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ON THE MEDIA

Can Newsweek relight the readership flame?

The newsweekly aims to carve out a perch among its many competitors with a new, deeper focus. But dwindling circulation in the magazine industry points to a tough battle ahead.

May 20, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

A house advertisement offers two definitions for the new, revamped Newsweek magazine: "1. To spark heated debate," and "2. To illuminate, add clarity."

Along with those mission statements, the ad shows a matchbook and burned matches, symbolic of the fire the venerable newsweekly hopes to start.

The flames may one day blaze, but this week's redesigned edition offered at best a few sparks. And the fuel for the 76-year-old publication continues to disappear, as it struggles to find an editorial perch in a world where the Internet and cable television burn 24 hours a day.

In an essay near the front of the magazine, editor Jon Meacham proposes carving out a new niche for Newsweek by forsaking traditional news recaps in favor of deeper mining -- what the newsman and Andrew Jackson biographer calls "reported narratives" and "argued essays" that promise to take readers beyond the headlines.

That formula makes sense for building an audience and, perhaps, for resuscitating a business that lost almost $20 million in the first quarter of this year. But like many traditional news organizations, Newsweek will find it easier to write a new mission statement than -- week in and week out -- produce a new and compelling product.

Newsweeklies face perhaps the most difficult obstacles because of competition from other media, problems compounded by the huge ad losses suffered throughout the magazine industry in the recession. The Magazine Publishers of America reported an industrywide revenue loss of 20% for the first three months of this year, compared with the same period in 2008.

Conde Nast's glossy business upstart, Portfolio, went out of business late last month and the company's flagship, Vogue, lost more than 30% of its ad pages at the start of this year.

Kit Rachlis, stepping down as editor of Los Angeles magazine next month to write a pair of books, said the industry's woes hung over the National Magazine Awards presentation last month. Editors and publishers worried that some advertisers will not survive the recession and that others will continue their turn to the Internet.

Still, Rachlis predicts that many magazines will be more insulated from the digital onslaught because readers will be attracted to the "luxuriant look, the beautiful photography," even the smell and feel of magazines like Vogue.

News magazines that can't rely on such sensory seduction will have a tougher road. Mitchell Stephens, a fellow at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said it makes sense for Newsweek to turn to "analysis and a real wise interpretation of the news. But it's a difficult market. And it's late in the game."

Editors often point to the Economist as the exemplar of the new form, with detailed and forward-looking essays written by outside experts.

While Time and Newsweek saw their circulations continue to drop over the last year (Newsweek lost 400,000 to 2.7 million), the Economist has been slowly gaining, adding more than 60,000 in circulation through the end of 2008 to reach 787,000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

That's helped the magazine maintain ad revenue more successfully than most other magazines, with a loss of just under 11% in the first quarter of this year, compared with the same period of 2008. Newsweek, meanwhile, saw an ad revenue decline of 19% over the same period. (That's similar to Time's decrease, with both taking slightly smaller hits than the industry as a whole.)

Meacham has said the magazine plans to go after a smaller and more exclusive audience, hoping to settle at about 1.5 million circulation, and then to lure more advertisers and charge higher subscription rates, which now average less than 50 cents a copy.

Journalism observers wonder how much longer the Washington Post Co., fighting to strengthen its namesake newspaper and website, will patiently keep subsidizing its laggard magazine.

The Newsweek house ad suggests that it hopes to dominate on public policy issues, with matches in the ad marked with topics such as waterboarding, gay marriage, offshore drilling, national debt and executive pay.

Focusing on such provocative but familiar turf will demand even deeper reporting or new insights. That could be found in places in the most recent edition, particularly a feature about the post-presidency of George W. Bush ("a man still bristling with a jangly, kinetic energy at 62") and a review of ex-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's struggle to salvage his reputation.

The new Newsweek scored fewer points when it played the star game.

One-time magazine czarina Tina Brown wrote about Nancy Pelosi and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg assessed President Obama's start. But the big-name authors had nothing particularly novel to say. At least hizzoner bucked one bit of conventional wisdom in advising Obama not to go slow but to tackle big issues and "do the hard things first."

The cover story and Meacham's "exclusive" interview with Obama felt similarly hollow. (All of mediadom must be clamoring for an interview with the new president, I understand, but Obama minds his words so tightly it seems less and less likely that supplicants will break new ground.)

It's probably not a good sign that my most memorable take-away this week came from a small graphic near the front of the magazine. Who knew that France plans to lower the tax rate on restaurant food and drinks by 72% and that the tourist-lure would mean savings of $7.05 on a $50 meal?

I gobbled that appetizer up. In the coming weeks, Newsweek knows it will have to deliver the whole meal, if it wants customers to keep coming back.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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