When word spread that the legendary Tina Brown was going to take over as editor of Newsweek, merging it with her news and aggregation site The Daily Beast, it did wonders for morale at the moribund magazine. “Initially, a lot of us were really excited,” says one recently departed editor. “The attitude was, Tina Brown was coming in to save Newsweek.” But now, three months into her reign, current and former staffers describe a newsroom in a constant state of turmoil, uncertainty, and confusion.
On the eve of Newsweek’s relaunch in March, Brown sought to distance herself from past extravagances, most notably the famously star-studded Talk launch of 1999. But old habits die hard. “She literally will order up double what she needs, so the cutting-room floor is getting very cluttered,” says one recently departed Web staffer. “She has no idea of the ripple effect of the process.”
It’s not just disaffected Newsweek vets doing the grumbling, either. The novelist Tobias Wolff was asked to write a story for the magazine. But Brown published a similar piece by Jonathan Chait instead and offered to run Wolff’s online. “I wouldn’t have worked so long and hard on something” for it to run only on The Daily Beast, says Wolff.
Brown, who was on vacation and unavailable to comment, is apparently somewhat self-aware. In one exchange overheard by a current staffer, she recently blew into the office and casually remarked, “Oh, I’m causing all sorts of trouble. I’m changing all the features in the last hour!” This is classic Tina. But while she might have gotten away with her high-flying style at The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, she’s now operating with much less financial leeway. Before he died in April, owner Sidney Harman is said to have told people he could only afford to spend $40 million on Newsweek over three years.
Merging two newsrooms with distinct cultures hasn’t made things any easier. Staffers complain that it’s still unclear who is in charge of what. Brown’s managing editor, Brekke Fletcher, quit in May after five months. Her job—among other things—was trying to meet Brown’s constantly changing story demands, people familiar with the situation say. “You could see her running ragged,” says one current staffer. Fletcher didn’t respond to requests for comment. But media pundit Howard Kurtz, whom she recently hired as Washington bureau chief, got on the phone to defend her, calling Brown a “high-energy editor” whose nonstop pace can be “dizzying” but who brings a “dynamism” to the newsroom. “I think Tina has a realistic sense of how to turn this ship around with the resources she has,” he says. CEO Stephen Colvin tells Adweek that “after just two months, advertisers are returning to Newsweek, subscription renewals are up, newsstand sales are up, and traffic on our two-year-old website—The Daily Beast—is at record levels.”
Indeed, two months after Brown unveiled her new Newsweek, even her detractors admit that the magazine is a better-looking, more invigorated read. “I haven’t counted her out,” said one editor who, despite the sentiment, no longer works for her.