Why Newsweek died – at least in print

By Letícia Sorg

When in 2004 I started working in journalism, as an intern at Veja, the magazine’s ads highlighted the fact that the Brazilian newsweekly was the fourth biggest in the world, circulation-wise – behind America’s Time and Newsweek and Germany’s Der Spiegel. Given the decrease in Der Spiegel’s circulation, Veja took over the third position. And from December 31 – when the last Newsweek print edition will hit the stands – it will be able to claim the second position.

But Veja may not find many reasons to celebrate. It seems that Time (with its 3.2 million copies) and Veja (with its 1.1 million copies) are among the last of an endangered species: the traditional newsweekly magazine.

The extinction process seems to have been on its way for a few years now. Since 1989 Time’s weekly circulation has dropped some 4.4 million copies; Newsweek has stopped printing 4.1 million copies. In 2008, the third biggest American newsweekly, the U.S. News & World Report, decreased its print frequency, eventually becoming digital-only in 2010 and changed its content proposition from general news to rankings of services, from education and law firms to hospitals.

This was the context when I joined the RISJ as a journalist fellow, in October 2009, to study the future of newsweekly magazines in the digital era. Apart from the journalistic interest, there was an obvious question underlying my research: should I start looking for another job? I was on leave of absence from Época, then the second largest Brazilian newsweekly magazine.

The fact that I am now working for a financial newswire does not mean that the answer was “yes”. My research, which counted on readings and several interviews with people within the industry, led me to conclude that the internet is not mercilessly murdering print publications. But it is certainly speeding up the perishing process of the already fragile ones.

This was the case of Newsweek. In the pre-internet 1991, John Tebbel and Mary Ellen Zuckerman expressed their worries about the future of the publication in their book The Magazine in America, 1741-1990: “Of the three [Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report], only Newsweek appeared to be in any financial distress. Its profits dropped to $15.3 million in 1987, with the future uncertain.”

A copy of Newsweek magazine sits on a newsstand in New York October 18, 2012. Newsweek, the venerable U.S. weekly magazine covering current events, will publish its final print edition on Dec. 31 and move to an all-digital format early next year, two top executives said on Thursday. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Founded in 1933 by the former foreign editor of Time Thomas J. C. Martyn, Newsweek was idealized as Time’s antithesis. In the launch prospectus, Martyn proposed a magazine which would be “written in simple, unaffected English [in] a more significant format [with] a fundamentally sober attitude on all matters involving taste and ethics” for those who “feel Time is too inaccurate, too superficial, too flippant and imitative”.

Newsweek’s mission was surpassing Time’s impressive circulation numbers and it succeeded for a brief period in the 60s, some years after the magazine was bought by the Washington Post Company and received new investments. It was its glory – and also its misery. For the rest of Newsweek’s history, the publication struggled to recover that transient success, even experimenting with five editors in ten years.

In the quest for leadership, Newsweek may have taken too much of the competitor’s formula and, lost among changes in command, forgotten the importance of finding its own editorial identity. Both advertising and readership may have been affected by the lack of a long term content strategy.

These conclusions were drawn one month before the Washington Post Co. announced its intention to sell Newsweek, five months before, Sidney Harman, a 92 year-old businessman, acquired the magazine; eight months before it merged with Barry Diller’s IAC and Tina Brown amassed her leadership place in the Daily Beast with Newsweek’s editor-in-chief position; and more than two years before the magazine announced its plan to cease printing.

None of these facts however changed the troubled path Newsweek was following – if anything, they worsened it. When Sidney Harman died, in April 2011, his family retreated from the investment, leaving it to Barry Diller and his mainly digital company. When Tina Brown took over, she decided to make her Daily Beast the website for Newsweek even though newsweek.com had 5 million readers a month – more than twice what The Daily Beast had then – and several journalism awards.

Newsweek’s death in print was hardly a surprise and raises some questions for the publishing industry. The first is how to build a distinct and relevant editorial formula and stay true to it. The second is whether it is possible to have such a marked formula being a weekly magazine covering general news. This question is backed up by the recent success of segmented newsmagazines such as The Economist and New Yorker, compared to Time’s modest results. The third question is: what is the consequence of being the “last man standing” in its field? Will Time benefit from the readers and advertisers Newsweek no longer caters for? Or will it suffer the consequences of being considered the last, perhaps dying member of its species?

In the context of an ever concentrated, shrinking print world, the future of other publications, whether newspapers or other kinds of magazines, is somehow dependent on Time’s future now. And I suspect Brazil’s Veja would have mixed feelings if it had to claim the leading position in this world ranking.

Letícia Sorg is Multimedia Editor at Agência Estado in Brazil. She was a Journalist Fellow at the Reuters Institute in 2009-10, where she researched how successful media outlets in Europe and the US manage to remove barriers between print and online reporters and to publish quality, yet profitable journalism, both online and in print.

 Her research paper can be downloaded: The Role of Newsmagazines in the 21st Century: The evolution of a journalistic genre and how it can stay relevant in the digital era


About Reuters Institute

The Reuters Institute marks Oxford University's commitment to create an international research centre in the comparative study of journalism. Anchored in the recognition of the key role of independent media in open societies and the power of information in the modern world, the RISJ aims to serve as the leading forum for a productive engagement between scholars from a wide range of disciplines and the practitioners of journalism.
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