For nearly 80 years, Newsweek slathered ink on dead trees. In its early form, the magazine took its name quite literally, publishing seven photos on its cover, one for each day of the preceding week. The inaugural issue, on Feb. 17, 1933, featured a speech by Germany’s new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, as well as the congressional approval of the election of Franklin Roosevelt.
Competing against Time magazine for the attention of well-informed Americans, Newsweek found its identity in the turmoil and change of the 1960s after The Washington Post’s parent company acquired the magazine. Through its coverage of civil rights and the John F. Kennedy administration, Newsweek would become a definitive source of news analysis and opinion. It applied a liberal bent to its coverage of politics and war, whipping up controversies over the years on stories ranging from the Monica Lewinsky scandal to Guantanamo Bay.
That was back when good content was worth waiting for. Then came the Internet and the flood of news and information in real time. The digital format posed a mortal threat to the published newsweekly. As the news cycle compressed, Newsweek struggled to adapt. Between 2001 and this past June, paid circulation fell by more than half, to 1.5 million from 3.2 million. Stunned by sudden irrelevance, the once esteemed publication tried to reinvent itself. Still the losses mounted. In 2010, Washington Post Co. sold Newsweek to Sidney Harman, the 92-year-old co-founder of Harman Kardon, for $1 and the assumption of its debt. Newsweek merged with the Daily Beast, an online publication led by editor-in-chief Tina Brown, who would take over as Newsweek’s editor.
Harman died in 2011. His family initially promised to continue to support the publication, but last summer abruptly cut off funding after reportedly taking a dim view of Newsweek’s sensationalism. The Tina Brown era was one of blatant provocation. However measured the tone of the content within its pages, Newsweek was branded a troll for its scandalous covers. President Barack Obama was adorned with a rainbow halo and declared “The first gay president.” The “Muslim rage” cover, followed by an attempt to start a Twitter conversation on Islamic extremism under the hashtag #MuslimRage, was mocked.
None of which was sufficient to reverse the decline of the magazine, which is reported to be losing about $40 million a year. Newsweek surprised few when it said its Dec. 31 issue would be its last, after which the publication will exist only online.
Despite the inevitability, the loss of what was once a pillar of American journalism attests to the decline of the printed form. In her announcement on the Daily Beast, Brown framed Newsweek’s hardcopy death as a mere transition to an all-digital entity, Newsweek Global. Yet the change is “extremely difficult,” she said, “for all of us who love the romance of print.”