The Hagfish Strikes Again

Well, that's it for Newsweek. Celebu-editor and royal gravedigger Tina Brown announced this morning on the web site of the Daily Beast that the magazine's print edition will not survive the year. That's not all Brown's fault, of course. Newsweek is not the first magazine to abandon print, and it will by no means be the last. Tina Brown didn't kill Newsweek. She just killed its credibility.

Brown is regarded by the likes of IAC chairman Barry Diller as some sort of editing savant, a "buzz" maven with the unique ability to define and capture the "zeitgeist" with provocative journalism. A reasonable case could perhaps be made that this was once the case, if you think handing the New Yorker over to Roseanne Barr for a week is provocative.

But ever since she hitched her wagon to Harvey Weinstein's bloated, rage-disfigured star and launched the spectacular failure that was Talk back in 1999, she has proved herself capable of little more than parting megalomaniacs from their money and spooling out an increasingly desperate parade of attention-getting stunts. Whether it was Gwyneth Paltrow in bondage gear or amateurish photoshops of Princess Diana a decade later, Brown's post-Talk antics have shared an uncomprehending frenzy—gone were the carefully plotted high-concept gimmicks of her Condé Nast days. For the past ten years, she has transitioned to basically throwing her shit at the walls—alternating false and tendentious anti-Obama cover stories from smug troll Niall Ferguson with shameless Obama hagiography from Andrew Sullivan, repeatedly fomenting hatred for Muslims, and publishing erotic stock photographs of vegetables as cover "art."

Brown isn't the first editor to hype bullshit. But the gulf between her exquisitely honed reputation and the actual schlock that emerges from her shop is wider than that of any of her peers. Newsweek, which entered her fold two years ago after being purchased from the Washington Post Co. by Sydney Harman, was—let's face it—always destined for the rubbish heap. Or at least it was in need of a heroic and brilliant leader to pull of the coup of survival in a business that is being decimated by secular changes in the industry. Newsweek faces competition from the internet like every magazine, but it faces the additional hurdle of having historically provided a service that has been functionally rendered redundant by the internet—no one needs to catch up on last week's news in one handy informative place anymore. The news is just always there.

So it would have been asking too much of Brown to save it. But putting Newsweek in Brown's hands in its final years was like handing a dying cancer patient over to Gallagher to guide her to her final resting place. "Let's dress her up like a clown! Let's throw some fruit at her! Maybe if we make her scream someone will listen. Oh, by the way, you're all fired now." Newsweek could have gone down with some dignity, while trying to do something noble, or at least something not laughably transparent and awful. Instead it went down covered in the stench of bigotry and post-truth partisan hackery.

Brown says that Newsweek will carry on in digital form as a "global platform" available on tablets and online. This is bullshit. Ask Rupert Murdoch how tablet-based news outlets perform. You will not read Newsweek in 2013 or thereafter. You will see some Newsweek-branded stories, but they will be Daily Beast stories. There was a conceivable point in maintaining different identities for Newsweek and the Daily Beast when there was print ad revenue to be harvested. There's no point now.

So how is the Daily Beast doing? According to Brown, they're pulling in 15 million unique visitors per month, a figure that you can't verify because the site has decided to hide it's Quantcast statistics from the public. IAC doesn't break out revenue figure for the Newsweek/Daily Beast, but they are definitely operating at a loss. Presumably, the elimination of Newsweek's printing and distribution costs will eat into, or perhaps eliminate, that loss. But recall that the entire point of the Newsweek/Daily Beast merger, by Diller's lights, was that print advertising was still where the money was, and that the Daily Beast needed a print operation to subsidize it. It only took two years for a print advertising vehicle to go from the Daily Beast's savior to its albatross.

To get a sense of whether you—or her staff—should believe Brown's attempt a positive gloss on the "important development" that is the demise of Newsweek, just read what she had to say when she first took over 23 months ago:

I see Newsweek and the Beast as a marriage between Newsweek's journalistic depth and the vibrant versatility The Daily Beast has realized on the Web. The metabolism of The Daily Beast will help power the resurgence of Newsweek and Newsweek amplifies the range of talent and audience The Daily Beast can reach. The two entities together offer writers, photographers and marketers a powerful dual platform.

Gibberish.

When Brown first took over Newsweek, I called her a hagfish, which is a blind, eel-like aquatic creature that enters the body of its prey and eats it from the inside out. I proposed that that's what Brown intended to do to Newsweek—empty it out and replace its innards with her own Daily Beast proteges. I was wrong. She did essentially do away with Newsweek's web site, relegating it to a subdomain of the Daily Beast. And there was an exodus of Newsweek talent that she replaced with her own crew. But I used the metaphor as a way to indicate my belief that she and Diller regarded the print magazine as a valuable asset, and that they intended to keep operating it with new guts. Of course, what I failed to account for is the fact that hagfish always kill their prey. And so she has.

[Image by Jim Cooke.]