Above The Fold
Newsweek went on the block yesterday, four months after posting a $29.3 million loss in 2009, and thirty years after media “experts” started to predict the imminent demise of the modern news magazine.
If you’re not old enough to remember the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show (February 9, 1964) you probably can’t remember a time when Newsweek really mattered.
But mattered it did–almost from the moment Ben Bradlee convinced Phil Graham to buy it for The Washington Post Co., right through the end of the 1970’s. (FCP arrived there as its press critic in 1981, when it was still healthy, but no longer Important–at least, not the way it had been in its heyday.)
The secret to its early success was simple: it did a better job of capturing the Zeitgeist of the ‘60’s than any other magazine except one–the Esquire produced by Harold Hayes. And with all the explosions and transformations of that amazing era, there had never been a better time to be a journalist in America.
When Phil Graham installed Oz Elliott as the chief editor of his newest acquisition, no one in Manhattan had bluer blood than Oz–his Dutch ancestor, Stephen Coerte van Voorhees, had reached New Amsterdam early in the 17th century. But Elliott quickly proved to be the ideal person to transform Newsweek into the perfect David to take on the Goliath of Time.
“Oz Elliott was the first editor I worked for,” remembered Lucy Howard, a Newsweek researcher who became a Washington correspondent and later Periscope editor–and who was FCP’s indispensable partner in the media department in the 1980’s.
“He was a great leader,” Howard remembered. “He was a great newsman. He was curious, he was open; he could be tough, but he was very dedicated to what he was doing. He had a tremendous ability to balance competing interests and ideas–hence the term Wallendas”–as Newsweek’s top editors dubbed themselves, in homage to the high-wire circus act. (Hence, their offices were the “Wallendatorium.”)
“It was a juggling act, a balancing act,” Howard continued. “Oz knew his limitations as a WASP New Yorker, and he was smart enough to surround himself with Gordon Manning and Kermit Lansner”–the two men Elliott named as the executive editors immediately below him.
“”With Kermit, we had a Jewish intellectual from New York, and with Gordon, an Irish Catholic sportswriter from Boston, and in my case, a WASP from the Upper East Side,” Elliott told The New York Times. ”It made for a wonderful balance.”
“It was three very different sensibilities that came together early on,” said Howard. “And each brought competing strengths. They fought; but because Oz was a really good leader, it all worked.”
“Oz was a lovely man,” Ben Bradlee told FCP today. “He was very good–very good with owners and very good with employees.” And he had one more crucial quality, which is especially unusual in a top editor: “He didn’t ignore little people,” said Howard. “He just didn’t. If you could help out, he appreciated you.”
In 1962, Elliott made his most important hire–a 29-year-old journeyman reporter from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat named Peter Goldman. That year Goldman had sent his clips to Newsweek, where they were promptly lost by Kermit Lansner. But Newsweek’s Nation department had slots for seven writers, and it was down to only three, so Gordon Manning had been searching for replacements.
As fate would have it, the same week Goldman arrived in New York on vacation, and phoned Newsweek for an interview, Manning had been on the phone with Bill Mauldin, the great cartoonist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who mentioned that Goldman was the best writer he knew in St. Louis. “I called,” Goldman remembered today, “and they said, we’ve been looking for you!”
The drinking habits of the ‘60’s made famous by “Mad Men” were exactly the same for journalists as they were for ad men, so Goldman’s first big test was to survive two rounds of drinks at the New Westin Hotel with two different editors, the same day he was asked to write his first complicated story. When he proved he could drink and write at the same time, he was hired–and the extra Jack Daniels actually had helped him. It had given him the courage to up his salary demand to $11,500–and he got that sum, a hefty increase from the $8,000 he had been making in St. Louis.
After that, a combination of quiet conviction and gigantic journalistic talent quickly make Goldman the magazine’s conscience, and its number-one star.
To distinguish itself from Time, its heavily right-wing competitor, Newsweek had just launched a new ad campaign when Goldman arrived: “The one newsweekly that separates fact from opinion.” The slogan wasn’t true, but it was a huge success. “We did anything but,” Goldman remembered. “Certainly during the Civil Rights movement, we took sides–we were journalistes engagés.”
What they did was remarkably simple: they began to cover the news–with an energy and a fearlessness no modern weekly had shown before.
Goldman’s first big assignment was to write about the admission of James Meredith as the first black student at Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi in the fall of 1962. Writers at Time were almost never sent into the field, but Newsweek was already experimenting with that idea.
