Newsweek at a Crossroads

Last Wednesday morning, in a meeting with the magazine’s staff, our owner, Donald E. Graham, the chairman and CEO of The Washington Post Company, announced that NEWSWEEK was going to be sold.

The Post has owned NEWSWEEK since 1961, when Ben Bradlee, then the magazine’s Washington bureau chief, helped persuade Philip Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, to buy us. I say “us” quite consciously: there has long been a sense of tradition as well as journalistic mission here. For half a century, the Graham family has been a faithful steward of NEWSWEEK, allowing us, in Phil Graham’s phrase, to write the first rough draft of history. Now we are working on a new chapter, and while the precise shape of the future is unknowable, we do know some things.

First, NEWSWEEK was not closed last week. We were, rather, offered to the marketplace to explore whether a different owner (or set of owners) can help us combat the formidable forces that a lot of institutions like ours are facing: a difficult business climate, especially in advertising, and changing reading habits. The problems we must solve are not particular to NEWSWEEK, though we do offer a fairly vivid example of the general issues confronting historically print-centric publications, from magazines to newspapers to books.

Which leads us to a second thing we know. If the economic climate were different, if there were a consistently healthy national (and international) advertising market of corporations seeking to reach a large number of readers, then we would be in a very different place: one of profitability. NEWSWEEK is a business—an odd one, to be sure, and one with a significant sense of itself as a public trust—but it is still a business.

The task ahead, then, is an urgent one. What we do here, which is taking serious people seriously and engaging them on important issues, means something to the country. Whether it is a well-argued essay by Fareed Zakaria or an oral history of the Taliban or an investigation into the dismal state of the Afghan police or Maziar Bahari’s riveting account of his 118 days in an Iranian prison—a drama that began because Maziar was reporting on the opposition to the theocratic regime in Tehran—we create content that matters. NEWSWEEK is not a perfect magazine, and there are people who dislike the changes that we made a year ago. But there are also people who do like the changes, and a magazine is always a work in progress. I am responsible for any editorial shortcomings, and we are forever embarked on what NEWSWEEK chairman Rick Smith calls, with mock gravity, “the endless quest for excellence.” Journalism is kind of like baseball: if you win, great, but if you lose, you suck it up and get back up the next day to do it again.

There is a place for NEWSWEEK in some form in a fragmented culture. We represent an opportunity to focus the attention of a large number of people on a single topic. The moment of focus may be fleeting, but there are fewer and fewer common denominators left in American life, and the conversation is not going to be enriched by having fewer still. We are not the only catcher in the rye standing between democracy and the abyss of ignorance and despair. We are one of them, though, and the task now is to find the right economic and digital means to meet our traditional ends while trying to discover a sustainable business model. Our challenges are not unique, but that does not really matter. They are still our challenges, and we must meet them.

We are not Panglossian about the issues at hand. A friend and colleague of mine made a telling point last week. He noted that our plan to raise prices, cut circulation (thus saving money on manufacturing, distribution, and subscription services), and focus more on both analysis and long-term original reporting may not be a sure bet, but it was the best bet. I still believe that, and will be making that case to potential buyers and investors. The reach of a magazine like ours has fallen through the decades for all the obvious reasons, but everything is relative. We continue to engage millions in print and digitally, here and around the world.

So now begins a new search for NEWSWEEK’s future. It is a search that has gone on since the winter of 1933, when the magazine was first published. For our readers, NEWSWEEK will still be coming, and we are pressing ahead online as well. We have a mission to fulfill, and work to do.

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