Many thanks to millionaire Sidney Harman for merging Newsweek into the Daily Beast and turning the editorial keys over to Beast founder Tina Brown. Not only does Brown have a shot at bringing glory to the gutted and faded magazine; the merger constitutes a full employment act for press critics, who will second- and third-guess every provocative Newsweek cover she prints, every fancy new hire she brings in, and every stunt she pulls—like bringing in Roseanne Barr as “guest editor,” as she did when she ran the New Yorker. She’ll make so much noise, violate so many societal standards, and generate so much deliberate controversy that the media oxpeckers will stop writing about the New York Times and turn their exclusive attention on Newsweek.
Brown will become such an object of fascination that I’ll stop writing about Rupert Murdoch and write about her instead. Well, maybe she won’t loom that large in the cosmos, but you know what I mean.
In securing Brown as editor, Harman is now entering Stage 2 of the seven stages through which all vanity press moguls pass after buying a faltering magazine or newspaper: The owner replaces the editor with a journalistic star, redesigns the publication, expands budgets, moves to better quarters, and thinks about turning the publication into a media empire. (Harman completed Stage 1 when he bought Newsweek, announcing that quality, not profits, are the immediate goal.) Stage 3 is always the hiring of big-name writers, which I’m sure Brown is doing at this exact minute. Stage 4 is grumbles from moguls, in this case Harman and IAC’s Barry Diller—owner of the Beastand now Harman’s 50-50 partner in the Newsweek Daily Beast Company. They complain that the magazine is not a charity and order cutbacks. In Stages 5, 6, and 7, the star editor gets sacked, a pushover is hired as replacement, the moguls strip the publication down to its chassis and wheels, and they look for a new sucker to buy the publication.
But I don’t think that’s how the Newsweek story will unroll, if only because Tina Brown possesses more moxie, daring, shrewdness, and big-top showmanship than any editor of the last half-century. Compared with Brown; Jann Wenner is a second-string maracas player; Hugh Hefner a prude; Graydon Carter a big, dumb forehead; Louis Rossetto a KayPro; Andre Laguerre * a minor leaguer; and Harold Hayes a William Shawn. What editor in the history of magazines has set three titles on absolute fire? Brown did just that with Tatler, VanityFair, and The New Yorker, before, um, burning down her heavily bankrolled (by vanity press mogul Harvey Weinstein) fin de siècle monthly Talk.
After Talk folded in 2001, Brown spent most of the decade losing herself on things she’s no good at. She hosted a talk show on CNBC. She contributed a weekly column to the Washington Post Style section. She wrote a best-selling book about Diana. Not until she returned to editing in late 2008, by starting the Daily Beast, did she rediscover her true métier. In typical Brown fashion, she attached herself to a rich benefactor (Diller), hired top-notch people to help her run the operation, recruited name writers (Christopher Buckley, Lloyd Grove, Tunku Varadarajan, Howard Kurtz, Gerald Posner, et al.), and mugged for media attention.
If the Daily Beast hasn’t been a resounding success, it hasn’t been a failure, either, establishing itself in a saturated market (Slate, Salon, the Huffington Post, the Daily Caller, Politico, the Atlantic’s Web site, Talking Points Memo, Gawker, the editorially expanded Yahoo, the editorially expanded AOL, etc.). It’s easy to explain why the Newsweek-Daily Beastmash-up won’t work, as this Wall Street Journalwriter does today. Both enterprises hemorrhage money. There are too many egos involved (Diller’s, Harman’s, Brown’s). Partnerships like this frequently end in tears.
The X-factor in all of this, of course, is Brown. She commands exceptional loyalty from her employees because she makes them believe. I’ve tried many times to get former Brown employees to talk trash about her, but they won’t. They’ve all been so inspired by her enthusiasm and her charm. They even feel good about her when she bawls them out because she creates a reality distortion field that’s as strong as Steve Jobs’. Her people will bleed for her—not many publication or Web site bosses can make that boast, and that enthusiasm is transferable to readers.
Yesterday, nobody cared squat about Newsweek. Today, the press is filled with jabber and curiosity about a magazine most of us had given up for dead. Former Slate staffer Chadwick Matlin spoke for a lot of talented writers this morning when he tweeted about Brooklyn freelancers “who woke up thinking maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to work for a new Newsweek.” While Brown might have her pick of today’s writers, she’d be wise to repeat her Talk strategy and hire established writers who aren’t necessarily “media grandees,” as the New York Observerput it in 1999. She’s got the power to make stars out of them all.
I don’t have to suggest that Brown turn Newsweek covers into outrageous billboards for the magazine. Can’t you hear her cackling to herself about being able to drop 50 bombs a year on the American psyche? Brown has always lived for great magazine art and will fill her Newsweek with the sort of hullabaloo that made George Lois notorious. I can guarantee you that her covers will consistently be the most talked-about until the competition wakes up to its own lameness.
One of Brown’s strengths as an editor is that she’s never had any shame. There was, of course, that business about Roseanne Barr’s guest editorship of her New Yorker. But she normalized shamelessness! Even fusty old Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s departed editor, came to think stupid guest editorships were a fine idea and recruited Stephen Colbert as a guest editor in 2009. Because I have no advice for her on where to take her shamelessness next, I’ll leave that to her but suggest that she consult Gawker for inspiration.
I’d have her study the blueprint Jann Wenner used to transform US Weekly from a People clone to a celebrity-fixated dynamo. Wenner has that shamelessness thing going for him, too. While I’m not suggesting that Brown turn Newsweek into the Journal of Brangelina Studies, I’d encourage her to rely on the high-low culture mix that made TheNew Yorker so damnably interesting during her run—and take it even lower. Readers will follow, even if Time won’t.
Speaking of Time, which competes in Newsweek’s space, Brown should never aspire to be like it, or the other newsweeklies, the Economist and the Week. We don’t need another Time, Economist,or the Week because we already have one of each. Let Newsweek separate itself from the pack by becoming more combative, more outrageous, more judgmental, and more wicked than the others. Violate the orthodoxy! Totally de-Meachamize it! On Week 1, piss off the White House. Week 2, the Pentagon. Week 3, Wall Street. Then the unions, Harvard, religion, life-insurance agents, the green movement, and so on until the bottom is reached with an exposé of Little League baseball. Then repeat. According to H.L. Mencken, “The liberation of the human mind has been best furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries. …” I want, very much, for Tina Brown to be that sort of cat-slinger.
Of course, Brown is going to be the top in the relationship between Newsweek and the Beast. But which of those journalism brands is going to dominate the other? Brown should preserve Newsweek as the über-brand—if only because hundreds of millions of people are already familiar with it and not with the Beast. But make sure to infuse the best of the Beast culture (and I don’t mean Meghan McCain) into the magazine. Go ahead and use the Beast logo, writers, and ethos in the front of the book in the magazine. On the Web side, kill the Beast URL but integrate its timeliness and attitude into the Newsweek address.
Can Brown’s Newsweek end its slide and make money? Obviously it can’t if nobody is reading it, and say what you will about Brown, she is a showy, stunt-crazy talent who knows everything about the seeding, nurturing, and harvesting of great stories. The industry that Brown re-enters this week may be dying, but I’m betting on her zombie powers to eat the still-living parts of the business and succeed.
I hope her zombie powers don’t get the best of her and cause her to eat the dead before she heaves it. What’s so inherently appealing about tossing dead cats, anyway? Throw an explanation at firstname.lastname@example.org and listen to my Twitter purr. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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Correction, Nov. 13, 2010: The original version of this article misspelled Andre Laguerre’s last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)