Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, was pacing in a little corner of the basement of the Hilton Hotel in Washington at 6:02 p.m. on the evening of May 9.
It was two hours before the start of the White House Correspondents Dinner, that annual soggy, boozy, clammy hammerlock between journalists and celebrities that would happen upstairs, and the doors had just opened to Newsweek’s annual pre-dinner cocktail party.
“Where’s Mrs. Weymouth?” he whispered as he paced, and then again, a bit more urgently: “Where’s Mrs. Weymouth?”
He was slouching, arms folded, in a baggy tux no designer would claim. Lally Weymouth, the rangy D.C. doyenne and daughter of Katharine Graham, was supposed to anchor the hosting duties at the party, helping to greet the dozens of celebrities who these days flock to the dinner and its surfeit of attendant pre- and post-parties.
He only had to wait a moment more before Mrs. Weymouth arrived and gave him his first assignment: Entertain Natalie Portman. Looking petite and exquisite in a black halter dress, she glided with the editor to an empty part of the ballroom where she congratulated him on his Pulitzer Prize. Ms. Portman was the first that evening to praise his prizewinning biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion, but not the last. He crinkled his nose, closed and opened both eyes in a sort of twitchy wink and whispered thankyou and thankyousomuch. The party photographer snapped a few and was finished with them, and you could hear the conversation grinding to a slow, slow halt until Austan Goolsbee, the young Obama economic adviser, sidled up. Mr. Meacham brightened.
“I was just looking at the numbers,” he said to Mr. Goolsbee, diving into a mini-lecture on Bush 41, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, polls, the economy, history. When Mr. Goolsbee responded, Mr. Meacham held his chin thoughtfully with his right hand. Ms. Portman stood by affecting engrossment, but with a slightly strained smile. Mr. Meacham’s gaze didn’t return to her, Austan Goolsbee consumed his attention.
When Mr. Meacham got back to Lally Weymouth’s side to greet people at the door, he was promptly flooded by hearty hellos and good wishes from an estimable roster of D.C. muckety-mucks.
“It is so deserved, it is so deserved,” said Madeleine Albright (about the Pulitzer.)
“Congratulations!” said Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor.
“Well, look at this,” said a beaming Colin Powell when he shook hands with Mr. Meacham.
Katharine Weymouth, Lally’s daughter and the publisher of The Washington Post, the flagship of the company that owns Newsweek, spoke the kindest word of the bunch to Mr. Meacham, under the circumstances.
“You are doing so well,” she said, “and you’re making us look so good.”
AT ALMOST 40, Jon Meacham, with his recessive posture, his slow gait, his bone-dry jokes, may not strike you immediately as the man who can make your magazine look good. But he has become the embodiment of Sunday-schooled fogeyish integrity in a journalism industry looking for heroes. With his Pulitzer Prize in biography, his boxy grey suits, his kindly Richard Kind underjaw, hollowed gaze, his website on Christian morality, his straight-arrow ethics, the journalistic establishment has awarded Jon Meacham one of the seats at the big table. He deliberates on “Meet the Press,” he worries about Christian ethics on the radio, he writes sermon-like essays. He may not be a man for all seasons, but he has been declared a man for this one.
Next Monday, Newsweek will scrap the template that it has used for 76 years and replace it with a rethinking of the magazine. It will essentially be a monthly that publishes every week. It will be less slick, more weighty, unpretentious, a little boxy—like Mr. Meacham. It will be sent out to fewer but more serious people, and it is meant to appeal to a newly refined audience. The dark, bold, crowded Watergate-chasing, Richard Nixon-excoriating, Vietnam-corresponding, Wallenda tottering, jet-scrambling headlines and text that filled its pages for decades will be scaled down and replaced, in some parts, by a placid, graceful font used in a women’s magazine.
And it’s Mr. Meacham, the wonky, professorial editor who spends his summer days thinking about Andrew Jackson, Franklin and Winston, who is building a news-idea magazine for the Age of Obama. Unlike Time editor Rick Stengel, who plays host to lavish yearly parties where he’s shoulder-to-shoulder with Oprah Winfrey and Jimmy Fallon, Mr. Meacham has seen that the next moment in journalism, the next moment in Washington, won’t be about celebrity. It’s about a certain youthful, confident, hyperstylized, beautifully packaged wonkiness. It will have to have its accessible, pop side. But it will be a very sophisticated kind of pop. Intellectually credible and focus-group-approved. Straightforwardness as interpreted by edgy design firms.
