The Media Deal That Wasn’t

harmans The Media Deal That Wasn’tAround lunchtime on Monday, staffers heard Danny Klaidman, one of two acting editors at Newsweek since the end of August, cursing in his office on Hudson Street (“Fuck! Shit!”). Mr. Klaidman had just read the news online from The Wall Street Journal that Tina Brown and Barry Diller had walked away from merger talks with Sidney Harman, the magazine’s new owner.

Mr. Klaidman told The Observer that any cursing was in jest, and had nothing to do with Ms. Brown or The Daily Beast. “It was just the sense of frustration that is shared by everyone at Newsweek that it will take a little while longer before there’s resolution for people. It wasn’t so much for me, as venting on behalf of the institution,” he said on Tuesday.

As of Monday afternoon, at least one other editor was holding out hope. Maybe this was just a bargaining technique? But by 3 p.m., those hopes were dashed when Newsweek CEO Tom Ascheim and Mr. Harman announced to the staff that the talks were over. Most of the Newsweek staff has been largely kept in the dark about the future of the magazine.

“The place clearly needs a makeover,” said one staffer. “People were ready for her to come in and just blow it up. A lot of people were just very disappointed.”

It was an otherwise unremarkable day in the magazine’s office. One staffer circulated a note that there were pumpkin chocolate chip cookies up for grabs on the former desk of Adam Kushner, who left to join the National Journal in September. The Web staff continued to publish stories online, including “Five Signs You’re Headed for Bankruptcy” at 1:18 p.m. The magazine has been reduced to one floor on Hudson Street while renovations for the Post company’s cash cow, Kaplan, continue above. “Part of the deal was that they’d let us stay until November. We’re totally squatters,” said one staffer.

Since the terms of Mr. Harman’s purchase were settled, he hasn’t had much of a presence at Newsweek. At the Washington bureau, he set up an office in a conference room used by the staff to eat lunch. (He added a desk with some photographs; a folding slatted door was installed to block the view into the kitchen just down the hall.)

Mr. Harman last ate lunch with the Washington staff in August. “He made some comments about his policy being ‘connecting the dots,’ to which some of us replied, ‘Well, we thought that’s what we’ve been doing for the last couple of decades,’” said a Newsweek veteran who has left the magazine. 

Mr. Harman made similar remarks in New York the day after he closed the sale. “I’m not here to make money,” he said. “I’m here to make joy and to participate in it.”

“He’s not a media guy, let’s face it, and he has frankly a somewhat high-handed attitude toward the staff,” said the former staffer. “It occurred to me a number of times that, does he think he’s going back into the audio equipment business and we’re his factory workers?” The staffer was surprised that Mr. Harman didn’t fight harder to retain the magazine’s top talent.

One editor in New York said things weren’t that bad. “People down in Washington are legendarily curmudgeonly.”

“People felt like the Tina thing might have been good because it would have added a jolt of excitement and changed the narrative in the media, but I don’t think anyone is terribly bummed that she’s not getting it,” he added.

“Actually, it’s fun,” said Mr. Klaidman. “You give opportunities to a lot of younger reporters who are doing cover stories. … It’s trite, but it’s true. When the big tree gets chopped down, the sun pours down on all the smaller trees.”

zturner@observer.com / @zekeft