What the $1 Newsweek Sale Says About New Media

Un_dollar_usWhile I wasn’t all that surprised to see the sale price of Newsweek (a token dollar, plus the assumption of $70 million in debt), I was pretty surprised to see that a 91-year-old industry titan from the consumer electronics world, JBL and Harman-Kardon founder Sidney Harman, was the only one to step up to the plate with an offer acceptable to the Washington Post.

Naturally, there was a lot of same-day coverage about motivation. How a patient magnate prepared to lose $10 million a year for the next few years (although how patient can you be with your 92nd birthday around the corner?) was the proper fit. How the key for the Post was that they’d keep a lot of the editorial jobs instead of just scraping the name. It will be interesting indeed to see if Harmon’s plan is for a more streamlined print publication, as Bloomberg carved out when it bought Business Week for $4,999,999 more than Harman just paid for Newsweek. A crafty veteran of negotiating billions of dollars of parts throughout the world might simply have bought the asset to skillfully negotiate away all the debt for pennies on the dollar so he can flip it back to a big media company in the future.

But not much has been said about the lost opportunity for America Online, Google, Yahoo! or a dozen other Web behemoths, or for that matter diversified media companies (and Web wannabes) like Disney, Fox or Viacom (all of whom have paid hundreds of millions of dollars for acquisitions of far more questionable value) to redefine for a digital era one of the last iconic bastions of thoughtful news journalism and commentary, a brand that’s known and respected worldwide with tens of millions of readers among print, online and syndication. Newsweek’s content (and imprimatur) on the Yahoo! homepage with its 100-million-plus daily readers puts it into quite a different category of influence from Time and The Economist. Deep pockets could experiment with regional print-on-demand and e-book variations, and the combination of a brand that its disciples would want to test in any innovation coupled with the experimentation of a Web 2.0 mindset could have produced an eventual winner (think of the millions these big media companies have spent trying to simultaneously create new brands while simultaneously innovating on a business model – with Newsweek, you’d only need to do one right to win).

Sidney, if you’re listening, scrape off the debt and debris, include a podcast subscription with every new stereo system, and repackage this thing for sale to Time Warner. I’m confident you can pull this off before your 95th birthday.

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