In keeping with this pile of paradoxes, Mr. Meacham goes to all the parties, but not for long. The better part of his ardor is reserved for the Austan Goolsbees of the world than the Natalie Portmans.
“We’re all competing to engage the audience of people who are interested in the news and our kind of journalism,” said Mr. Meacham, quite matter-of-factly. “And so you hunt where the ducks are. And the ducks are on “Morning Joe,” on “Charlie Rose” and they’re on “Meet the Press.” It seems to me you’ve got to be out there so you’re part of the conversation.”
“It’s curious and intelligent and it has a sense of humor and it has—here’s a pompous word—humanity,” said Evan Thomas, the longtime Newsweek writer and close friend to Mr. Meacham, of his work. “You read Jon’s biographies and his own pieces and they’re big-hearted. We’ve gotten less mean and snarky. It’s a natural newsmagazine tendency to go in that direction, but I think Jon is good rising above that sort of stuff.”
His new Newsweek is a dramatic reorientation of what the magazine has always been about. Going back to the 60s, Newsweek with its legend of Flying Wallendas has always been the scrappy newsweekly that hit above its weight to take punches at Time. “Scramble the jets!” Maynard Parker, the magazine’s longtime legendary managing editor would scream, dispatching a series of reporters who would work tirelessly to race after a story and pull together a magazine in its trademark red-and-black ink, the words and photos practically busting off the page. It was Osborn Elliott and Ed Kosner’s magazine. It was a newsmagazine—style was an afterthought, the news was its premium.
The new magazine is loaded with style. The magazine will be consolidated into four sections: Scope (formerly periscope) for news squibs in the front-of-the-book; The Take will be its section for columnists; Features (which is tagged “the first rough draft of history”); and “The Culture.” The back page will be called “The Back Page.” It’s stripped down. Instead of a screaming banner running across the cover, now it’s condensed and tighter, and the banner floats at the top of the magazine in a red box. The palettes are softer and more elegant. New fonts are used in the magazine, including Archer, a signature font of the most un-Newsweek of all magazines: Martha Stewart Living. Cerebral and direct, unsnarky and anti-ironic, with cool hues and fonts to match.
“It’s so beautiful and open and a very modern serif font,” said Bonnie Siegler, the founder of Number 17, the design firm Mr. Meacham hired to redesign the magazine, speaking about the use of Archer in the magazine. Ms. Siegler has worked with two magazines previously: with Kurt Andersen for Colors, and with Kim France and James Truman for the launch of Lucky.
“We wanted to modernize it,” she said of the redesign. “We wanted to bring it into this century, sort of.”
“I adore the editor, I think there’s no better editor in the United States,” said Lally Weymouth in an interview. “Genuinely! Genuinely. I think all the editors we’ve had have done a wonderful job, but I think Jon is wonderful for this time.”
WONDERFUL IS WHAT it might take to save Newsweek, which is fighting to move itself from the class of newsmagazine which might have been slated by the Conventional Wisdom—one of the old Newsweek’s running joke columns—for extinction. Newsweek has fallen deep into the red, and an experimental reinvention—a Hail Mary pass—is what the magazine needs to save itself.
“I have some sense of mission about it. I’ve been reading this magazine since I was 6.”
It was Monday afternoon, and Mr. Meacham was back in Manhattan, sitting on a couch in his corner office on West 57th Street, in the magazine’s final weeks in its longtime midtown headquarters. Fittingly, as the magazine prepares a makeover, it’s leaving an aging office building in the old magazine ghetto near Hearst and Hachette for a refurbished one in Tribeca, where rents will be considerably cheaper and the lighting, inevitably, more flattering.
“Well, several people have said, ‘You won the Pulitzer, now it’s over, you can quit,’” he said. “They completely misunderstand me. I am thrilled about the other thing, obviously, but I have been doing this a third of my life and I want—I want—a whole different generation of people to grow up with this magazine, to be engaged by it, to be informed by it. I just don’t believe in a country of 300 million people, there’s not room for these voices.”
Mr. Meacham was wearing a gray sweater-vest, slacks and a white button-down shirt—he looked like the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit if there had been casual days in 1956. His office hasn’t been prepared for the movers yet. There’s a window overlooking Central Park, and a desk that looks like a late-night talk-show desk. It’s filled with presidential busts—Truman, Jackson, Lincoln, F.D.R.—but there is no Conan O’Brien, Harvard Lampoon irony here: any irony is always unintentional.
