
But one would be hard pressed to challenge the thesis that the hard-left shift (We are all Socialists now) of the magazine surely didn’t help it capture many new readers or retain existing ones. Readers on the left had The New Republic or Slate. Those gratified by journalistic obsequiousness and cheer leading for Obama could receive the same bill-of-fare by tuning into MSNBC. In terms of positioning, where did this leave Newsweek? It became an opinion journal without a home and without a core demand for its outdated product.
In hindsight, the inexplicable idea championed by editor Jon Meacham of cutting subscribers in half with the expectation of generating more revenue from advertisers was a recipe for disaster. Old subscribers left, never to return, and the cultivation and securing of a more refined audience never materialized. Meacham seemed utterly detached from the shortcomings of his new business model and the increasingly dogmatic, one-dimensionality of its commentary and reporting.
The ubiquitous presence of many of Newsweek columnists as regulars on the MSNBC talk show circuit made a mockery of Meacham’s intellectual pretensions of revamping the weekly into a “thought leader” along the lines of the Economist or The New Republic. The association with MSNBC simply further cheapened and debased its brand. In its quest for a more upscale readership, where did Meacham think Newsweek would go? Both the Economist and The New Republic are long-established journals with good reputations and loyal audiences. Meacham failed to differentiate his product, and instead provided a newsweekly that all but mirrored the viewpoint expressed by MSNBC.
Evan Thomas’ now infamous claim that Obama is a “sort of God”, is indicative of the fact that Newsweek’s unabashed swooning for Obama eventually morphed into farce. At times, it was difficult to discern if the magazine was anything other that a journalistic organ of Obama worship. Howard Kurtz notes, that he, “lost track of the number of Barack and Michelle covers.” In short, instead of becoming more exclusive, the new “thought leader” degenerated into silliness. On occasion, some of its content was nothing more than campaign advertisements for Obama masquerading as news articles.
Although it has a long and distinguished history, in the end, Newsweek is destined to suffer the same fate as liberal talk radio: both are products without a viable market.