This may just be the marriage that media is made for. Three months after its sale from The Washington Post Company, Newsweek now has a new force to reckon with: Tina Brown.
On November 12, The Daily Beast, owned by IAC, announced “with a coffee-mug toast” that it will be merging with Newsweek, owned by Dr. Sidney Harman (husband of Rep. Jane Harmon, D-CA) to create The Newsweek Daily Beast Company, which will be equally owned by the two ventures. Dr. Harman will serve as executive chairman. Stephen Colvin, President of The Daily Beast will act as CEO and Daily Beast founding partner and Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown will continue as Editor-in-Chief of both The Daily Beast and Newsweek. “In an admittedly challenging time,” Dr. Harman stated, “this merger provides the ideal combination of established journalism authority and bright, bristling website savvy.”
In plainspeak, the great American news print media institution has married a news and commentary website named for Evelyn Waugh’s satire of British media, Scoop. Ben Franklin would be proud.
Faithful Newsweek readers, don’t fear. The magazine will still trek on, and The Daily Beast will take over its website and digital operations. “It’s a wonderful new opportunity for all the brilliant editors and writers at The Daily Beast who have worked so hard to create the site’s success,” said Brown. “Working at the warp-speed of a 24/7 news operation, we now add the versatility of being able to develop ideas and investigations that require a different narrative pace suited to the medium of print. And for Newsweek, The Daily Beast is a …frontline of breaking news and commentary that will raise the profile of the magazine’s bylines and quicken the pace of a great magazine’s revival.”
So what does all this mean? As Tina Brown wrote in The Daily Beast, “It means that The Daily Beast’s animal high spirits will now be teamed with a legendary, weekly print magazine in joint venture.” With Brown herself acting as marriage counselor. Time Magazine wrote in 1969 on “a tendency of many May-December couples: they strive to be more normal than normal.” It still rings true today.
Something Old: Newsweek
Newsweek, the second largest news weekly magazine in the U.S., boasts a 77-year-old history, starting with its launching in 1933 by stockholders Ward Cheney and Paul Mellon, son of Andrew Mellon. By this point, the Mellon family had already taken on industrialism, banking, art collecting, and philanthropy; why not journalism too? In 1961, the magazine was purchased by The Washington Post Company. It dispatched 22 bureaus around the world with editions published in 8 other languages.
Things started taking a downturn for Newsweek in 2008, when, like many other giants in the print media world, it found itself fighting an increasingly uphill battle in competing with online news, which ran 24/7 as opposed to once a week. In 2003, its worldwide circulation was over 4 million; as of this year, it’s now down to 1.5 million. In May, 2009, the magazine tried to accommodate by focusing less on breaking news and more on opinions and commentary. Instead of pushing for more readership, its editors actually discouraged subscription renewals, and instead, they nearly doubled the subscription price to attract more affluent readers, and in effect, more expensive advertisers. The plan backfired, and Newsweek’s ad sales plummeted by 50%.
This past August, audio pioneer Dr. Sidney Harman beat out three competitors and bought Newsweek for a nominal $1 and the assumption of over $40 million in liabilities. Management changed, writers and editors left, Harman struggled to find a new editor-in-chief, and the magazine broke at just about every seam. Its print media can’t be held to blame, especially because while Newsweek’s ad sales fell, Time’s grew by 3 percent, The Economist by 5 percent, and The Week by 17 percent. What’s at stake here isn’t as simplified as print versus online or even the death of print. It’s Newsweek’s inability to adapt to the rapid pace of online news became its crux, because to catch up with news reporting today would mean throwing away the very structure that set it up in the first place: weekly coverage. According to The New York Times, Newsweek “is a shell of what it used to be: a member of the small prestigious club of weekly magazines that helped set the tone for news coverage.”
Which may just make The Daily Beast Newsweek’s new trophy wife.
Something New: The Daily Beast
The Daily Beast, founded in 2008 by magazine editor Tina Brown, is a news reporting and opinion website that generates about 30% original content and links the rest to outside news outlets. It looks at itself as “more a magazine approach to newspapers than it is a pure information journalism site.” The name comes from the fictional newspaper in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a 1938 satire novel on British journalism and foreign correspondence.
