NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- The battle of the newsweeklies is heating up again.
Newsweek got plenty of attention earlier this month when it announced that Karl Rove, who masterminded George W. Bush's two successful presidential campaigns, would be writing occasional columns. This arrangement -- in which a publicity-hungry newsweekly joins forces with a publicity-hungry Washington insider -- looks like a fascinating case of mutual exploitation.
If the Newsweek-Rove alliance happened to be a board game, its marketing slogan might be: Who can exploit whom the most?
Newsweek can crow that it is printing the words of the most successful and infamous political strategist around. For a magazine that prides itself on having a strong roster of political writers, that is a big accomplishment. Newsweek can have the added benefit of showing the red states that it is a fair and balanced magazine, not a vehicle of the left. (Well, that's Newsweek's story, and the magazine is sticking to it.)
Rove, for his part, can convey his viewpoint to millions of readers. He has also hinted that he'll be penning an explosive memoir, and it can't hurt to have Newsweek on his side. Of course, if Newsweek had expected to get the rights to publish an excerpt, it would probably have had to pony up much choicer real estate than an occasional column. Rove is sharing space in the magazine with his liberal counterpart, Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos.
Critics have yelped that Newsweek should be ashamed of itself for giving a forum to Rove. To put it mildly, he is not regarded in some quarters as being a great friend of the media.
Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, said he hadn't heard such criticism, and in any event, he didn't think the addition of Rove to the magazine's roster was hypocritical. In fact, he was anything but apologetic when I visited him in his office a few days before Thanksgiving to discuss the Rove gambit.
"It's the same principle as when [Arthur] Sulzberger hired Bill Safire out of the Nixon White House," Meacham said, referring to the New York Times' decision to give a column to Richard Nixon's former speechwriter roughly three decades ago.
"I reached out to [Rove]," Meacham told me. "He's the most important political operative of the last decade." Meacham likened Rove to Lee Atwater, who helped mastermind George H.W. Bush's presidential victory in 1988, and to James Carville, Paul Begala and Dick Morris, who were advisers to Bill Clinton. Meacham noted that all of them, as well as ABC's George Stephanopoulos, went on to work in the media.
Meacham said the partnership began when he sent Rove an email on the day he announced his plans to leave the Bush White House. Rove initially expressed interest in the project.
I asked Meacham what Newsweek, a unit of Washington Post , would do if Rove unexpectedly delivered a column that showed a bias to Bush.
"Then we won't run it; it's still our magazine," he said. "If it's just a partisan screed, we won't publish it. I want to learn something that I didn't know before, either a fact or [something] atmospheric. I'm delighted to have him."
According to a recent report in Radar magazine, Time magazine actually had the first shot at Rove and turned him down. That speculation puts Newsweek in an unhappy place, reinforcing the public view that Time is the king of the newsweeklies. Even though Newsweek has done solid journalism for years, it has lagged behind its traditional rival in the public's eyes. (Plus, Time got publicity for basically doing nothing, which must have infuriated Newsweek.)
Time, part of Time Warner , has demonstrated a knack for garnering splashier coverage than its rival for such moves (gimmicks?) as changing the date of its publication schedule and last year's PR-heavy decision to name "You" as its widely followed Person of the Year. (Maybe this yar, Time will name "Me.") While both magazines have undergone significant redesigns, Time's somehow got much more publicity.
Both Newsweek's Meacham and his Time counterpart Rick Stengel say -- with straight faces, naturally -- that they have moved past the time-honored (oops, more free publicity for Stengel's magazine) competition between America's premier newsweeklies.
I don't quite believe them, and neither should you.
The two weeklies continue to compete ferociously. Time was thrilled to ace its foe over the summer with Eric Pooley's splendid profile of News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch. Likewise, Newsweek stuck its chest out a few weeks ago when it published an incisive cover story on Pakistan.
Despite their journalistic triumphs, the two magazines are in tough shape. Advertising remains a big problem. Time's neglect of the Internet and Newsweek's comparatively lower profile have forced them both into a corner.
"People think Time and Newsweek are very staid," Meacham noted. "But we have to be provocative. We want to make people think."
Meacham insists he won't be losing any sleep about Time's scoops or even about the report that Rove turned first to his foe.
"I don't see Time as our only competitor at all," he said. He pointed out that Time's new publishing schedule means that it comes out as Newsweek is gearing up for its deadlines.
"Sometimes I get to see their magazine before we close," he said. "Sometimes [I] don't."
MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: Are you going to read Karl Rove's columns in Newsweek?
WEDNESDAY PET PEEVE: Time has a popular feature in which it asks someone famous 10 questions culled from its readers. It is a shrewd way to garner more interest in the magazine. But it has become increasingly clear that Time is willing to let the space become a vehicle for any celebrity who has a new book, movie or CD coming out. Time looks kind of silly in its haste to give attention to someone merely because he or she craves publicity for a new project.
READERS RESPOND : "The media print that they've got it wrapped up, and all of a sudden, miracle of miracles, they do have it wrapped up. Try doing your job and clearly representing all candidates' viewpoints. Let the people do the rest. No need to know who's winning until they've won. Especially when all of the polls are biased, censured, and who knows what else. For Shame. And to think you get paid to spew this garbage. I shouldn't be wasting my time responding... but I'm ... sick and tired of reading rubbish every time I check in with the mainstream media. Get a real job." Mark Walser
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By Jon Friedman