August 4, 2010; Source: Poynter Online | The 92-year-old hi-fidelity business pioneer Sidney Harman has purchased Newsweek from the Washington Post Company. A few questions arise as we look closer at this new relationship.
Harman is the husband of California senator Jane Harman (D-CA) and a huge campaign contributor to Democratic campaigns beyond his spouse’s. Certainly one aspect of the acquisition that might be troubling is that Senator Harman was vigorously opposed to the New York Times publishing information about the Bush Administration’s use of warrantless wiretaps, pressuring the Times not to publish, and telling NBC News that she favored new “limits on press immunity.”
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This Poynter Online column about the Harman purchase of Newsweek suggests that it is possible that the fabulously wealthy Harman might favor converting Newsweek to a nonprofit, and using funds from the Harman Family Foundation to cover Newsweek’s all-but-guaranteed operating losses. The Poynter columnist notes that Harman has lots of nonprofit connections, including a close connection to the Aspen Institute (run by former Time magazine editor Walter Isaacson), where he is a member of the board of trustees along with Anna Deavere Smith, Condoleeza Rice, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Fred Malek, and more.
He is also on the board of the Carter Center and has been on the board of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta. There’s no question that Newsweek isn’t going to make a profit anytime soon, but modeling the financial position of Newsweek on Harper’s, long supported by the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation (“little Mac”, as distinct from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has also provided grant support). But Harman’s foundation is much smaller than Little Mac, with assets at the end of 2008 of $140,000 and grants for that year totaling $783,000.
Like so many foundations nowadays, Harman doesn’t accept unsolicited proposals, so most grants go to organizations that somehow get introduced to or connected with the Harmans, the latter typified by large grants such as $1 million in 2007 and $500,000 in 2008 to Aspen and $8.3 million between 2005 and 2007 to the Shakespeare Theater in DC (where the performing facility is named after Harman). Nonetheless, Sidney Harman has immense personal wealth he could pump into his family foundation or Newsweek, and Harman made it a point to explain his acquisition of Newsweek as something he “did not and does not think of . . . in traditional business terms.” The Poynter columnist thinks that a nonprofit Newsweek is a real possibility. We do too.—Rick Cohen