Why Magazine Editors Should Stick to Editing


is for sale, and, while severalparties have indicated plans to submit first-round bids before this Wednesday's deadline, chances are this "sale" will be more like a giveaway once the numbers all net out. The Washington Post Co. (WPO), which owns Newsweek, says it will accept a few million bucks upfront and underwrite a hefty portion of the magazine's future liabilities just to get clear of it.

This is a tad surprising, David Carr suggests in The New York Times, because Newsweek is "a huge part of the national conversation...It is a shiny wonderful name, one that brings to mind Jonathan Alter, Evan Thomas, Fareed Zakaria and its editor, Jon Meacham, all of whom are prominent in important conversations and can be seen all over television sharing their opinions."

But is that surprising? Or does it just show that being all over television isn't something editors ought to strive for?

The idea that editors of print publications need to be multi-platform brand ambassadors has gained a lot of currency in the past few years, for fairly obvious reasons: As consumers spend ever less time with print and ever more with digital media, it's logical to follow them. But merely getting on TV a lot, as a guest on Morning Joe or Charlie Rose or the Meet the Press, is a pursuit with costs but no obvious benefits, at least for so-called "thought leader" magazines that, like Newsweek, depend only to a minimal extent on newsstand sales. When editors and writers are helping TV producers fill their airtime, they may be "sharing their opinions" in "important conversations," but what they're not doing is editing or writing or conducting the type of groundbreaking journalism that sparks those conversations.

Just look at the top editors who are, by general industry consensus, the best at their jobs. The New Yorker's David Remnick and New York's Adam Moss are both sparing presences on television (Moss more so than Remnick, who writes books he occasionally has to promote). Neither is a regular on the shouting-head roundtable circuit. It's difficult to imagine either editor hosting his own show, as Meacham does. Same goes for John Micklethwait, editor in chief of The Economist. That's the magazine Meacham has said repeatedly he'd like for Newsweek to emulate. But not only does The Economist not trumpet how often its contributors turn up on CNN or MSNBC -- it doesn't even give them bylines in the magazine.

It's all well and good to go on TV and talk about the stories of the day. But it's better to be the one publishing the stories everyone else is going on TV to talk about.