Jon Meacham Seeks Help

Jon Meacham is frustrated. After taking over Newsweek in 2006 as editor, he hasn't managed to get it out of its long-term rut as the second-best in the newsmagazine business. He also seems to have developed a severe case of Economist envy:

After about an hour, there seemed to be no more questions for him, so Newsweek editor Jon Meacham turned to his audience—about 100 graduate students at Columbia journalism school—and said he had a question for them: Did anyone in the room read Newsweek or Time? There was a small, awkward rumbling before finally, a man shouted, "No!"

Kudos to the guy for standing up and telling the obvious truth: Newsweek isn't read by anyone short of Grandma and dental office patrons.

Mr. Meacham scanned the audience for his quarry and then asked the journalism student, clad in a black turtleneck, whether he read The Economist. Yes, he did.

"It's the most talked about and least read magazine," said Mr. Meacham. "Have you looked at Newsweek?"

"Sure," said the J-schooler.

"And it's not up to your standards?"

"I find less useful honestly. The news? I don't get it from Newsweek. The Economist is more courageous," he answered.

Courageous? The guy must be channeling Dan Rather. Just the sort of pretentious thing you'd expect a journalism student to say.

"The success of The Economist—the fact that you read it, a black-turtlenecked guy at Columbia," Mr. Meacham began. But then he changed tack.

"Look, I need you," said Mr. Meacham. "And I need—I've got people out there risking their lives right now. The Economist is not, by the way ..." He changed tack again. "I've got four people in Baghdad who could be killed at any moment who are trying to tell the truth the best they can of that story. We have people in 13 different countries. We have a guy in Afghanistan who has Taliban sources who the federal government has asked about because we have better intelligence than government does—he's risking his life."

"And how to communicate that we have things to say that are both factually new and analytically new and to get you under the tent is a fact that scares me—not The Economist per se. It's an incredible frustration that I've got some of the most decent, hard-working, honest, passionate, straight-shooting, non-ideological people who just want to tell the damn truth, and how to get this past this image that we're just middlebrow, you know, a magazine that your grandparents get, or something, that's the challenge. And I just don't know how to do it, so if you've got any ideas, tell me."

A true Kodak moment. And yet, it's more than that, though. Here we have the editor of a major newsmag going out and publicly soliciting the opinions on how to run his publication. Where does he turn for such advice? To the knee-jerk left-wing students at the Columbia School of Journalism, a crowd that can't get any more elitist, snobby, and out-of-touch.

Here's an easy piece of free advice for you, Jon. Instead of making obviously false denials of ideological bias in the overwhelmingly Democrat-dominated media, admit that politics of your staff influences their writing just like you believe their race or gender can. If you worked harder at creating a balanced staff and a balanced product, you'd easily increase your readership. There are lots of right-leaning journalists out there who would love to report straight news for you right along your left-leaning reporters.

You might also try taking your liberal religion off your sleeve. Even secular people can spot the transparently political attempts of yours to rebrand ancient religious figures as prophets of liberalism. It simply doesn't work: the non-religious will laugh at you for still believing in myths (the Economist would never run a liberal Jesus article). Traditionalists, meanwhile, will rebuff your revisionism.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013