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September 23, 2014

Nine Questions on Newsweek's Future: Beltway Blues, Semi-Wonkiness and 'What Would Arianna Do'?

It’s official, the news of midsummer. Newsweek is sold, for the price many of us anticipated, a buck — plus those nasty ongoing losses ($30 million in 2009) and liabilities. The winning bidder, Sidney Harman, the energetic mogul and philanthropist, who’s pledging to keep the staff largely whole and the magazine’s mission intact. That’s well and good, but this is a pub with a few issues, beyond the usual one about the place of newsweeklies in the digital age. My nine questions of the moment.

1) Can the publication escape semi-wonkiness? There may be nothing worse than semi-wonkiness. In part, Newsweek is a journal of public policy options, and ones that the Obama Administration is in the midst of mulling, in education, health, foreign policy, finance and more. It could fully embrace its inner wonk, pointing to Obama 2012, and be clearly and prescriptively a shaper of the re-emergent liberal agenda, building on the work of Fareed Zakaria, Julia Baird, Daniel Lyons, Daniel Gross and Jonathan Alter.  Or it could drop the wonky clothing, and learn some lessons from its erstwhile sister Slate, and have more fun with the news.

One way or the other, as almost all observers have agreed, the magazine must find a new identity, and a sharp one. Jon Meacham’s departure opens the door to that, but doesn’t at all guarantee it.

2) Doesn’t the “sale” mark Don Graham’s intention to save the flagship Washington Post, and shepherd it through to the new age? Yes, he got the going price of the moment, a buck, but he won’t let Newsweek’s liabilities weigh down the Post into the future. Just as the New York Times Company has shed baseball interests, buildings, radio stations and newspapers, and will sell its regional group and the Globe if a decent market for them returns, even briefly — all to get the Times itself stably into the digital age — the Post’s leadership understands that while Kaplan is the cash cow, now responsible for 58% of profits, the Post is the cream to be preserved.

3) Isn’t the future of Newsweek on the tablet? We see impressive iPad sales from magazines like GQ, Wired and Popular Science. And we see the Wall Street Journal ahead of the pack, selling iPad subs. The tablet is that long-dreamed-about oasis for magazines, giving them the ability to cut printing costs, find scads of new readers that didn’t know about their brands, satisfy hip advertisers and add new content dimensions to their print products. It’s hard to imagine that even in five years, we’ll see that many printed magazines — eco disaster! Newsweek’s sale, ironically, comes at a time when that tablet door is just opening. Sure, Apple is making subscription sales tough, but that issue is bound to be resolved as real tablet competition forces Steve Jobs’ hand.

Also, a potential fit: longer-form reading, one of the Harman’s stated intentions, seems to be finding a new tablet audience, just as everyone thought the short-form form of online news reading was turning the nation into zombie news snackers.

4) Which side of the Beltway will the new Newsweek land? The newsmagazine world has always seemed like a East Coast thing, and somewhat a Beltway thing, to those living out here far from New York and D.C. Yes, the federal government is reinvigorated with power, but much of the vitality of the country is found beyond a couple of cities. As US News peels back into niches and Time reinvents itself yet again, maybe one era of newsmagazines — the voices of God from The East — is ending, and another one beginning.

5) Can the new Newsweek find the new web? Early on, Newsweek did a deal with MSNBC, and re-upped it last year. It’s been a traffic booster, but failed to build well on two good brands. We’ll now see whether the deal will move with the new ownership, or be re-fashioned in a way that propels Newsweek talent forward. Check out iTunes and all you find is Newsweek on Air, an almost-hour-long program that defies the short-term sensibility of today’s listener and info grabber. Newsweek’s current talent is lost on that show. Audio and video could multiply Newsweek brand sensibility and reach.

6) Isn’t it time to get a little interactive? Take Conventional Wisdom Watch (major riff on conventional wisdom over at New Republic), an enduring editorial classic measuring the political zeitgeist. It’s iconic — and readers could play along submitting their own, crowdsourcing, inventing and interacting with the brand. Yet, it’s been stuck in print as the digital world — a world of possibility — has grown around it.

7) Doesn’t being bought by a 91-year-old bring up fairly immediate succession issues (and make 79-year-old Rupert’s own issues take a backseat for a week or so)? Harman even noted that succession would be a primary issue to work on, oddly ironic for the new owner of a publication that seemed on its deathbed.

8) Should Sidney ask Arianna, “What would you do with Newsweek?”?

9) Even if it’s just a reprieve, isn’t it comforting to hear Sidney Harman’s first non-Zell-like take on his new prize? “My purpose is to get the magazine operating in a reasonable amount of time — and that’s years, not weeks — on its own fuel. I bring intellectual curiosity and serious business experience to a place that could be done no harm from the first and a great deal of good from the second.”

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