Rupert Cornwell: 'Newsweek' sale marks victory for internet and TV

Out of America: The decline of a once mighty magazine is a sign that the media landscape has changed for ever

Share
Related Topics

These days, on both sides of the Atlantic, the travails of the print media hardly raise an eyebrow. But for me, at least, last week's announcement by the Washington Post Company that it was putting Newsweek on the block still came as a sad shock.

It shouldn't have been. America's once mighty trinity of weekly news magazines have fallen upon dismal times. US News & World Report, the smallest of the three, has all but vanished into cyberspace, its main claim to fame its annual ranking of America's best hospitals and universities. Newsweek itself has been losing money hand over fist for several years. Time insists it is still profitable, but gone is the imperious self-confidence of yesteryear. Like the traditional evening news shows on TV, the news magazines have long since ceased to rule. But somehow, the "for sale" notice pinned on Newsweek marked the end of an era.

In a pre-cable-TV, pre-internet era, and before USA Today became America's first genuinely national newspaper in 1982, the current affairs weeklies were the print-news glue that held a vast country together. Each had a different flavour. Time exuded Wasp-ish Republicanism, while Newsweek was its more liberal counterpart – cheekier and less pretentious, always trying to catch Time in circulation but never quite succeeding. US News was the most conservative of the three, whose typical subscriber used to be described as a retired military officer living in Arizona.

Time and Newsweek would appear on Monday, to synthesise and explain the events of the previous seven days. At the White House, their correspondents received special briefings. The people and the issues that went on their covers became national talking points. In short, they mattered, even to me at a time when I had never set foot in the US.

During the Watergate crisis, I was working for the Financial Times in Paris. These days, you'd follow developments on the internet, or through the blow-by-blow coverage on cable TV. But in the early '70s there was none of that. Each Tuesday, I'd rush to the drug store on the Champs Elysées to buy the latest Time or Newsweek – sometimes both – to get my Watergate fix.

I didn't realise it then, but the halcyon age of news magazines was already drawing to a close. Time's sister publication, Life magazine, for decades the gold standard of photojournalism, closed in 1972 (though it later resurfaced as a monthly and then as a newspaper supplement, before disappearing for good in 2007). Three years earlie,r a similar fate had befallen The Saturday Evening Post. Both were victims of that ever more pervasive medium, television.

In the internet age, the casualty rate has quickened. US News, which appears in print only once a month, now concentrates on stories about health, personal finance and the like. In 2009, the venerable BusinessWeek was sold for a knockdown $5m (£3.4m) to Bloomberg, while Condé Nast was forced to shut down the loss-making Gourmet, the country's oldest food magazine. Even Reader's Digest, the largest paid circulation magazine in the world, went through a bankruptcy re-organisation last year.

And now Newsweek. The magazine lost $29m last year, and saw revenues fall by 30 per cent in the first quarter of 2010. The Post company, which is dedicating all its energies to restoring its flagship newspaper to financial health, bluntly declared it saw "no sustained path to profitability" for Newsweek. The problem, in other words, is not just the decline in advertising caused by the recession, or failure to make its web operations pay. Even when the economy picks up, a basic question remains: what role exists for a weekly news magazine in a universe of 24/7 cable TV, when news cycles are measured by hours, when bloggers explore every angle of an event within minutes, where consumers can pick and choose as they wish? Newsweek in its traditional guise, seeking to be all things to all men, added little to that mix.

To its credit, the magazine recognised the problem. A year ago, it virtually abandoned reporting the news, offering instead a new mix of essays, features and broadly liberal columnists, aimed at a smaller, more upmarket readership. Alas, America already boasts an an array of terrific magazines covering similar territory: among them The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Harpers, The New Republic, The Atlantic monthly and The Nation, not to mention The Economist and the peerless New York Review of Books. Newsweek, it soon proved, had little to add to that mix either.

For the Post company, headed by Don Graham, the decision to sell must have been especially painful. It was Don's father, Phil Graham, who bought Newsweek back in 1961, at the urging of a Newsweek staffer named Ben Bradlee, who would earn newspaper immortality as The Washington Post's editor during Watergate. "The best telephone call I ever made," Bradlee said later of his initial approach to Phil Graham.

What happens now is anyone's guess. Post executives say there's no deadline for a sale. Various media companies have been mentioned, but no public suitor has yet emerged. "I'll just have to start calling my billionaire friends," one Newsweek writer remarked last week – though in fact Jon Meecham, the magazine's editor, is already on the case, saying he received messages from "two billionaires" within hours of the sale announcement.

Newsweek has a talented staff and a valuable brand-name. But in any re-incarnation it will surely be very different. It would be "hopelessly Pollyanna-ish" to believe that "fundamental shifts" could be avoided, Meacham admitted to the New York Times. At the very least, the magazine's future, like that of US News, will be primarily online. In other words, no need to rush to the drug store on the Champs Elysées. It's sad.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform