Hack List No. 3: Newsweek

Tina Brown's magazine trolled itself to death

Topics: The Hack List, Newsweek, Niall Ferguson, Tina Brown, Magazines, Hack List 2012, 2012 Hack List, Editor's Picks,

Hack List No. 3: NewsweekTina Brown, Niall Ferguson (Credit: lev radin via Shutterstock/Salon)

This year, my annual list of the worst of political media highlights not just individuals, but the institutions that enable those individuals. The 2012 Hack List will be counting down the 10 media outlets that are hurting America over the next two days — stay tuned! (Previous Hack List entries here, here and here.)

One shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, I know. But if Newsweek has taught me anything this year, it’s that death is not truly the end, because Heaven Is Real, According to Science.

Yes, that was an actual, for-real Newsweek cover this year: “Heaven Is Real.” It was the dumbest, probably, but not actually the worst. This year’s Newsweek covers also included naked bondage lady, and sexy lady about to fellate asparagus (a stock image that had also quite recently been used in at least two other magazines). There was “what if Princess Di was alive and my friend,” too, but that was from 2011.

Now, Newsweek is ending its existence as a print publication. It’s not the official end of Newsweek as a brand — they seem to want people to believe that they expect rational adults to pay money to read something claiming to be a digital version of Newsweek online — but the mass layoffs signal that it’s basically done as a major publication of any sort.

Here’s Brown defending those dumb covers, which were clearly the one part of the magazine she actually devoted her time to (to the annoyance of her staff):

“The magazine was incredibly moribund when we came in,” she said on Thursday. “It had taken so many knocks. We have been able to bring Newsweek back to relevance. I have always felt that the covers are about a conversation. The covers become a conversation starter.”



There are the limits of Tina Brownism laid bare. She didn’t save the magazine — it’s dead — but she did make it relevant again, by repeatedly printing awful covers that simply everyone talked about. Countless people are losing or have already lost their jobs at the magazine, sure, but America gained so many conversations!

Under the tenure of Brown’s predecessor, the insufferable Jon Meacham, Newsweek sought to distinguish itself as “the American Economist.” It turned out that there was not actually any demand for a second, inferior Economist, when we already had the regular version. But in retrospect we had no idea how good we had it back when Meacham was just repeatedly putting another “an historian ties the present moment to a past moment” essay on the cover of his pretentious but not actually smart version of Newsweek. Tina Brown’s Newsweek didn’t bore us, it just insulted us, loudly, each and every issue.

Brown, the legendary editor most famous for making the New Yorker print photographs sometimes, launched a website called the Daily Beast in 2008, with a bunch of money from famous rich person Barry Diller. Why anyone thought Brown, who does not understand the Internet, would be a good person to give a lot of money to to create a website, is well beyond me, but it is the sort of thing that makes sense if you are a rich person, I think. In 2010, other rich person Sidney Harmon bought Newsweek and then he and Diller decided to merge it with the Daily Beast and give it all to Tina Brown. At the time, Brown’s Daily Beast was losing Diller $10 million a year. Brown’s first move as the person in charge of Newsweek — an early example of the sort of brilliant decision-making that would define her tenure as person in charge of Newsweek — was to kill Newsweek.com and put all its content on TheDailyBeast.com, despite the fact that Newsweek.com had more than twice the traffic, not to mention 80 years’ worth of brand recognition.

You hire Tina Brown because she knows “everyone,” and knowing “everyone” translates into “buzz,” which never quite translates into “profit” or “increased circulation.” In Tina Brown’s Newsweek, friends fawningly profiled their famous friends, who were also friends of Tina’s. Other friends were allowed to write stories so incredibly misleading that other outlets took it upon themselves to perform basic fact-checks. Then that friend’s wife trolled every Muslim in the world.

The covers listed up top, asparagus lady and company, were just sad attempts to add some sex appeal to forgettable stories. The real worst Newsweek covers trolled even harder inside the magazine than on the front. The real crime of the Niall Ferguson cover — I mean, besides all the dishonesty and the fact that Ferguson believes and says awful and stupid things, professionally, for a living — is that it could have actually been a smart, honest piece about why Obama didn’t deserve to be reelected. The crime of the awful “MUSLIM RAGE” piece was that it didn’t actually explain anything about the Muslim world and truly had nothing whatsoever to do with its supposed news hook.

Newsweek had a huge staff of smart and talented reporters and writers — a huge staff of talented people is one reason they lost hundreds of thousands of dollars every week! — who could have written thoughtful pieces adding context and original reporting to the subjects Brown planned to splash on the cover. She still could have put all the sexy ladies and “provocative” cover lines she wanted on the front, to move copies at the newsstand. But Brown’s instinct instead was to get her attention-starved hack friends to write bullshit designed to infuriate thinking people and deceive readers. She got the conversation started, and the fact that the conversation, each time, was mostly variations on “this story is horrible” didn’t at all matter. As is usually the case in media and politics, Brown and Ferguson and Buzz Bissinger will land on their feet, while all the staffers not actually responsible for killing the magazine look for new work.

In a long interview with Michael Kinsley, Brown absolves herself of responsibility for Newsweek’s death, saying the magazine had “an unfixable infrastructure and a set of challenges that really would have required five years in an up economy to solve.” The interview is in a recent issue of New York, a successful general interest magazine that prints weekly.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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