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A news aggregator that gets it right

8-year-old The Week -- a printed news aggregator (or repackager) -- has a growing circulation and is even attracting advertising. Could it have something to do with its providers' reporting chops?

June 05, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

Journalists still reserve the lower circles of their profession's Hell for fabricators and plagiarists. But some of my comrades -- agitated by the unsettled media order -- would like to cast another group into the fiery pit: aggregators.

Spend more than a few minutes in a traditional newsroom and you'll hear someone cursing Google, Huffington Post or some blogger for stealing the life's blood (read: incremental Internet revenue) from the reporters who actually gather the news.

By all means, let's continue the urgent search for a model that keeps journalists pumping calories into the news maw, from Baghdad to Boston to the L.A. Harbor Commission.

But that shouldn't compel us to deny the obvious: that there is, and will always be, art and value in the host who serves up the most nutritious, appealing meal.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, June 06, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
On the Media: Friday's On the Media column in Section A said that the Week magazine pays for the content it gleans from other media sources, relying on wire service subscriptions and licensing agreements. Though the news weekly pays for some items, most are obtained without payment and rewritten under the legal doctrine of "fair use."

Exhibit One: The Week. The success of the 8-year-old news magazine presents a few ironies, beginning with the fact that its mash-up of news-opinion-criticism comes via the supposedly decrepit, outdated print format.

Also counterintuitive: The magazine attracts advertising by disdaining too much advertising. With just eight to 16 pages per issue, clients prize their exclusivity and higher visibility, undiluted by a blizzard of other glossy pitches.

The formula seems to be working. The weekly magazine has seen its circulation grow steadily since its inception, to 516,000 at the start of the year. (Still well short of Time's 3.3 million.) It sold 10% more ad pages through mid-May this year than it did during the same period in 2008, despite a recession that battered other magazines with advertising declines of 15% to 50%.

Eight years ago, competitors sniffed that Internet-sated readers had no use for another printed recap of the week's news. But the rambunctious British publisher Felix Dennis (who previously toppled the conventional wisdom about overcrowded markets with the success of laddie mag Maxim) has watched in recent months as his anachronistic little news weekly began to turn a profit.

"It's pretty amazing what's happened," Editor-in-Chief William Falk said this week. "I feel almost guilty about it."

Not all aggregation is created equal, Falk and a team of just 15 editors have proved. They've succeeded by picking the right stories, delivering them in the right portions and attending to a truism that other publishers only give lip service to: that readers won't sit still for too long.

So, as Muhammad Ali said, stick and move.

The Week jabs with headlines like "Was Jimi Hendrix murdered?" and "Is sleep the new sex?" Its 42 pages bristle with tangy one-offs: a bit on "saver's remorse," the syndrome in which amateur plumbers and hair cutters end up paying more to fix jobs they tried to do themselves; a bright on the Michigan man who refused to euthanize his bulldog, then was rewarded when the pooch woke him in a burning house.

Beneath the frosting, the Week offers a dense cake of more substantive reports like "Briefing," a smart, one-page primer on subjects from the success of charter schools to the increase in online espionage.

"The World at a Glance" provides a snappy international overview, plotting each of roughly a dozen items on a global map. A recent issue included the prolonged house arrest in Myanmar of dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The magazine has fixated on American politics, with Barack Obama depicted (sometimes with others) on 25 covers over the last 2 1/2 years. A November 2006 cover -- of a halo-wearing Obama looking heavenward to the question "Is he The One?" -- now appears prescient of both liberal adoration and conservative disdain.

Readers have told The Week that they like its mix of opinions from across the spectrum. A recent "Controversy of the week" wondered whether Obama was really that much different from President Bush on handling of alleged terrorists detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Wall Street Journal, National Review and Charles Krauthammer weighed in from the right, Joan Walsh and Ruth Marcus from the left.

The Week even offers a taste of the best of long-form journalism, in condensed form, with a closing essay called "The last word." One of the latest featured a heart-rending ticktock of the moments leading to a minor league coach's death from a baseball line drive.

All in all, the magazine provides a bracing dose of what its editor-at-large, Harold Evans, calls "the thrilling mosaic" of the human condition. Magazine industry watcher Steve Cohn of the Media Industry Newsletter said the weekly has proved that it's not only the Internet that can offer "a great read, but also a fast read."

The Week would be nothing without building blocks harvested from hundreds of publications and websites. The magazine gleans information, via wire service or licensing agreements, from a broad gamut: the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, foreign newspapers, Rolling Stone, Esquire and the humor outlet the Onion.

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