Barry Diller is dumping Newsweek. The mogul is scraping what is left of this once prestigious media brand off his shoes in a deal with IBT. Terms of the deal were not disclosed; it is unlikely that the shell of Newsweek cost much. The Daily Beast will continue to appear, but it is clear now that the attempted merger was an expensive flop.
The proud new owner of the Newsweek name is the publisher of International Business Times, an all-digital business publication based in New York. Founded in 2005, the International Business Times has grown rapidly to become one of the top business news sources on the web. To make the humiliation of Newsweek complete, IBT has connections to Olivet University, founded by a controversial preacher who, ex-followers allege, claims to be the second coming of Christ.
Even so, we’re glad to see the Newsweek label survive; before becoming a vehicle for elite vanity journalism it was a serviceable and useful publication that provided millions of people with a weekly news digest. The competition helped keep Time on its toes, and though younger readers out there might have a hard time believing this, there was a time not all that long ago when it actually mattered what Newsweek said.
The rise of new publications like IBT illustrates the reality that the public still wants and needs news. Indeed, the global hunger for real news, useful filters and helpful analysis is growing. What isn’t growing is the desire to read the bloviating, self-indulgent prose of dozens of highly paid, self-important windbags who tweak the conventional wisdom week after week under the illusion that they are making some kind of contribution to public life. (Here at Via Meadia, none of our self-important windbags are highly paid.) The public appetite for theme and variation on the Davos party line is small, and the desire to pay hefty subscriptions for the privilege of reading elegantly phrased iterations of the elite consensus seems to have melted away.
The class of elite journalists who once adorned the mastheads of publications like Newsweek is under siege. Many have retreated to the academy or to think tanks; others are looking to foundations. The scramble for the few remaining perches is intense; real talent usually finds a way, but the prosperous mediocrities of the golden years are scrambling hard.
It’s a tragedy that none of Newsweek‘s leaders in the past decade were able to rejuvenate the old brand. Perhaps IBT will have more luck—though since few people under 30 have any idea of what the publication once meant that isn’t going to be easy. Brand names are a wasting asset; nobody remembers what the leading brand of horseshoe was in 1900 and we doubt that many horseshoe companies were nimble enough to turn themselves into tire manufacturers in time.
Ultimately the tire industry created more jobs and helped more people travel more quickly than the horseshoe industry ever did; something analogous is almost certainly going to happen in the world of information as well. That was small comfort to most blacksmiths, and it is less comfort to the growing number of former members of the national press elite scrambling in the wreckage of their industry today.
Because the press elite generally acted as the high priests of orthodoxy in the holy temple of blue, its decline and fall marks a political as well as an economic transition. Power is passing from institutions that play by the old rules and uphold the old ideas to new kinds of organizations operating on different assumptions.
The next stage in the drama may well come on university campuses, where the professoriat is staring uneasily at some of the same challenges that have thrown the world of elite media into fundamental disarray. In any case, the transformation of American society and our economy into something new and post-blue is accelerating. Nobody knows what is coming; interesting times lie ahead.
[January 16, 1939 cover of Newsweek. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]