Tough Times at Newsweek

Tina Brown battles staff defections, bad morale and poor ad sales as she struggles to reinvent the weekly magazine.

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Tina Brown

Photo By Jonathon Ziegler/Patrickmcmullan.Com

Cover of Newsweek

Photo By Courtesy Photo

On Nov. 7, a memo was handed out to Newsweek reporters and editors. The note detailed a new process in how to pitch stories.

“Stories are generated in a variety of ways, from chance conversations with Tina or other senior editors…” the memo began.

It read like something one might find in Journalism 101 — not at a legendary weekly magazine. The memo firmly spelled out how to bring an idea to an editor and get it into the magazine. It was elementary.


The next direction: Reporters should only send stories to “their editors and no one else. Not Tina, Edward or Tom…”

After the memo was handed out, it wasn’t hard for staffers to read between the lines: This was an attempt to bring order to Tina Brown’s Newsweek. It was designed to curb Brown’s impulsiveness; a way to create a pipeline of stories that would make their way to the magazine, a process that had been previously something of a mess; a system that might make it a little easier to work there.

But it didn’t matter. One week later, managing editor Tom Weber, one of the authors of the memo, quit (the second managing editor to do so in six months). Later that day, Edward Felsenthal, Brown’s number two for three years, revealed he was leaving. On a particularly nutty Monday, the publisher of the magazine, Ray Chelstowski, also departed.

It wasn’t exactly the easiest way to celebrate the one-year anniversary of a merger between Newsweek and The Daily Beast. But then again, nothing has come easy. Some on staff have blamed Brown for Newsweek’s struggles, saying she’s lost her fastball and the one thing that has long guided her — her gut, her knack at spotting the zeitgeist — has faded. Others said it was simply the insane pressure of trying to bring a dead magazine back to life and it would be tough on anyone, and, despite the odds and the growing pains, a few remain optimistic that this will still all come together.

Resuscitating a battered newsweekly in 2011 is a tough bit of business. Last year, The Daily Beast and Newsweek lost a combined $30 million. Ad page numbers tell how difficult it is, too: Newsweek’s ad page performance between April to September was down 18 percent, according to the Publishers Information Bureau quarterly report. This is easy to dismiss (what isn’t down these days!) — but Time is up 4 percent for the year, The Economist is flat and Newsweek is competing, year-over-year, against a version of itself that had an ownership change, a lame duck editor and a very uncertain future.

The turnaround has been hard to come by, but there are also signs of progress: In October, the magazine was up 10 percent in ad pages, a spokesman said. And since Brown relaunched Newsweek, it is up 6 percent on the newsstand, year-over-year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Subscription renewals are up 2.6 percent, the first time there hasn’t been a decline in five years, a spokesman said.

“I’m a turnaround veteran at this point,” Brown told WWD. “It’s always hard. Each of them has their own unique problems.”

She later added in an e-mail: “I know a thing or two about turnarounds and they are not for the faint of heart. Luckily there are plenty of people at Newsweek and The Beast who find the journey as exciting as I do.”

And then there are the people who are, well, a little broken.

“You’re exposed relentlessly to the truth that we’re not putting out a good magazine,” said one staffer. “I mean, Regis Philbin is our cover this week.”

“People are completely exhausted,” said another Newsweek source. “I don’t think you’ll find anyone who thinks the magazine is great.”

“It can be a miserable place to work,” said yet another.

It’s certainly been a tough couple of weeks for Brown. Last week, Brown — who, as anyone would attest, works incredibly hard — lost her assistant Lena Jensen, who went to work for a start-up. By the end of the week, she was caught up in a small bit of drama. One of her stars, former New Yorker writer Peter Boyer, thought his article on Congress was going to be the cover story. Right before close, he called her and wasn’t thrilled that his piece was on the inside (and the aforementioned Philbin got the cover instead). Brown, in turn, called managing editor Tom Weber and chewed him out for failing to get this communicated to Boyer. By Monday morning, Weber, fed up after dealing with episodes like this on a weekly basis, said he was leaving, according to several people familiar with the incident. By the time she was in a newsroom-wide meeting on Monday, staffers described her as looking and sounding completely wiped.

Acknowledging that her staff was wiped, too — let alone having lost confidence — she said in the meeting “that in six months, we can all get our lives back to normal.” She unveiled her new leadership team: Longtime Newsweek editor Mark Miller was coming back into the fold as editorial operations director and Justine Rosenthal would be the new executive editor.

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