One of the more remarkable features of our current cultural moment is that otherwise mature adults have been spooked by economics the way children are frightened by thunder. Consider the way the Washington Post Co. has handled Newsweek, one of its flagship assets, which is now up for sale.
Let’s say you own a candy store. For years, the store has been a viable enterprise. It was worth holding on to through cycles of bust because the boom times always returned sooner or later. Part of what made the store worth hanging on to was the fact that it had become so much a part of people’s lives that it was half a commercial and half a civic institution. That comforting familiarity was one reason you knew the store would pull through hard times. That, and the certainty that hard times always came to an end.
Sure enough, another bad stretch hits the store. But this time, economic recession is compounded by a new trend: Rival candy stores are giving away treats and other stuff for free! All the neighborhood candy stores are hit. They all lose money and customers to the new “free” candy stores. Your certainty that the cycle will come to an end is being assaulted by loud local gossip to the effect that this crisis is unprecedented, and that the free stores are a revolution in candy.
What do you do? Do you close a store that during its almost 80 years of existence has become a neighborhood institution? Do you try to sell it at precisely the moment when the very fact of putting it up for sale is the strongest argument against buying it? Do you ignore decades of experience of cycles of boom and bust and believe the hysterical cries announcing the end of retail as you know it? Or do you calm yourself, take a look around and notice that all the nearby stores are doing badly but that yours is doing the worst of all? In that case, instead of closing the store, you might replace your brother-in-law, whom you hired to run the store because you’ve known him forever, because you appreciated his ingratiating style and felt flattered by the fact that he sounded so smart in public and had lots of glamorous friends. So what if your sister won’t talk to you for a while; she’ll get over it.
It is scandalous that the Post Co. has decided to sell Newsweek before replacing the editor under whom the magazine has foundered so badly. Can you imagine the Sulzbergers doing that? Murdoch? Can you imagine any group of people who have, as the Grahams are legendarily said to have, journalism running through their veins preserving an individual over a valuable and viable journalistic institution?
Newsweek is bleeding money. By every law of capitalism, Jon Meacham should have been replaced. And yet rather than replacing him, Mr. Meacham’s overlords allowed him to strip the magazine, precious component by precious component. They stood by while he bought out and laid off some of the magazine’s best editors and writers, reduced the magazine’s guaranteed circulation base in order to attract a more exclusive class of advertiser-a fancy accounting gimmick that had the effect of alienating advertisers looking for a large, guaranteed circulation base-and completely transformed the magazine’s decades-old identity, a gimmick that had the effect of bewildering advertisers eager to match their product or service with a magazine’s familiar identity.
AS NEWSWEEK WENT under, Mr. Meacham went higher. The quarterly financial reports brought news of impending ruin, and yet there he was, night after night, beaming before the cameras on every talk show and comedy show you could think of. It was as if Mr. Meacham had decided that rather than save the ship from going under, he would turn it into his own private submarine. His editorial policy mostly amounted to his publishing famous friends and acquaintances, whose shopworn names did nothing for the magazine’s fortunes but everything for Mr. Meacham’s expanding quid pro quo. There is nothing wrong with being a political animal: on the contrary. But Mr. Meacham’s deft maneuverings reaped him recognition and acclaim while his magazine tumbled toward irrelevancy.
Full disclosure: My wife worked at Newsweek for many years and she was one of the two dozen or so people Mr. Meacham laid off. The fact that she worked at Newsweek was why I never took after Mr. Meacham, as was the fact that he laid her off. But another reason I never criticized Mr. Meacham in print was that I had high hopes for the new format he introduced last May. The instant denunciations of him when he explained that he, in effect, wanted to create a counterpoint to the Internet and run longer, more reflective essays in the magazine made me bristle. The American public is restless by definition. It is only a matter of time before people flock to the Internet to find an antidote to the worst and most undeveloped aspects of the Internet, one of them being amateurishly written “news” that is as inaccurate as it is superficial. What appeared to be Mr. Meacham’s daring seemed right on the mark.