Joe Cumming (from Georgia) was the magazine’s Atlanta bureau chief and Karl Fleming (from North Carolina) was his number two there. Bill Cook, Marv Kupfer and later, Vern Smith were other star civil rights reporters for the magazine–as well as the great Marshall Frady–“a South Carolina preacher’s son and a crazed Faulknerian, who really got both sides of the story, black and white.”
“Joe Cumming was sort of a fragile, poetic soul,” Goldman continued, “old South but in a kind of Atticus Finch way, and Karl had spent his childhood in an orphanage.”
“Karl was kind of rough and tumble. His heart was totally with the movement and what were then the more militant elements, like SNCC and the younger SCLC kids; and totally fearless. He’d gone to places where a sane person wouldn’t go; the first time I met him was Ole Miss.”
“We went through a couple of really harrowing scrapes. There was tear gas from the Feds–a riot going on in this very large mall. We bumped into a Mississippi state trooper who was missing more teeth than you want to be missing, and he asked us who we were and we told him, which was dangerous. And he smiled at us, showing all these gaps, and said ‘You may proceed at your own risk.’”
“We parked the car outside the campus; and sort of made our way on foot on the periphery, and tear gas was getting too thick, so we ducked into a science building. Then we made our way to the administration building, which was where the Feds were headquartered.
“Karl and I were standing outside on the front steps, and between us was a wooden replica Greek column, and we heard some shots. And we looked up and there in the column, there was a row of four or five bullet holes. I suspect they were aimed at Karl because he was taller than I was, and the highest shot had hit right at his head level. I looked at him, and he said, ‘If I was James Meredith, I wouldn’t go to school with these bastards. And he looked so calm and so cool. And I told him that later and he said, ‘I was fucking terrified!’”
“I was down there Sunday and Monday, left on Tuesday and went back to New York. “It was my first cover story”–the first of thirty-five that Goldman would write about the black struggle in America. “I got my name in Top of the Week for the first time.”
In 1963, the magazine partnered with Lou Harris and did the first poll of black residents in the inner cities. Then in 1967, there was The Negro in America: What Must be Done, which Goldman wrote with Ed Kosner, Larry Martz and others. The cover was an abstract image of two black hands (which belonged to Newsweek photographer Jim Cummins), and inside there was an editorial–the magazine’s first–which offered a 12-point program to accelerate the progress of black Americans in American society.
In 1968, the magazine waded into the next great national debate, over Vietnam, and once again, it got things exactly right: “The war cannot be won by military means without tearing apart the whole fabric of national life and international relations. Unless it is prepared to indulge in the ultimate, horrifying escalation–the use of nuclear weapons–it now appears that the U.S. must accept the fact that it will never be able to achieve decisive military superiority in Vietnam.”
“Oz’s distinguishing mark to me was his conscience,” said Goldman–“his moral compass. To me he was like the old Progressives of the very late 19th and early 20th century–WASPS who were appalled at the way things were going in America, and as a matter of conscience involved themselves in politics. He set a tone for the place that made the ‘60’s a fabulous experience for a young writer.”
Culturally, the magazine also had good antennae for the new–although it sometimes got things horribly wrong, even when they put them on the cover. The magazine was way ahead of Time when it put Bugs about Beatles on the cover a week after their Ed Sullivan appearance; but this time, the writer got everything backwards:
Visually they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah!”) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.
Its biggest early rock and roll scoop was revealing the fact that Bob Dylan had been born Robert Zimmerman–a story the fact checkers only allowed after forcing a reporter to obtain a copy of Dylan’s birth certificate in Minnesota–a document FCP later discovered in the Newsweek archives, while researching 1968 In America.
For decades, Jack Kroll was the star of the culture department, along with movie critics Joe Morgenstern, Paul Zimmerman and later, David Ansen. Walter Clemons set the standard for book criticism in the magazine world. He was snapped up by Kroll after The New York Times failed to promote Clemons to daily book critic, because his colleague, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, had told Abe Rosenthal that Clemons was gay. To cover sports there was Pete Axthelm (who put Secretariat on the cover) and later Peter Bonventre. Axthelm had written his senior thesis at Yale about Dostoevsky, and one day a colleague asked him to explain the Russian novelist. “Oh,” said Pete, “he was a guy who placed a bet every day.”
In the 1970’s, a whirlwind of energy and ideas named Maureen Orth arrived from the Village Voice to cover movies and rock and roll, and quickly produced cover stories on Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Francis Ford Coppola, John Denver, Tatum O’Neil (when she won the Oscar), Disco music, and–most famously–Bruce Springsteen. Ten days after she started to report the Springsteen story, Time decided to try to match it.
