So You Went and Bought Newsweek: An Owner's Manual

Sidney Harman agreed to buy Newsweek magazine from The Washington Post Co.
Sidney Harman agreed to buy Newsweek magazine from The Washington Post Co.

Congratulations, Sidney Harman! You are now the proud owner of Newsweek, an iconic, influential and highly profitable* magazine. And all it cost you was a single measly dollar!** You must be some kind of genius! Even so, don't take it wrong if we offer you a few tips, seeing as you're brand new to the media business.

1. Don't be afraid to pull a Rupert Murdoch. In selling Newsweek, the Graham family, which controls the Washington Post Co. (WPO), was motivated by more or less the same mix of concerns the Bancrofts had when faced with the choice of whether to sell The Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. (NWS): Selling it was very much in their interest financially, but they didn't want to be remembered as the ones who allowed a great journalistic legacy to be corrupted. Both families arrived at the same solution, soliciting promises from the buyer to respect the integrity of the editorial product. In your case, that means continuing to employ most of the people whose bloated salaries make Newsweek such a money pit.

Murdoch, of course, was bluffing. He has remade the Journal as he's seen fit, and you should feel free to do no less with Newsweek. There's no surer way to kill it than to try to keep it exactly as it was when you bought it.

2. In fact, forget everything Newsweek has done for the past five years. In that time, it's been through two extensive editorial makeovers. Neither has done anything except to make Newsweek seem more turgid, self-important and out of touch. In 2007, editor Jon Meacham actually bragged that he had found a way to cram more words into its pages, as though that's what readers had been clamoring for.

You want to save Newsweek, Sidney? Start by replacing Meacham, who's leaving, with an editor who will make it fun to read. I'm not talking about iffy high-concept stunts like bringing in Stephen Colbert as guest editor or pitting Abraham Lincoln against Charles Darwin in an imaginary cage match. I'm talking about finding a tone that makes it less like homework.

And that's why you should...

3. Hire Adam Moss. As editor-in-chief of New York, he's already shown he can take a storied but sagging brand and pump it full of fresh life and imagination in a way that other magazines will feel compelled to imitate. He should thus be at the very top of your wish list. I'm not saying you could actually get him -- New York is a much sexier magazine to be associated with these days, with as big a national profile as he could wish. But possibly after six years, he's ready for a new challenge -- especially if you're prepared to pay the $800,000 salary Meacham was rumored to be getting.

4. Get your writers the hell off TV. As I believe I've mentioned, your star scribes have a nasty habit of acting like their real job is getting chatted up by Wolf Blitzer or David Gregory. Tell them to knock it off. Newsweek doesn't need more exposure on Morning Joe -- it needs smart brains working together to produce mold-breaking journalism. And that means sitting in editorial meetings, not a makeup chair.

5. Wait a minute, the deal hasn't closed yet, right? Okay, forget about tips 1-4. There's still time. Take your dollar and run, Sidney! RUN!

*Historically, that is. These days it straight up gushes money in the wrong direction -- $39.5 million in losses last year, and a projected $20 million this year despite staff cuts of 33%.

**Plus the assumption of $40 million in subscription liabilities, as well as those ongoing losses mentioned above.