Tina Brown’s Newsweek ‘takes a leap into the future,’ which is oblivion

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Tina Brown on 'Morning Joe' this morning. ()
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"@Newsweek takes a leap into the future and goes all-digital in 2013!"

Of course, nobody was buying the fake jubilation in Tina Brown's tweet, transmitted at 3:53 a.m. on Newsweek's death day, given the number of times already that Brown has played her failures as futuristic gambles. It was almost exactly four years ago that she launched her website, The Daily Beast, telling Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America":

"I was against [the Internet]. Well, not against it but I was very skeptical of it. Now that I am doing the site I do understand the love affair with it. ... There's a lot of energy there about being multimedia which is something that is of course very seductive."

Brown is fond of love metaphors. On Nov. 11, 2010, when she was able finally to formally announce that Barry Diller's IAC, owners of The Daily Beast, had made a deal to merge the online title with the print Newsweek, the headline read like an old Tatler item: "The Daily Beast and Newsweek to Wed!"

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But down the page of this wedding announcement, she seemed a bit exhausted again with the Internet, and still nursing a crush on print:

"Working at the warp-speed of a 24/7 news operation, we now add the versatility of being able to develop ideas and investigations that require a different narrative pace suited to the medium of print."

This time, she wasn't going to make the mistakes she made in her last paper-and-ink romance, Talk magazine:

"Today, we look at print from the refreshed point of view of an expatriate who sees the old country with new eyes. That will create a great new creative energy ..."

The announcement early this morning that Newsweek would shut down its print operation was proof enough that that energy had sputtered out. And again, metaphors drawn from the vagaries of love are deployed to express the pathos:

"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's Newsweek has been a bit of a disaster, really, and it started to truly fall apart last fall, amid reports of internal tumult at the magazine. The standout account was from John Koblin, who wrote about the chaos at Newsweek for WWD in November, 2011. Here's one quote:

“There was never a discussion at any point about what Newsweek was going to be after she took it over,” said a Newsweek source. “Was it going to be Tina’s New Yorker? Was it going to be Mark Whitaker’s Newsweek? Was it going to be The Week? That discussion never happened. It never even happened at the micro-level.”

Shortly after Koblin's piece was published, writing for Vanity Fair's website, Bruce Handy chastised Brown for beginning her magazine each week with "a miles-long slog of columns by A-list writers eager to champion the incontrovertible and rehash the already thoroughly hashed":

Recently writing of the Arab-world uprisings, Stephen L. Carter risks this pronouncement: “In the nations where the mighty have already fallen, we do not know how matters will play out.” Guess what else? Paul Begala is troubled by the anti-intellectualism of the Republican Party. Niall Ferguson has discovered that, thanks to technology, “the human race is interconnected as never before.” Bernard-Henri Lévy summons the moral courage to observe that “there is, in the spectacle of Gaddafi’s lynching, something revolting.”

At the time, I felt the magazine could still be saved if Brown did the right things. Chiefly, it meant trusting other people a little more:

Certainly, Brown won't be able to rejuvenate the magazine herself. Her universe of friends is 10 years older than it was when she ran Talk, and the magazine-Rolodex feedback loop that enlivened her past enterprises now threatens to bog this one down, if that's all she's got.

It has been remarked about Brown's friend Arianna Huffington that she has an unusual willingness to listen to young people. She is comfortable, to say the least, allowing them to keep her publication current in a way that she can't.

People who have worked for Brown, by contrast, have been complaining socially since at least her Talk days that it can be difficult to keep her up to date on what's happening in the culture. Brown will need to develop a trusted bench of editors, and a more receptive ear.

But instead of making her magazine better attuned to the culture, Brown has made war on it.

Over the last 12 months, the magazine has been rightly called out on several occasions for "trolling." This is a demented cousin of "pandering" which sometimes passes for being smarter: It's when you try to start outrage or disbelief among readers. You amass, essentially, hate-readers who can't help but look at the spectacle you are creating.

Perhaps the best recent examples are Niall Ferguson (no longer making hash) on why Barack Obama shouldn't be re-elected—a piece full of howlers evidently meant to provoke its own readership—that it resulted in a tremendous backlash for the magazine, one from which I don't think it recovered psychologically. But plodding forward, its infamous "MUSLIM RAGE" cover continued the downward spiral.

There were only really two roads Brown could have taken when she took over Newsweek: the high road and the low one. I'm not saying that her magazine would have made it on the high road—the title was reportedly losing as much as $40 million for its proprietor. But taking the low road didn't really increase the odds, and resulted in people of relative good will pronouncing Newsweek dead well before the "all-digital" announcement made it official.