Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Where Have All the Magazines Gone?

I was sitting a few minutes ago looking at the Esquire covers created by George Lois.
George has been feted as a genius for his magazine covers. They defined an era. Kind of like "Mad Men" but the real thing.
You flip through the covers and there are some great ones. And a lot of not quite great ones. And even more could have been great ones. And some that you wonder, what was he thinking?
Because magazines are hard. And covers are even harder. So George did amazing work, especially when you think about what everybody else was doing.
Which brings me to Tina Brown, Newsweek, and Sidney Harman.
I've never met Sidney Harman (this is standard for all pieces where someone is about to be hammered--I've never met him...but.)
Sidney Harman bought Newsweek for $1, all the debts the Washington Post had run up by not paying attention to what was going on, and the promise that he wouldn't fire anyone.
I know this because I was part of a team trying to buy Newsweek. Our promise was, we'd try to make Newsweek a great magazine again.
We lost, Sid won.
Then a lot of people left Newsweek while Sid tried to figure out what he wanted to do.
Fact was, he didn't know.
He wanted to be a player. He's 92. He has a bundle of money. Newsweek was relatively cheap and made him a player. Beyond that, I doubt Sid had an idea.
Then he had an idea.
Tina Brown.
Tina Brown was Sid's next big idea. She's a famous editor, a celebrity editor. Maybe he could get her to be Newsweek's new editor.
It's an idea.
It ignores a lot of facts.
Like the fact that Tina has left a bunch of wreckage in her path in the last few years. Remember Talk magazine? Remember the launch party at the Statue of Liberty? Lots of money, liberally thrown around, supporting a kind of a concept: America needs a magazine that's kind of like the high-toned, low-class, cheesy, sleezy mags of Europe. Didn't work.
Before that Tina worked at The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker.
According to folks who know, Tina's version of The New Yorker lost $1 million a week.
If my math is correct, that's more money than Newsweek lost last year. $52 million a year is a lot of money to lose.
But she's a celebrity editor.
Which raises the question: what's happened to America's great magazines?
I look at the George Lois covers, and I don't see great covers. I see an editor who had ideas. I see an editor who had the courage to do smart, bold, challenging edit.
That's what we need in American magazines today.
Not more celebrity garbage. Not more flash and trash.
These are amazing times. The conventional wisdom is boring. The celebrity circuit is overcrowded.
Where's the editorial courage to ask tough questions, to pay for serious investigative reporting, to challenge the easy way and propose a new direction?
Sid Harman has given more than his fair share of cool interviews and hip speeches since buying Newsweek.
But I'd be greatly surprised if The Daily Beast-Newsweek combination spells more courageous journalism for America.
If I'm wrong, I'll be the first to say so.
If I'm right, it's just another loss for a country that actually needs some great journalism to ask the right questions and produce great covers.
In the end, it's not the art directors, or even the owners, who do the work that we gasp at in awe. It's the great editors.
Where are they when we need them?

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