Beast found success early when Christopher Buckley, son of famed conservative William F. Buckley, Jr., chose it to announce, “Sorry, Dad, I’m Voting for Obama.” 2009 came with a slew of awards. With sections such as “Cheat Sheet,” “Book Beast,” “Hungry Beast,” and “Sexy Beast,” encyclopedic landing pages on topical subjects, and a roster of contributers that no self-respecting intellectual can snub at, Beast grew up, and it grew quickly. In 2009, The New York Times reported that Beast had reached three million unique visitors per month. Tina Brown now boasts that number to be five million.
In New York, Beast is run by a staff of 70 (as opposed to Newsweek’s 250), yet because it’s online, it’s available to contributers worldwide. “With the Beast,” Tina Brown told The Telegraph, “we’re creating a sort of virtual newsroom all over the world.” Her contributers are not just journalists, but also lawyers, novelists, academics, and think-tankers, which has led her to believe that media is on its way to reaching a “stage where a lot of journalists have other jobs as well.”
This last August, Beast was included in Time Magazine’s review of the 50 Best Websites of 2010, which stated:
“It’s not just the caliber of writers flocking to The Daily Beast that is making the site a must-read for any serious news consumer. It’s also the willingness of the Beast’s editors to slash and sift the day’s top headlines so you can quickly digest the most essential elements. As a news site, it’ something of a triple threat: a trendsetter, an insightful and analytical clearinghouse of events and ideas, and thanks to the thorough and easy-to-scan Cheat Sheet, quite the time saver.”
Something Borrowed: Tina Brown’s Legacy
The driving force behind this deal, and the hope that it can actually work, is Newsweek and Beast’s joint editor-in-chief, Tina Brown. Mark Edmiston, a former president of Newsweek in the 80s, asked, “If you leave Tina out of it for a moment, what is the model?” Nothing, really, which makes Newsweek and Beast dependent on her legacy as a magazine editor to pull this deal off.
Brown rose to prominence when she edited Vanity Fair from 1984-1992, and the The New Yorker from 1992-1998. Her work at Vanity Fair credited her for inventing celebrity culture, or what she called “high-class trash.” Even though her departure from New Yorker burned bridges with Conde Nast, Brown’s success record remained unblemished until 2002, when her monthly glossy Talk magazine was abruptly cut during the post-9/11 advertising recession. For a while, Brown dabbled around, hosting her own show on CNBC, writing a style column for The Washington Post, writing a bestselling biography on Princess Diana.
Brown believes that the successful magazine editor “tries to reflect and define the times they are living in,” and so when celebrity culture rose, she encapsulated it in Vanity Fair, but times changed, she got bored, and now her great interest is in politics. Which is probably why her celebrity magazine Talk failed: September 11 took her celebrity culture platform and put it one step behind the times faster than anyone could anticipate, when America suddenly became more concerned with security and international politics than it was with Jennifer Anniston’s pursuit for love. “The biggest celebrity in America today is the President of the United States; and just by that being true it defines a new interest in politics,” she told The Telegraph. “That’s where the zeitgeist is in America today. It’s in Washington, not Hollywood.” Essentially, Tina Brown, when she’s in her game, is to current events and culture what Anna Wintour is to fashion: anchored in the now, and constantly redefining to make it relevant to American readers. She’s a product of the now, and once now becomes then, she gets bored and copes by positioning herself in the media epicenter of the next big thing.
2008 marked a change in Brown, when The Daily Beast converted her to embrace online news, which she has described as “the media version of the industrial revolution.” Contrary to what some have reported, she never kissed off print media, but rather realized “now the debate has to shift on from ‘how do we save newspapers’ to ‘how do we save journalism’… It’s more important to preserve journalism than it is to preserve newspapers, frankly.” Newspapers, on decline, have more resources to access serious investigative reporting that online sources, and that scares Brown. “We may need some sort of private public partnership to sponsor certain kinds of journalism,” she told The Telegraph.
