Jim Impoco aims for ‘must-read’ status with new Newsweek

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Jim Impoco became the latest editor of Newsweek just three weeks ago, after IBT Media bought the withering digital-only title from Barry Diller's IAC Interactive. In that time he's hired nearly two dozen staffers, rethought the magazine with an almost entirely new masthead and, in the early morning hours today, released his inaugural issue.

At first blush, what Impoco has made, and what he says he wants to make, seems less like the sometimes bizarre version of the magazine that was helmed by Tina Brown for the past two years, and more like one of the many versions produced under the ownership of the Washington Post Company's Graham family.

"We're trying to put deep reporting in Newsweek and more news in Newsweek," said the 55-year-old during a phone interview, in which he characterized his mandate thusly: "Turning Newsweek back into an indispensable read, not an optional read."

To insiders, the provocative cover story, “The Phantom Menace: Exploding Iran’s Nuclear Threat Myth,” is as remarkable for having been written by Kurt Eichenwald as for its heterodoxy. Most of the other articles embrace the news cycle: daily life in war-torn Damascus; a Michigan blogger who'd become wary of the NSA before Edward Snowden was even a glimmer in The Guardian's eye; the new Grand Theft Auto; the Twitter IPO.

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But in true Newsweek fashion, there are some suburban conversation-starters thrown in for good measure: the psychology of automobile traffic, for instance. Energy drinks as your teenager’s brain cells' worst nightmare. Moms who brag on Facebook.

(Click photo at left to enlarge.)

Three departments have been renamed: "Newsmakers" to "Downloads"; "Better World" to "New World"; "Culture" to "Life/Style." The art direction is now helmed by veteran design duo Priest + Grace and Impoco said there will be a daily web component on top of the weekly tablet format in which Newsweek is delivered these days.

"IBT Media will continue to build on Newsweek’s legacy of quality journalism while unleashing its global and digital potential for growth by modernizing the business," said IBT Media co-founder Jonathan Davis in a statement. "We are very excited about this first issue and about the talented team we have on board.”

THIS IS NEWSWEEK'S FOURTH OVERHAUL, at the most conservative possible count, since 2009.

That's when Jon Meacham transformed the magazine into a cerebral digest for current affairs wonks. (Or, as The New York Observer put it at the time, "a monthly that publishes every week. ... a news-idea magazine for the Age of Obama.") Then, after Newsweek was unloaded by The Washington Post Co., came the Tina Brown era, marked by sensational covers and an anachronistic budget that seemed more in line with the magazine's heyday. After bleeding tens of millions of dollars over the course of two years with the help of its IAC sister title, The Daily Beast, Newsweek shed its print edition at the beginning of 2013 and reimagined itself for the iPad crowd to scant fanfare. In August, as first reported on Capital, it was sold for an undisclosed sum to IBT Media, owner of the fast-growing news website The International Business Times and 10 other online publications.

By the time Impoco took the reins, Newsweek was a shadow of a shadow of its former self, its full-time editorial staff reduced to a skeleton crew compared to the several-hundred-person newsroom it once boasted.

Impoco, who previously worked as an editor for Reuters, Condé Nast Portfolio and The New York Times, where he ran the Sunday business section, has already made a significant investment in talent, with nearly two dozen new hires in the bag and more on the way. They include several high-profile recruits and a handful who have worked with him at his various former employers.

Eichenwald, a Vanity Fair contributor and erstwhile investigative reporter at Portfolio (Condé Nast's brief experiment in business journalism), has been named senior writer. He joins another Portfolio alumnus, Bob Roe, who has been named deputy editor. Jeff Stein, late of The Washington Post, has signed on as national security columnist. And as Capital reported earlier this week, Impoco has raided the newsrooms of some younger publications as well, including Jezebel (Katie J.M. Baker), DNAinfo (Victoria Bekiempis) and The Atlantic Wire (Alexander Nazaryan).

"I was enticed by Jim's intelligent enthusiasm for the project ahead," said Nazaryan, who will write about culture and science. "The notion of doing serious longform for one of the great brands in American journalism—how could I resist that?"

Overseeing what Impoco says will be an expanded international brief is ex-Times of London editor Nicholas Wapshott, though he only has one set of boots on the ground so far, Karla Zabludovsky, who left her post as a Mexico reporter for The New York Times to become Newsweek's Latin America correspondent.

Impoco said that in the short term, he plans to add correspondents in Shanghai, Europe and the Middle East while drawing on the firepower of IBT Media, which employees 200 journalists in 10 countries.

This week's Damascus dispatch, for instance, was written by an International Business Times reporter on the ground in Syria, Impoco said, noting that Newsweek will be "availing ourselves of IBT talent" and that there are plans to create more editorial and business synergies with the various international editions to which Newsweek licenses its brand.

"Outside of Midtown Manhattan, the Newsweek brand is incredibly strong," he said.

DESPITE IMPOCO'S BONA FIDES, THE NEW NEWSWEEK will no doubt be met with skepticism inside of Midtown, given how far the title has fallen from its glory days. And then there are the red flags that have been raised amid the IBT acquisition, such as reports that the company's 31-year-old founders have ties to a controversial Christian preacher ("I looked into it and I had no problem with their explanation whatsoever," said Impoco, declining to elaborate), and allegations of onerous employment conditions and a draconian dress code at the new parent company. ("I didn't have to buy a new wardrobe," Impoco told Capital when asked about that.)

While IBT says that it's profitable, Newsweek isn't exactly known for being flush. And with the "nearly 400,000" paid tablet subscribers it claims, the publication is dwarfed by its longtime rival, Time, which has a large staff and a combined print and digital circulation of roughly 3.3 million, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. Impoco wouldn't discuss his budget, but said, "We're living within our means."

Felix Salmon, a prominent financial columnist who has worked with Impoco both at Reuters and Conde Nast Portfolio, pointed Capital to a Wikipedia entry for the Ship of Theseus when we asked for his take on Newsweek's prospects under its new leader.

In Theseus' paradox, Plutarch asks whether a ship whose every single part from top to bottom has over the years been replaced is actually the same ship.

For now, that question would appear to be on hold. But Impoco does seem to be reaching for some trusty old boards to replace some of the odd renovations that were made when Brown was captain.

The real question is whether there's any version of Newsweek that won't just sink.

"There's not a print problem" anymore, said Impoco. "We're going into this and we're no longer hemorrhaging money. Start with that, and ask yourself, is there room for an interesting digital periodical? I say yes. Our challenge is to fulfill the greatness of the brand and live up to the expectations of the brand. People should be skeptical, but we say, give it a look. Are we less interesting than anyone else out there? I don't think so."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Impoco "ran the business section" of The New York Times. He ran the Sunday business section, but was not the business editor for the paper. We've made the correction above, and regret the error.