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

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.