Wither the Newsmags?

As newspapers and magazines stumble along the rocky road from print to digital, two recent signposts seem to point the way forward: Time Warner’s decision to spin off Time Inc., its magazine division, and Newsweek’s termination of its print edition after 80 years of continuous publication.

The third general newsmagazine. U.S. News and World Report, went digital earlier and now is known mostly for its rankings of colleges and hospitals and the like.

What would Henry Luce think ?

His baby, Time, and its sister magazines, including People, Sports Illustrated and In-Style and others, will continue to appear in print, at least for the foreseeable. And why not? Together, they generate $3.1 billion in revenues, nearly half of the total of the nation’s 10 top-grossing magazines.

But that is apparently not enough for Time Warner, which is cutting them loose, along with some $500 million to $1 billion in debt, so the parent company can concentrate on its more profitable film and cable businesses.

In the fourth quarter of last year, circulation and advertising at Time Inc. were down sharply and revenues were off seven per cent, which is probably what prompted Time Warner to try to sell the magazine division and, failing that, cast it adrift.

Looking on the bright side, Time Inc. insiders say they will now at least be able to pour their revenues into their own magazines and websites, rather than Time Warner’s deep pockets. And this week, they were celebrating the success of their recent cover, “Bitter Pill,” Stephen Brill’s remarkable, 24,000-word takedown of the hospital industry, which was their best-selling issue in two years. It was proof, again, that people will seek out important reporting when it comes along.

But the trend lines for newsmagazines are hard to ignore. Even in these harsh economic times, I find it hard to believe that the news weeklies are not the vital magazines that I have known over the years.

During the eight years I spent abroad as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times in the Middle East and Far East, Time and Newsweek were essential reading. In those pre-internet years, they pulled the week’s news and trends together and kept me in touch with the world beyond my own bailiwick. Their correspondents were among my best and best-paid competitors. They roamed the world, usually traveling first class. Richard Clurman, Time’s longtime Chief of Correspondents, was famous for booking two first-class seats: one for himself and one for his briefcase.

But the harsh fact today is that both the editorial and economic models of newsmagazines are broken.

Newsweek was sold for a dollar and a mountain of debt to the late Sydney Harmon. He merged it with the Daily Beast and still could not support it costly print edition. The brand continues with a vibrant website and has announced plans for a paid digital version targeted to a global audience. But it remains to be seen whether that will thrive.

Worse yet, the news weekly editorial model no longer works. With the internet, I no longer need weekly summaries and analysis of news that I get — indeed, can’t escape — 24/7 electronically. Realizing this, both Time and Newsweek switched to signed essay and long-form formats that are frequently well-written and well-edited. Witness the Brill piece.

But are they viable in the long run? That is uncertain at best.

A Sad Day

Today, March 19, 2013, is a tragic anniversary.

With one exception: It is the 10th birthday of my dog, Red, a fine Borzoi, who is a splendid companion and steady friend. Happy Birthday, Red.

But it is the 10th anniversary of the unjustified, immoral, wrong-headed, foolish, ill-conceived and flat-out wrong war against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

I hold no brief for Saddam and his perverse sons and dreadful reign of terror. But Iraqis, in time, would have dealt with Saddam. It was only George W. and Dick Cheney and Paul W. and Don R. who thought we had to do it for them.

Actually, what they thought — to the degree they thought it through at all — was that they could topple Saddam quickly (right) and get out promptly(wrong), and a Jeffersonian Democracy would bloom in the Iraqi desert in his wake (Really wrong.) And, they could finish what George H.W. left unfinished a decade earlier. Sheer fantasy.

So they listened to the siren song of Ahmed Chalabi and other Iraqi hucksters about how we would be welcomed as liberators and all would be well.

Instead, we spent $2.2 trillion and 4,200 American lives and countless Iraqi lives to produce what? A fractured, violent excuse for a country that is likely to split in thirds, with Kurds running the show in the north, Sunnis in the center and Shiites in the south.

Hardly worth the price.

Anyway. Red had a fine birthday, even if he didn’t know it was his day. He got an extra treat after dinner.


Tom Brokaw had it right on NBC’s Meet The Press when he described the war of words between White House aide Gene Sperling and journalist Bob Woodward as “a speck that became a sandstorm overnight.”

Overblown is the word for it, since Sperling clearly was not threatening Woodward when he wrote in an e-mail that Woodward would “regret” accusing President Obama of “moving the goalposts” in his budget negotiations with the Republicans in Congress.

But Woodward chose to make an issue of it publicly, and repeatedly. Finally, on the Sunday shows this week, they both called for a truce and promised to put the argument behind them. We can only hope.

But this manufactured tempest did focus a spotlight on the often combative relations between the White House press corps and the Administrations they cover. It is, as the Daily Download’s Howard Kurtz described it on Reliable Sources on CNN, “a contact sport.” And it has been for years.

White House Press Secretaries often fight back when their respective presidents are criticized in print or on the air. It is a deliberate tactic, designed to intimidate reporters and make them think twice about taking the President to task.

Ron Ziegler and Larry Speakes were famously nasty in their tilts with reporters, as was the sarcastic Ari Fleischer. Jody Powell had an explosive temper and would rip into reporters when he thought they were overly critical of his boss, Jimmy Carter. As the New York Times White House correspondent , I was on the receiving end of blowback from Powell when I wrote critically of President Carter’s handling of the Iran-hostage crisis, but Jody would blow his stack and then forget about it. He did not hold a grudge.

“The closer a press secretary is to his President, the more angry and defensive they get,” Bill Plante, the longtime CBS News White House correspondent said Sunday. “When they are totally invested in the President, it clouds their view and they are less useful to us.”

Other press secretaries, like Marlin Fitzwater and Mike McCurry take a more gentle approach, often using humor to disarm, rather than the verbal sledgehammer. They are both considered to be among the most successful press secretaries.

The current incumbent, Jay Carney, is famous for the angry e-mails and phone calls he makes to reporters who criticize President Obama. Does his approach work? Many reporters in the White House press room think it makes him less effective.

But, of course, all loyalty in the White House is vertical, and if the President thinks his press secretary has it right, then he has fulfilled his first obligation.

And the attacks, no matter how angry, are rarely personal. Both parties — the media and the officials — recognize the arguments for what they are: a tactic.