Has anyone in history ever been as busy as Jon Meacham? When the
Washington Post Company announced one day last week that it was giving
up the struggle to save Newsweek and looking for a buyer,
editor-in-chief Meacham revealed that he already had phone messages
from two billionaires that he hadn’t yet gotten around to returning.
This is amazing, is it not? You would think that journalistic curiosity
alone would propel you to return those calls. I myself have a strict
policy of promptly returning all calls from billionaires—whether or not
I happen to have a money-losing newsmagazine I’m trying to unload. This
is not actually a policy I’ve ever had occasion to apply. No
billionaire has ever called me (or I didn’t get the message if he or
she did). But I’ve met the odd billionaire at parties (true) and
massage parlors (not true) and (true) once bumped into Bill Gates
waiting for carryout at a Thai restaurant in Seattle. And my
impression—though I could be wrong—is that, like everybody really, they
are less likely to take a used newsmagazine off your hands if you give
the fever any time at all to pass. Nor do they tend to enjoy hearing or
reading in the national media that they mean no more to you than a
couple of pink phone messages. Just like ordinary folks, billionaires
want love. Or if not love, they want their phone calls returned. Just a
Since we apparently cannot rely on Meacham, I
have been looking for clues to saving Newsweek in The Publisher, Alan
Brinkley’s new biography of Henry Luce, founder of Time and inventor of
the newsmagazine. Brinkley, the first biographer to have access to all
of Luce’s letters and other documents, confirms that Time was intended
from the start to be what we now call “aggregation” or (if we’re being
hoity-toity) “curation.” Although it later succumbed to bureaucratic
bloat—an insane system of researchers feeding material to reports who
fed it to writers—at the beginning it was just a lot of smart-ass
Yalies rewriting the New York Times. Brinkley describes sliced-up
copies of the Times and piles of foreign magazines everywhere around
the offices. Luce’s idea, and that of his business partner, Briton
Hadden, was to condense all the news busy people needed to know into
one weekly read. The magazine, Luce wrote, would “serve the illiterate
upper classes, the busy business man, the tired debutant, to prepare
them at least once a week for a table conversation.” There was not a
lot of brooding about other people’s intellectual property rights.
was like a web site in another way, too: in its attitude toward “bias.”
Basically, Time didn’t care about it. The magazine’s founders wanted it
to be informative and accurate, but Luce and his disciples didn’t
heartache about “balance” or hesitate to insert their own, strong
opinions (especially, and legendarily, Luce’s opinions) into the
The problem with the newsmagazines is that
they have wandered far from this original idea of just
summarizing—intelligently, and with attitude—what happened last week.
Meacham said at the time of Newsweek’s last remake a year ago that his
model was the Economist. The Economist actually does follow pretty
closely the Luce formula of lots of short articles about last week
everywhere on the globe. (And when I worked in the American department
of the Economist, there were plenty of sliced up copies of the New York
Times lying about.) But oddly, Newsweek didn’t really do anything like
this in its remake.
The magazine that most closely
follows the Luce formula today is The Week, which arrived in the US
just a few years ago and is having a tremendous success while Time
flounders and Newsweek drown. And it’s a success on paper. I have never
even been to its website.
If The Week rings up, Jon, take the call. Please.
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