NBC's Mark Whitaker Leaves Newsweek Behind

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Mark Whitaker is ready for his third act.

Whitaker, 49, started his journalism career as a Newsweek intern three decades ago. With perseverance and exemplary news judgment, he shot up the ladder and became the magazine's editor in 1998. Last year, he took a position as editor in chief of new ventures at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive .

Then a few months ago, NBC News chief Steve Capus made Whitaker a career-altering offer: an opportunity to be his deputy, with oversight of the department's daily editorial, newsgathering and new-media efforts.

Flattered, Whitaker also was eager to try something different. "I loved being editor of Newsweek, and I realized how much I missed the news," he told me. "It's exciting to be learning something really new and challenging. I turn 50 in the fall. I'm just young enough to have an interesting, fulfilling next chapter."

I asked Whitaker how he'll judge whether his time at NBC, a unit of General Electric Co. , was a success. He said that it will occur when "people will feel that NBC is hot and it's on a roll."

NBC could use a boost these days. Brian Williams' nightly news show has been steady at No. 1 in its time slot. But lately, ABC's program featuring Charles Gibson has turned the competition into a two-horse race.

Whitaker has plenty to offer NBC. Under him, Newsweek consistently produced an intelligent, edgy take on topics as diverse as terrorism, national politics, racial issues, AIDS, health care and Hollywood for a mass audience.

"NBC is lucky," said Jim Kelly, the managing editor of Time Inc., who matched wits with Whitaker when he was the editor at Time magazine. "He is very smart and fiercely competitive. He will bring that same competitiveness to NBC."

Makeover

As I've written here, Newsweek's cover photo of the attack in Madrid, depicting a man with his face blown off, was the most stark, eloquent presentation of the horrors of terrorism that I'd ever seen in a magazine.

But I think Whitaker's finest hour as editor of Newsweek occurred two years ago. The magazine had been excoriated for publishing an item in its Periscope section, based on a single anonymous source. It said the U.S. military had desecrated the Quran in front of Muslim detainees in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Whitaker didn't duck interviews and tried to calm critics by explaining Newsweek's actions. Stoic and decisive, he was the right man for the job.

Still, at times Whitaker's style hasn't served him well. He has a reputation for being aloof that might not fit easily in the rough-and-tumble TV world. He attributes his reserved manner to a habitual shyness. Those who don't know Whitaker well, though, can mistake it for iciness.

I'll be curious to see how Whitaker makes the transition from the highly scripted magazine culture to the informal, seat-of-your-pants TV news world.

He can be notoriously hard to read. "When he called you into his office, you never knew if he was going to give you a pat on the back or a kick in the butt," a former Newsweek colleague told me.

Even when Whitaker tries to kid around, he can sound brutally blunt. "If brown is the new black, then Adam Moss is the new David Remnick," he said on May 1 at the annual magazine-industry gala.

That night, Remnick's New Yorker had failed to receive a single award while Moss' New York won five statues. Whitaker clearly meant the remark as a compliment to Moss, but WWD.com noted: "The barb drew audible gasps, and later critical sniping."

Whitaker does have an appealing, light side. He couldn't hide his pleasure that media gossips somehow never got wind of his talks with NBC News. He grimaced good-naturedly when I asked him if he had any regrets from his Newsweek days. He mentioned a few would-be covers that didn't pan out.

Early in his tenure as editor, he wanted to put CNBC anchor Maria Bartiroo on the front, underscoring the national fixation with the then-roaring stock market. Another time, his plan to put "Six Feet Under," the popular HBO series, on the cover dissolved.

"There had been a firefight in Iraq," he shrugged. "A delegation [of editors] appeared in my office and demanded, 'How can we run this 'back-of-the-book' cover?'

"I loved mixing the high and the low on the covers," Whitaker said.

He took satisfaction in showing that he was "capable of being irreverent and not taking ourselves too seriously."

Spoken like a man who knows a few things about the television world. It's a start, anyway.

MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: What do you like and dislike about TV news shows?

WEDNESDAY PET PEEVE: Man, are those Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. shareholders lucky to have such an empathetic leader as Mel Karmazin. Karmazin said he was "real unhappy" with the company's stock price, "but he stressed that he has not sold a single share of the roughly $20 million of his own money he has invested," according to the New York Post. Sirius' shares have dropped steadily since early 2006. The Post noted that he "blamed the poor performance" on "Wall Street's negative view of the satellite-radio business." Whose fault is that, Mel?

THE READERS RESPOND to my column about humorist Patricia Marx: "You and Marx got it wrong. Katie Couric is losing because she has no gravitas. Anyone who smiles just to exhibit white teeth as he/she speaks on serious matters will not and should not be taken seriously." John Tiernan

"I feel that Marx's comments are right on target. The CBS Evening News is a solid product, but not unusually compelling. CBS Corp. was counting on both the novelty and celebrity status of Couric to lure viewers, and after an initial sampling most viewers simply returned to their original news source." Mel Rainer

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By Jon Friedman
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