My nominee for editor of Newsweek

Paul Wells on who should replace Jon Meacham

He would never get the job in a thousand years. He has a reputation, among the tiny few who even know he lives, as a curmudgeon who edited an effete and doomed vanity weekly and who still refuses to understand how the internet passed him by. And he especially has no chance of being hired by the nearly-92-year-old stereo mogul who bought Newsweek on Monday for $1 by offering promises of continuity to the sellers, the Washington Post Company.

But what the heck. On my Twitter account I’ve made it abundantly clear that I had had quite enough of Jon Meacham, the departing editor, and the humorless and pinched Ivy League social-climbing faux profundity that came to characterize his version of Newsweek. And I’m pretty sure “continuity” would kill Newsweek quickly. So I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest (to the maybe five readers who care) an alternative.

So here he is: Peter Kaplan, former editor of the New York Observer. Here’s a taste of him, reminiscing on Charlie Rose maybe a year after he departed from the little pink Manhattan weekly after 15 years as its editor. More recently he has apparently landed decent work running a bunch of fashion magazines. (Two of Kaplan’s former underlings like to pretend to be him on Twitter.) I’ve never met the man.

Why Kaplan? Because if Newsweek has had the two worst years of its existence — and it certainly has — it’s because its departing editor affected a trendy disdain for mere reporting. The early speculation about his replacement is chock-full of people who would probably promote the same gassy stuff Meacham liked.

And new owner Sidney Harman is already getting no end of the kind of advice that sounds hip and modern without being useful at all. On this page of free advice, one guy trots out the old saw about how “the real value Newsweek brings to the table going forward is context and analysis—forward-rotation journalism. I already know what happened by the time they’d tell me; what I really need to know is why and how and what’s going to happen next.”

That’s crap. The biggest stories this year in U.S. journalism have included the Wikileaks Afghanistan stuff; the Washington Post‘s “Top Secret America” series; the Rolling Stone profile that ruined Gen. McChrystal; Adam Liptak’s monumental analysis (here I use the word in its heavy-lifting sense, not its thumb-sucking sense) of the Roberts Supreme Court; and, sure, Andrew Breitbart’s weird success in bullying the Obama White House into briefly sacking Shirley Sherrod. In Canada, I’d put our Michael Petrou’s reporting from Haiti near the top of any list. You might come up with a different list, but I can’t imagine a column or a three-page what-it-all-means thumbsucker having nearly the impact, or frankly even just being as fun to read, as the pieces I’ve listed here.

Is it odd for a columnist to be making this argument? Sure. Whatever. My particular line of work plays to my own strengths, but I don’t think what I do has much to do with the particular and enduring strength of print journalism, which is that it can tell you something you didn’t already know. (Now you know why I do a big reported piece now and then: I am trying to make myself useful.) And never mind what the going-forward forward-rotation guy I quoted above tries to tell you: it’s still easy for good reporters aided by good editors to find stuff you didn’t already know.

Hence Peter Kaplan. His Observer showed how humour, shoe-leather reporting, a keen eye for human frailty and a proper regard for the vastness of his subject — American society at the turn of the 21st century — could keep journalism relevant. He’s far from the only such editor, but frankly most of the others have jobs they could not be coaxed from for a long shot at saving Newsweek. Adam Moss is editing New York, Graydon Carter (another former New York Observer editor) is at Vanity Fair, David Remnick is at the New Yorker. They’re throwbacks too, but here are two odd facts about their shops: Nobody reads those magazines for their opinion columns, and nobody is putting their magazines on the block at fire-sale prices. Kaplan is of that breed, and he might be enticed to walk away from Footwear News. It’ll never happen but I saw no harm in putting the idea out there.

UPDATE: This guy thinks they could get Adam Moss, and his analysis matches mine at several points. I do think he’s wrong to dismiss the idea of putting more words in a magazine. At Maclean’s we’re (if our luck holds) maybe halfway through a very substantial long-term increase in the number of words in every issue, and I think we’ve demonstrated that it doesn’t have to make a magazine more boring.