A Brief History of the Sidney Harman Era at <em>Newsweek</em>, Which Is Now Over

Barry Diller's IAC is now the majority owner of a print publication. How'd that happen?

Remember that time Newsweek magazine was put up for sale by The Washington Post and then “saved” by then-91-year-old stereo magnate Sidney Harman (of the wonderful line of audio/visual products Harman + Kardon)? Well, less than two years ago, that actually happened. Now, that era is over, as the Harman family is done investing in Newsweek. As a result, IAC is now a majority owner, with a print publication on its books. How, exactly, did any of this happen in the first place?


April 2010: Newsweek is on the verge of a big web re-launch, which they’ve invested heavily in. Staffers at Newsweek are excited for a new digital look, but they’re wondering why they’re hearing rumors they’re being moved out of their snazzy new West Village offices they just moved into, which is weird, right?

May 2010: It is indeed weird, as they find out. Newsweek is put up for sale by The Washington Post Company, which has owned it since 1961. Donald Graham of The Washington Post Company says the magazine “might be a better fit elsewhere.” Newsweek‘s then-editor-in-chief Jon Meacham begins a (noble, but tragic and doomed) quest/publicity tour to find the money to buy it himself. The sales book for the company leaks and, surprise surprise, one of the cost-cutting ideas involves reducing the staff. Newsweek will move two more times between now and end of this timeline.

Early October 2010: Sidney Harman emerges as the buyer of Newsweek after other suitors who aren’t Jon Meacham—including Politico and Reuters—didn’t pony up for the magazine. People marvel at the fact/irony that a 91 year-old man is investing in a national print weekly which (despite some very fine journalism) many Americans are only familiar with as that magazine they read at the dentist’s office. The asking price? One American Dollar ($1.00), plus Newsweek’s swelling debt.

October 2010, Two Seconds LaterNewsweek‘s then-editor-in-chief Jon Meacham resigns.

Late October 2010: Harman is profiled by New York Magazine. He admits that he struggles to remember the word “dinosaur.” It’s reported elsewhere that Harman’s privately saying he can float $40M to the venture and give it three years to succeed. The search for a replacement editor starts at Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria and goes outward from there, far and wide, even at one point netting former Observer editor Peter Kaplan. Newsweek moves offices again.

November 5th, 2010: Free of Newsweek, The Washington Post Company celebrates a 21 percent quarter-to-quarter rise in online publishing profits.

November 2010: The new Sidney Harman-owned Newsweek merges with Barry Diller‘s IAC-owned The Daily Beast after around a month of formal talks, which at one point completely broke down. An ostensibly reluctant Tina Brown is anointed the editor-in-chief of both properties, and put in charge of her first magazine since Talk, which had the best magazine launch party ever, so this is going to go smoothly. Nobody is quite sure how it’s going to work but people at The Daily Beast are very excited that they’re going to be printed in dead trees and ink. The very few staffers left at Newsweek who were there before the sale was announced—meaning they’ve either survived layoffs or haven’t yet found jobs elsewhere—are utterly terrified and, in most instances, praying for a buyout option. Others, like those at the website, would like to keep their website, and launch a Tumblr confusingly called Save Newsweek Dot Com. Those staffers are later poached by Tumblr. The Observer‘s media reporter at the time (a former Newsweek staffer) then writes: “Oh my God. This is really going to happen.” He is later poached by Newsweek/The Daily Beast.

March 2011: The first issue of the Tina Brown-edited Newsweek emerges with Hillary Clinton on the cover, under cover lines about her “war” on the glass ceiling, which nobody should take to mean as anything other than another issue of Newsweek. Ms. Brown “pens” a memorable Internal Memo, “obtained” by the Observer. The second issue has a piece by Bret Easton Ellis, concerning the matter of Charlie Sheen. By now, Andrew Sullivan has been poached by Tina Brown for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. The nu-Newsweek has arrived.

April 13, 2011: Sidney Harman, who remained an active part of Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s operations, dies at 92. He is survived by his wife, Jane Harman, a U.S. Democratic Congresswoman. In a New York Times article headlined “Harman Family to Keep Its Stake in Newsweek,” Sidney Harman’s lawyer explains:

“The Harman family is totally committed to Newsweek and its future,” he said. “They will continue to be active and supportive as Sidney would have wished and in Sidney’s memory.”

The manager of the Harman family’s investment in Newsweek/The Daily Beast isn’t yet clear. Harman’s 29 year-old son is floated as a possibility, but Daniel Harman, who is in business school at the time, probably knows better than to get into media at his first strike in the world as a businessman.

May 2011: Jane Harman is now managing the Harman Family’s interest in Newsweek. Tina Brown is profiled by the The New York Times Magazine, and we learn that Harman had taken to calling Brown “my beauty” and that Brown’s complete control over Newsweek—which at this point has seen magazine sales go up, but ad sales go down—was hard-won.

July 2011: Newsweek.com ceases to exist.

September 2011: Jon Meacham is now a contributing editor at Newsweek‘s sworn enemy, Time.

October 31, 2011: AdWeek’s Lucia Moses has a spooky piece about nu-Newsweek detailing the fact that Newsweek has a ways to go, and that becoming profitable by 2013—the timeframe Barry Diller originally gave the venture—won’t be easy:

If that task takes years and Newsweek can’t find a way to regain the relevance weekly newsmagazines have lost since the explosion of news on the Internet, then Diller and Jane Harman, Sidney Harman’s widow, could reach the point where they finally decide to cut bait.

July 24, 2012: One year, three months, and eleven days was the amount of time it took from the Harman family to go from “totally committed” to the partnership with IAC and Barry Diller that oversaw Newsweek to only holding a minority stake in it. “The Harman trust has indicated it does not intend to make further capital contributions to the venture,” it is explained, as the Harmans confirmed to Reuters‘ Peter Lauria—a former Daily Beast writer working for a company which, if you’ll remember, was once interested in buying Newsweek—that their stake in the magazine/website has been diluted to a “minimum level of ownership.” The Harman family refutes a rumor that the decision was based on the content of the magazine under Tina by explaining the decision as “purely financial.”

fkamer@observer.com | @weareyourfek

A Brief History of the Sidney Harman Era at <em>Newsweek</em>, Which Is Now Over