Born in Tennessee, and educated with a BA from in English from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee he worked at The Washington Monthly and The Chattanooga Times before he came to Newsweek. He became the national editor for Newsweek in 1995, and rose to prominence in media circles after Newsweek won a National Magazine Award for its reporting of Monica Lewinsky scandal.
And perhaps most importantly, he became the protégé of Maynard Parker. After Mr. Parker died in 1998, Mr. Meacham took the mantle and organized his funeral. Both Mr. Meacham and Mr. Parker are Episcopalian. Religion is a significant part of Mr. Meacham’s life. His book American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation, was a bestseller. He runs a blog with the glamorous and socially powerful Washington Post writer Sally Quinn named “On Faith.”
Mr. Meacham was describing his reader, an increasingly nervous-making bit of hocus-pocus all editors are being asked to do these days.
“People who are interested in politics, who are interested in the world, who are interested in business, and who are interested in culture both high and low whether it’s Lionel Trilling or American Idol,” he offered. “I think it’s largely serious-minded people, but people who don’t take themselves too seriously.”
Finally, he broke it down. He wants readers who are interested in “what I’m interested in.” That is to say, Newsweek isn’t going to appeal to people who substitute newspaper reading with magazine reading; it isn’t going appeal to your average soccer mom sitting in the dentist’s office. Nothing about the new magazine looks inviting to someone who isn’t already interested in the news. At last, the newsmagazine as it should always have been: Meacham, in print.
In two months, the magazine will cut its rate base from 2.6 million to 1.9 million, and by January next year it’ll hit 1.5 million. The price of the magazine on the newsstand will be raised to $5.95.
“We’re putting out a magazine that’s liberated from an ancient cultural impulse here—to make sure we took note of all the major events of a given week,” said Mr. Meacham.
“You go back to [editors] Oz Elliot and Ed Kosner and Rick Smith and Maynard Parker, and we all worked from that fundamental template,” said Mark Whitaker, Mr. Meacham’s predecessor who is now the Washington bureau chief of NBC, and who said he thought Mr. Meacham a brilliant writer. “We changed things, or updated things along the way, but Jon and Tom Ascheim, the new business leader, are saying it has to change now and become a very different magazine. Jon will narrow the focus to a front-of-the-book topic with politics and history and religion, and Tom Ascheim has basically said mass doesn’t work for Newsweek anymore. It’s a much more of a radical rethinking of the magazine than previous editors have done.”
WHEN MR. MEACHAM won the Pulitzer a few weeks before, the Washington Post Company, which owns Newsweek, ran an ad in The New York Times, The Post and Newsweek that read: “Jon Meacham, A Biography. 1969 BORN Chattanooga, Tennessee. 1995 WRITER Newsweek Magazine. 2006 EDITOR Newsweek Magazine. MONDAY APRIL 20, 2009 WINNER 2009 Pulitzer Prize.”
It’s a Meachamy sort of joke. And it’s the underlying premise of both his self-presentation and his new magazine: bursting with merit. To sell this Newsweek, he’s got to make all of Washington root for it. First, all of Washington has to root for him.
“I think I spent 38 minutes at Tammy’s and 32 minutes at the Vanity Fair party, which is just about right,” said Mr. Meacham in his office, with a sly smile, looking back at the weekend.
Consider his peers at that incredibly intimate and high-wattage Vanity Fair and Bloomberg after-party at the mansion of the French ambassador: Time’s Rick Stengel, Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter and The Atlantic’s James Bennet held court on the back patio for hours, well past midnight. Mr. Meacham worked the room for 32 minutes and was gone.
“Jon understands how to reach out to a broader crowd,” said Evan Thomas. “Maybe he didn’t get Natalie Portman, but he gets the notion that there are lots of smart people out there, not just cool people. He’s mercifully free from the in-crowd. He’s not burdened by the in-crowd.”
“He doesn’t necessarily have to appeal to the Vanity Fair–Bloomberg party at the White House Correspondents Dinner,” he continued. “He grew up in Tennessee, you know. He has a feel for a broader audience than the Upper West Side of New York. He’s at home in the world. He doesn’t crave being in the in-crowd.”
At an event last Saturday morning, Mr. Meacham was speaking to a group of advertisers at the Willard Hotel, which is a stone’s throw from the White House.
Mr. Meacham was standing behind a podium before a crowd of about 20 people, and spoke about Mr. Obama and the future of journalism. One person wondered what Mr. Obama’s “Profile of Courage” was at this moment.
“I don’t know yet, but every president, every great president, will have one,” he said.
“Every once in a while in American history, man and moment meet.”
Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared in May 18 editions of The New York Observer and online. This version adds some new material.
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