After I posted yesterday that I was sorry to see Newsweek in trouble and up for sale AND how much I enjoyed the magazine, I read a NY Times article by David Carr (pictured at left) who gives a succinct analysis as to WHY, perhaps, the periodical has capsized.
I do not agree with EVERYTHING he postulates…especially the idea that it was better to start a new product than to upgrade the Newsweek brand…OR that NOTHING could resuscitate Newsweek…OR that Newsweek was your father’s magazine and no amount of reinvention could fix that!…As if fathers were somehow less astute about ANYTHING than the “in-a-hurry-want-superficial-news-fast” crowd today!
Just because we have faster delivery systems today (many due to the work of our fathers) doesn’t mean we don’t want some in-depth and in-between-the-lines analysis of our news…And I think the news weeklies do this…How WELL they do this is another matter of internal managemant and editorial talent…as Mr Carr says, the Economist and the Week are successful…Why is that? Read what he has to say:
What do the Brits know that we don’t about publishing weeklies in America? The Week and The Economist, both owned by British publishing companies, continue to grow even as it was announced today that Newsweek is up for sale with very meager prospects.
American newsweeklies were built on original reporting of Large Events, helping readers make sense of a complicated world, but it is a costly endeavor with diminishing returns during an era of commodified and chewed-over news. Both The Economist and The Week were built, rather Web-like, to “borrow” the reporting and then spread analysis on top, thereby making a sundae without having to crank the ice cream maker.
And in this instance, the foreignness of the brands gives the reader an intellectual sheen that once Olympian domestic brands can’t. The Economist and The Week not only make you smarter at cocktail parties by giving you a brief on the week events, but name-checking them will make you sound in the know. Mention Newsweek and people will wonder whether you’ve been going to the dentist a lot lately.
Not much need be said about how the news cycle overtook Newsweek, but suffice to say that daily journalism began to fold in real-time analytics and then the Web came along and annotated every event before it was hours old, let alone a week. At $5.95 per issue, Newsweek is hardly a bargain. The current issue with an embattled soldier on the front — we will skip the jokey metaphor — has some great writing, including an adaptation from Sebastian Junger’s new book “War,” but at 56 pages, it seems thin and not very much of the moment.
Newsweek is your father’s magazine, and no amount of reinvention could fix that. The brand still has recognition, but beyond helping its editor, Jon Meacham, get on television and sell some books, it hard to tell what the brand is really worth at this point. The people at the magazine had been told that they had until the end of 2010 to figure it out, but with loses of more than $500,000 a week, the alarm clock rang on the early side.
In fact, no amount of time or reimagination would have changed the eventual outcome: The economics of weekly publishing are horrible any which way you look – Entertainment Weekly is attenuating into a brochure – and the high cost of acquiring and servicing subscribers is not being offset by very weak ad sales. In the weekly space, apart from celebrity magazines, only two other major magazines – New York and The New Yorker – seem to be getting by, in part because they work in niches and in part because they each have remarkable editorial leadership. But it’s a rough road no matter who is doing the driving.
Newsweek is up against the tyranny of big numbers. One of the magazine’s assets – with almost 2 million subscribers, it has great reach into the culture – is a disadvantage at a time when a general interest read of the news has become a niche activity. Part of the reason that The Economist (813,240) and The Week (517,037) have done well is that both titles have smaller circulation bases and more manageable costs. (An executive at Time who did not speak for attribution because he is not allowed to comment on profits said, “We are not in the Newsweek business. Time is a magazine that makes, not loses, tens of millions of dollars a year.” He said that staff cuts and a cut in rate base to 3.25 million from 4 million had created a business that is steadily profitable and in no danger of being sold or closed.)
In retrospect the ownership of The Washington Post Company, which bought Slate in 2004, could see the writing on the wall. In a very practical way, Slate is what Newsweek used to be, with an insouciant, knowing voice and a take worth reading. Slate is also a reminder that building or buying a relatively new business to meet a changing market is usually a better route to success than trying to walk back the cat on a legacy businesses. Newsweek may have had a fine Web site, but it was stapled to a huge costs of print infrastructure built up over decades. As needs and opportunities have arisen, Slate has been able to build out additional sites including The Root, The Big Money and DoubleX without huge initial investment.
Mr. Meacham, who has said that he would like to lead a purchase of the magazine, tried to stem the decline with a redesign that made it scan as a kind of bigger, mass market New Republic, a Beltway magazine of ideas in opinion. Wags might suggest that he succeeded all too well, creating a weekly that lost money that not many people talked about.
American newsweeklies have been compared to the automotive industry, but it is also important to remember that they are far more reliant on Detroit as well. When the American auto industry was going good, so were Time and Newsweek, with their broad footprint and underlying narrative of chronicling the American dream. At the beginning of the current downturn, an executive at one of the weeklies said to me, “There is nothing wrong with these magazines that a healthy Detroit couldn’t fix.” After defaults and bankruptcies, we all know how that turned out.
Mr. Meacham said he had already had voice-mails from “two billionaires” about the magazine, but when someone named Donald E. Graham says, “We don’t see a sustained path to profitability for Newsweek,” you have to hope they are rich guys in the habit of losing money. Most of them aren’t — that’s how they got rich in the first place.