It was fun while it lasted Richard Addis
RICHARD ADDIS looks back on a heady eighteen months editing a new incarnation of Newsweek
I WAS LURED out of semi-retirement to edit Newsweek. It was probably a mistake, but it might have worked.
In November 2013 or thereabouts I was heading off to a game of tennis in Holland Park when I received a telephone call from someone who, like me, was old enough to remember the glory days of Fleet Street when the big cats of journalism stalked the jungle with mighty tread. He was, it emerged, ‘sounding me out’ about becoming the editor of Newsweek.
Like any old (I was 57 at the time) artiste called upon once again to don my catsuit, I simultaneously heard the saltcaked, clanging bells of a warning buoy lurching drunkenly above the jagged rocks of actuality and the delicious siren song of those comely maidens Expenses, Lunch, Power, Travel, Patronage and Awards. (I omit the maiden Lucre because I do not give a fig for her.)
A few months later, their song still strong, it was the beginning. I was sitting in an office in Canary Wharf as editor-inchief of Newsweek’s European edition with a budget of £1 million a year. You’ll notice the slight change in my title: there was an editor of Newsweek already in New York. He remains to this day a part-time rock drummer, keen tennis player and allround good guy called Jim Impoco. I was an independent editor, though, with my own London publisher who owned and ran his part of the business. My job was to produce a brand-new edition of the eightyyear-old title for Europeans, primarily English speakers in Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Spain who might be partial to some news photos and reportage as they hopped on and off business flights.
Eighteen months later in the high summer of this year it was the end. I was organising a ‘Newswake’ in a London garden. We barbecued a Lidgate’s lamb and played a Spotify soundtrack created by our own staff novelist and in-house romantic. Many generous, fond words were spoken. And we went our separate ways.
We felt gilded and special. People can’t help but invest their lives with the unique and the significant, however much they know that certain rites and emotions have been lived and relived so often by others as to reduce their contribution to the world’s store of value to less than a speck. We all live twice, in innocence and experience, especially journalists and actors.
Between the beginning and the end was the middle, and the middle had been mainly good. The publisher, Dev Pragad, is a highly impressive young man with a PHD in mobile phones (or something like that) from King’s College, London, whose grandfather had been lifted from poverty in India’s deep south by Christian missionaries. Inspired partly by this, Dev is a devout Christian and combines being managing director and owner of
Newsweek Europe with being dean of a theological college in San Francisco named Olivet. He had already made the beginnings of a fortune through running the European and Asian branch of a website called International Business Times. Vainly unvain, with neatly cropped hair and surgically clean clothes and fingernails, in the evangelical style, he is married with a baby daughter upon whom he dotes. Like many young men with a streak of genius he is erratic: supremely confident in some matters, supremely out of his depth in others. A master of aloof, he combines vulnerability, generosity and ruthlessness. I became aware after about nine months that the same young man about whom I felt a fatherly protectiveness would one day be my executioner. Despite this I reckoned we would probably always remain friends since we liked each other and I am friends with several of my other executioners. This however is temporarily not the case, though I expect it to be repaired over time.
During the middle I also realised that though the London operation was legally independent of the US owner of Newsweek, it actually functioned as a fully owned subsidiary. This commercial obeisance was entirely voluntary. It was possible only because of the deep ties between Dev, the dean of Olivet, and his American counterparts Etienne Uzac and Johnathan Davis, also Olivet luminaries. All Dev’s London staff believed they were working for a cult. (A perception reinforced by the coincidence that both Dev’s appointments as editors-in-chief of News
week and International Business Times were ‘churchy’ – me, a former monk, and the other, George Pitcher, an ordained Anglican). The staff view was that the relationship with Olivet was sufficiently arm’s length to prevent any editorial influence (correct) but that profits from our work would end up financing Olivet University and that losses might well be supported by Olivet funds (unknown).
On the other hand, British journalists call everything a cult if they don’t understand it. In America, Olivet is unremarkable, a sort of theological business school. The Christianity is fundamentalist. The capitalism is red-blooded. The fact that it comes with its own handsome and mysterious millionaire Korean founder, the Rev David Jang, is par for the course. Dev says that he, Etienne and Johnathan had in the early days been advised by Edelman PR never to talk about their religious affiliations. This has been one of their big mistakes. Because they never talk about it, everyone else does. And in the earthy world of journalism, they are perceived as weirdos.
It was against this unusual backcloth that I edited Newsweek Europe. One day those eighteen months will make their own novel or memoir. What happened, in short, was this. In record-breaking time I hired a few super-bright people whom I liked. Then I sat and watched as they conjured magic out of nothing in the plastic and glass wasteland of Canary Wharf. Weekly conference was set to music, and Monday nights at the Mayflower became an institution. A merrygo-round of ace reporters and writers flowed through our office. For a while their sheer intelligence packed into that corner of the 32nd floor created a nuclear shield against the dismal freeloaders, incompetents and deadbeats who watched enviously from the outside world. And we set about doing something in journalism that I have absolutely no doubt has a strong and profitable future. If only the right people would do it.
That something is narrative journalism. That is to say: (i) giving a writer the time and resources to experience first-hand the most fascinating events of our age and (ii) letting them write it at length with all the skill of the novelist to bring it alive. It used to be an important staple of British and European journalism. And not only the posh titles. We used to do it at the Mail with Ann Leslie, at the Mail on Sunday with Russell Miller and Robert Chalmers. Of course those papers have tremendous resources and brilliant publishers. Today the genre is alive at the Guardian under the excellent Jonathan Shainin and at Granta under Sigrid Rausing. But it needs its own place and its own title truly to prosper.
Our adventure came to an end because the money ran out. Experienced only in digital publishing, chiefly International Business Times which is a massive worldwide traffic-chasing content farm that makes income out of advertising, Dev didn’t have deep enough pockets for print. Many wise heads warned him that any new print venture takes at least two years of pure investment before revenues start to come in. He didn’t believe them and hit the wall long before the magazine had a chance to get lift-off.
Newsweek did plenty to show that narrative journalism can be done with a very small team at reasonable cost and that readers are eager for it and advertisers interested in something different. The circumstances weren’t right this time. Maybe there will be another.
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