What will the Washington Post learn from Newsweek’s failure? 

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has good discussion of why his employer is currently trying to offload Newsweek:

Almost exactly one year ago, Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham was telling me that deliberately cutting its circulation in half — from what had been a high of 3.1 million to 1.5 million — would not destroy the money-losing magazine. He and his staff had decided to go upscale. The question, he said, involved advertisers: “Will they accept a more affluent Newsweek demographic, given that they’ve been acculturated all these years to think of us as a mass vehicle?” The answer is now apparent.

Part of the strategy was a radical redesign. I was not a fan of it, and neither, I can tell you, were a number of people who work there. By lumping a bunch of columnists together, playing up opinion and analysis in what [Newsweek editor Jon] Meacham called the “reported narrative” and the “argued essay,” he transformed the magazine into an odd hybrid. In practice, it did seem to turn Newsweek into a version of the New Republic or the Economist.

Sometimes the cover stories were politically or culturally sharp, sometimes not, but they increasingly seemed to lean left. I lost track of the number of Barack and Michelle covers, one of them based on a Meacham interview with the president. And a couple of its top political writers double as MSNBC commentators.

Kudos to Kurtz for admitting the obvious — Newsweek was leaning editorially too far left. Meacham publicly said he wanted to emulate the Economist but what he ended up with was a sort of dumbed down New Republic. Kurtz doesn’t mention it, but this was best exemplified by the flap over a December 2008 cover story, “The Biblical Case for Gay Marriage.” The piece was an error-riddled affront to Christians as well as a political jeremiad that ran counter to what a majority of Americans believe. And Meacham doubled down in his defense of the piece.

I’m not saying there isn’t room for a pro-gay marriage argument in a magazine like Newsweek, but if you’re a) concerned about circulation and b) haven’t changed the name of the magazine to Opinionweek you ought to offer a more balanced perspective on such contentious issues. But curiously, the same week Meacham issued a blustery defense of their gay-marriage advocacy the magazine refused to comment on reports that the magazine was cutting it’s circulation by 1.6 million. Priorities!

It’s like Newsweek was the flipside of Post columnist Charles Krauthammer’s observation about Fox News: “The genius of Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch is to have discovered a niche American broadcasting audience in news, namely half the American people.” Newsweek found out the hard way that you just can’t be a mass-market publication and cater to a liberal elite anymore. 

In any event, It’s interesting that Kurtz acknowledges this was a problem for Newsweek when the Washington Post itself appears headed down exactly the same path in one important respect. Ben Smith’s article in Politico this week about how Ezra Klein’s weird admixture of blatant leftism and policy analysis is the new business model for the Post online made quite a splash. I wonder if Kurtz is going to weigh in on that.

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Mark Hemingway

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