Former staffers say that Newsweek was swimming against the tide, but are not optimistic it can reinvent itself as a digital publication
Updated, 2:40 p.m. PST
Newsweek will end its print edition at the end of the year and become an exclusively digital publication after 80 years as a magazine. The decision by IAC/InterActiveCorp chairman Barry Diller, owner of the publication, marks the end of an era for one of the country's most venerable newsweeklies, one that has been losing money for several years.
The final print issue will hit newsstands on Dec. 31, editor-in-chief Tina Brown and CEO Baba Shetty said Thursday.
They said the decision was an acknowledgement by IAC of the "challenging" environment for print advertising, but stressed that the magazine would continue to operate as a subscription-based, digital publication called Newsweek Global.
Diller, who took over the magazine with billionaire Sidney Harman in 2010, had been foreshadowing a decision like this for months, amid reports that Newsweek would lose $30 million this year.
The single worldwide edition will be available on e-readers, and some Newsweek articles will appear on the website of its sister publication, The Daily Beast.
"We are transitioning Newsweek, not saying goodbye to it," Brown and Shetty wrote. "We remain committed to Newsweek and to the journalism that it represents. This decision is not about the quality of the brand or the journalism — that is as powerful as ever. It is about the challenging economics of print publishing and distribution."
Brown and Shetty said the magazine anticipated that layoffs would be part of Newsweek's transition.
Former Newsweek staffers and media analysts did not appear overly optimistic that Newsweek would be able to reemerge as an online force in the same way that it once was one of the country's premiere news periodicals.
"I don't know what the audience for [Newsweek] is," said Michael Isikoff, a former Newsweek investigative reporter and NBC News' national investigative correspondent. "What does it bring to the table that people can't get for free from other websites or won't find on the Daily Beast. I wish them well, but I don't get what they want to be that's different."
Under Brown, Newsweek attempted to shake things up by reinventing itself from a staid weekly summation of global events into a provocative glossy magazine that was as likely to have exhaustive stories about Princess Diana as it was profiles of world leaders.
In some ways the gambit paid off. With Brown calling the editorial shots, Newsweek was never dull. Over the past year, it has captured attention for provocative covers that captured Rep. Michele Bachmann with a deer-in-headlights gaze or labeled Barack Obama as America's "first gay president." But her approach has not been able to attract profits at the money-losing magazine, spelling the end of her return to the world of print, where she first made a name for herself guiding publications like Vanity Fair to greater riches and readership.
Even before Newsweek was sold to IAC, it had undergone a dramatic overhaul aimed at taking it beyond breaking news and into analysis; a move that was both an acknowledgement that print magazines were being tripped up by the speed of online journalism, as well as an attempt to appeal to higher income readers. Then Editor Jon Meacham likened the redesign to the cerebral approach popularized by The Economist, but it did nothing to arrest Newsweek's falling ad rates.
Isikoff said that he believed Newsweek may have strayed too far from its original mission, leaving it without a clear sense of purpose.
"Once you lose your core, you lose who you are, and it just becomes hard to reinvent yourself," Isikoff said. "Newsweek for decades meant something. It was about the news, it was off the news, it was breaking the news. It became something else. But when you do that, you go off into uncharted waters, and those waters are shark-infested."
The reality is that Newsweek surrendered its perch as one of the country's preeminent journalistic forces nearly a decade ago. The magazine was essentially on life support when Harman acquired it from the Washington Post in 2010 for a dollar and the assumption of its debts. Months later, he announced that the news weekly would merge with the Beast, a culture and politics site run by Brown.
Harman died in 2011 and in July of this year his family announced that it was ceding control of Newsweek Daily Beast to IAC.
Evan Thomas, Newsweek's former editor-at-large, said he believed for the past three or four years that the magazine was nearing its expiration point. Thomas said that towards the end of his decades-long tenure, the gallows humor around the office consisted of staffers reminding each other about the fate of buggy whip manufacturers, another once thriving industry undone by technological advancement.
"It was doomed no matter what," Thomas said. "I think Jon Meacham is a great editor. I think Tina Brown is a great editor, but they were swimming against an unstoppable tide."
For Thomas, the undoing of Newsweek had as much to do with its decision to shutter many of its foreign bureaus as the accelerated rates of news consumption.
"The basic idea of Newsweek was to have this big staff all over world shoveling information into headquarters," he said. "Once the ad revenue stopped being able to support that, it became inevitable that the magazine would eventually be unworkable."
Newsweek's current editorial and corporate leadership tried to shrug off any signs that Thursday's announcement is a prelude to an eventual wake for the publication. However, Brown and Shetty could not help sounding slightly elegiac while they painted a romantic portrait of the blood, sweat and tears that goes into producing the kind of national magazines that are becoming an endangered species.
"Exiting print is an extremely difficult moment for all of us who love the romance of print and the unique weekly camaraderie of those hectic hours before the close on Friday night," Brown and Shetty wrote. "But as we head for the 80th anniversary of Newsweek next year we must sustain the journalism that gives the magazine its purpose—and embrace the all-digital future."
If only the future looked a little brighter.