Orth had a novel approach for fending off Time: “I told Bruce it was going to hurt his career if he allowed them both to do it, because he wasn’t big enough yet. And it was true; it did hurt his career!” She also flew to the Philippines, took a two-and-half-hour bus trip and and one-hour boat ride to reach the set of Apocalypse Now. “I did the reporting and the writing and took the pictures,” Orth remembered today. And she discovered the film makers were “beginning to resemble the story they were making–they were using real dead bodies and all that stuff. Coppola didn’t speak to me for years after that. We sort of did investigative reporting for the culture department–and they weren’t used to that.”
Orth was one of the first beneficiaries of the suit charging discrimination filed by Newsweek women forty years ago. (Lynn Povich, one of the complainants, and the first woman senior editor at the magazine, is now writing a book about that suit for PublicAffairs.)
Cathleen McGuigan, who was culture editor from 1992 to 1999, said the treatment of women improved steadily during her tenure there.
“It was fairly enlightened; it got more enlightened; it kept getting better,” McGuigan told FCP today. Men like Maynard Parker (a top editor of Newsweek in the ‘90’s) got divorced, and married strong women like Susan Fraker the second time around–women who had their own careers. It hadn’t been a place where you could put your children first. Later on, you worked incredibly har,d but if you had to go to your kid’s kindergarten on Friday morning for an hour, you could. Before Maynard had his second family, no one would have dreamed of leaving the office on a closing day.”
THE ECONOMIC DECLINE OF NEWS MAGAZINES started decades ago, when the three-sided pyramids which supported them–“butts, buggies and booze”–began to collapse. As the health risks of cigarettes become universally recognized, advertising for them began to go do more downscale publications. At the same time, hard liquor–unadvertised on televison at the time–was gradually displaced in popularity by wine and beer, which were staples of broadcast ads. That left only a declining car industry as a reliable supporter of the format.
In recent years the economic model has collapsed altogether: Newsweek is expected to lose $20 million this year, on top of operating losses of $29.3 million in 2009 and $16.1 million in 2008 for the Post Co.’s magazine division. As Jack Shafer noted, “Pummeling the magazine have been the recession, the accelerating decline in advertising (down 30 percent in 2009 from 2008 and off 40 percent in the first three months of 2010, according to Reuters), and a generational change in reading patterns.”
I’m not sure Shafer is right to say “Lack of editorial imagination isn’t the culprit, either.” It is true that even under its current editor, Jon Meacham, Newsweek has had some excellent moments, including Voices of the Fallen, a chronological telling of the Iraq War through the letters of soldiers who had died there, and another cover called Voices of the Taliban, which told the story of the war in Afghanistan, from 9/11 onwards, from the perspective of Taliban fighters. It was reported by Newsweek veteran Ron Moreau, and Sami Yousefai, the magazine’s “super-stringer” in Afghanistan, who has amazing sources there. Its cover story about Eric Holder last July by Dan Klaidman was also way ahead of the news.
But it is also true that, under Meacham’s direction, Newsweek has become the dullest weekly read in America.
He may be living proof that it is impossible to edit a magazine, write two books, and co-host a weekly show on PBS (debuting this week), all at the same time. So if there really are billionaires in the wings who might actually make a bid for the magazine, the worst thing they could possibly do would be to keep Meacham in charge of it.
Ben Bradlee said today, “I wish I had the dough to buy it–and I was 20 years younger.”
That would be the ideal solution.
Update: An exceptionally knowledgeable reader writes,
The editors didn’t dub themselves the Wallendas; that was the sardonic coinage of a wonderful back-of-the-book writer named Leslie Hanscom. It started at some 12th-floor water-cooler in the old building at 444 Madison and spread like crazy; I confess to having been one of the spreaders. The Wallendas (or Wallies, as later generations called them) accepted and ultimately embraced the name, but they didn’t invent it.
And: I think the ad slogan in the early 60s was “This magazine (not ‘the newsweekly that’) separates fact and opinion.” Not a grave mistake–you have to be as old as me to remember that far back.
A postcript to the etymology of the term Wallenda at Newsweek: it was outlawed by Meacham early in his editorishoip. I guess it was beneath his dignity.
That certainly explains Mr. Meacham’s trajectory.
Second Update: When Newsweek still matters: usually when Mike Isiikoff is one of the reporters writing an important story from Washington like this one, co-authored by Michael Hirsh: How British oil giant BP used all the political mucle money can buy to fend off regulators and influence investigations into corporate neglect. And yet, the day after this story was posted on its website, it was nearly invisible on the Newsweek home page. (Jon Meacham’s picture wasn’t.)