On NPR’s Morning Edition, she told Steve Inskeep:
“I’ve never been one who kiss off the world of print…. I’m looking, really, back at print now with kind of the new eyes of an expatriate who has been away and now can sort of look back and see something with (a) very different point of view… having done so much Web news now, I can actually see what a magazine can offer, which is unique in the marketplace… is a different kind of narrative rhythm… In a magazine you can be more reflective.”
In other words, you can look at print versus online as competing either/ors, but as complementing supplements to each other.
Something Blue: Grim Reapings
“Consumers and advertisers value media distributed across multiple platforms,” said Stephen Colvin. “The merger of The Daily Beast and Newsweek audiences creates a powerful global media property for the digital age.”
Really, according to Steve Cohn of the Media Industry Newsletter, this deal is a trade-off: “Newsweek has a better name; The Daily Beast has a better future.”
Which makes one wonder about the pre-nup.
It seems like a brilliantly executed plan: one of America’s most trusted print media sources teams up with one of today’s hottest online news canals. Until, of course, you remember the underlying reason for this whole deal: money. As of this year, The Daily Beast stands to lose $10 million, and Newsweek is projected to lose $20 million. If you do your arithmetic correctly, loss + loss = more loss. About a combined loss of $100,000 every day. And Beast stands to lose more because it’s coming into the marriage with less debt, which, when you average the losses, makes it absorb more and lightens the load for Newsweek.
Like many May-December marriages, there are skeptics of whether the 77-year-old Newsweek and the 2-year-old Beast (really the 56-year-old Brown) will end in divorce, or even worse, widowhood. “Newsweek is a sceloric retiree, and Daily Beast is a debutante still finding herself,” said Blogads founder Henry Copeland. “This won’t end well. Most likely Newsweek will slowly wither, and The Daily Beast will end up pushing it around in a wheelchair.”
Marriage statistics don’t help. According to the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, “the younger the better” is the motto for men choosing wives for maximum life expectancy. According to their recent marriage and life expectancy study, the greater the age gap, the longer the older husband has a chance of living. Yet the numbers are not as favorable for younger wives, who stand a greater chance at dying prematurely as the age gap grows. For Newsweek and The Daily Beast, this makes sense. By joining together, they are prolonging Newsweek’s life (which probably would have been over otherwise), and the age difference between the two works more in Newsweek’s favor than Beast’s because it opens Newsweek to an age demographic that is driving media interests today and wouldn’t otherwise crack a news weekly open unless there’s no other reading material in the doctor’s waiting room. Beast, on the other hand, stands to lose more in this marriage because now, instead of operating as its own entity, it’s conjoined with an older magazine that’s well on its way to assisted living. When Newsweek goes, Beast will more than likely go soon after.
If you look at Tina Brown’s track record, she’s been most impressive with grandfathered publications, such as Tatler, Vanity Fair and New Yorker, and not as successful with start-up projects like Talk and even to some extent The Daily Beast, which despite its critical acclaim, still has yet to earn substantial income. Which gives the now-grandfathered Newsweek a good shot, but still isn’t looking too kindly on the Beast. Yet as debates over the future state of journalism course through media’s veins, this may be her repositioning for the next big thing, because now she is conveniently placed smack dab in the center of running both web and print. No one knows print like Tina Brown, and if we’re all writing about the possible end of The Daily Beast, no doubt she saw it coming long before the rest of us. And Brown doesn’t strike me as a woman who suffers the same mistake twice. Why go down with another journalistic failure like Talk when she use her brand as a bargaining chip to diversify into another platform? It’s a smart business move on her part, because if one goes down, she still has a job running the other.
So maybe this is the Bret Favre story for the magazine world. Tina Brown and Newsweek: two former glories, two aging has-beens in print media, now joined together to tell the world otherwise. If Newsweek goes down, Brown will too, but what if it were the other way around? Can she revive the faded establishment to the point of it not needing her anymore, or is Newsweek really just in a state of vegetative life support, with the American public too sentimental to sign the DNR?
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