Sunday, April 13, 2008
What's Next for Newsmagazines?
Fading Publications Try to Reinvent Themselves Yet Again
By REBECCA DANAApril 4, 2008; Page B1
The weekly newsmagazines have been declared dinosaurs as far back as the late 1980s. But now that 111 employees at Washington Post Co.'s Newsweek have taken buyouts, including many longtime editors, it's clear that their cultures are finally being blown up and reinvented. And some say that's not such a bad thing.
The employees at Newsweek, making up around 20% of the staff, last week accepted a buyout offer that includes months of salary, years of health insurance, and in some cases, a contract with Newsweek. However generous-sounding, the buyout marks a significant round of bloodletting in the newsmagazine business, which in recent years has seen Time Warner Inc.'s Time and Newsweek wage staff-attrition campaigns in search of long-term economic viability. Shedding employees, particularly older ones that earn higher salaries, is a quick way to offset depressed advertising and newsstand sales.
The most recent cuts are more than just attrition, however. These magazines are changing dramatically, and losing chunks of institutional memory along with the exiting employees, many of whom never worked anywhere else.
Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham offered the buyouts to around 150 employees mainly as a way of cutting costs, but also because it fits into the broader strategy he said he has been putting in place at the magazine since taking the reins 18 months ago.
Mr. Meacham's strategy involves increasing the quotient of serious news in his magazine by bringing in energetic, often younger and frequently lower-earning talent while keeping Newsweek's stable of brand-name writers intact. Some of those writers, including Cathleen McGuigan and film critic David Ansen, accepted the buyout offer but will likely return on contract.
"Like any managers anywhere, we looked at a revenue picture that could be more thrilling and said, 'How can we accomplish two or three things?,' " Mr. Meacham said in an interview. " 'How can we control costs? How can we have money to rebuild and hire new voices and new reporting talent? And how can we do that in the service of what we've been trying to do with the magazine of the last year-and-a-half, which is make it more serious and try to make ourselves indispensable to the conversation?' "
While circulation for both Newsweek and Time has remained flat, at around 3.1 million and 4 million per issue, respectively, the number of advertising pages has declined in recent years and major retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are reducing the number of issues they stock in stores.
Time, along with several of its sibling magazines, endured its own round of buyouts just over a year ago. Editor Richard Stengel assumed his post shortly before Mr. Meacham did and made sweeping changes, redesigning the magazine and Web site, cutting the advertising rate base and changing the delivery date to Friday from Monday.
"My whole view was there's more information out there than any time in human history. What people don't need more of is information," Mr. Stengel said. "They need a guide through the chaos."
This appears to contrast with Mr. Meacham's strategy of upping the news content in his magazine. However, both men share what could be called "Economist-envy." In 2007, the Economist newsmagazine, published by U.K.-based The Economist Newspaper Ltd., saw an 8.5% increase in advertising pages compared with 2006, according to the Magazine Publishers of America. By contrast, Newsweek's advertising pages dropped 6.7% and Time's fell 6.9%.
Cable news and the Web have sapped Time and Newsweek of much of their audience in recent years, crowding out their exclusive hold on certain kinds of stories, including analyses and detailed retellings of major news events. As the Internet has also given rise to a new generation of multiplatform, self-branded news personalities. It no longer takes two decades at Newsweek to be a brand-name pundit.
The newsmagazines' first response years ago was to increase their focus on softer, user-friendly stories on topics such as health, science and technology. The content appealed to baby boomers; advertisers liked it, too, seeing it as a better environment for their pitches than wars and political scandals. Meanwhile, having well-known columnists became a way these magazines could distinguish themselves amid the increasing competition.
"What's happened in the business as a whole is talk is cheap and reporting is expensive," said Newsweek writer Jonathan Alter, a 25-year veteran at the magazine who qualified for the buyout but declined it. But he adds, some of the change in culture is welcome. "In general, the office politics are at a much lower volume than in the past because the old fight of space is different than it was. If there's not room in the magazine for something, you can just do it online," he said.
Mr. Meacham said that since he took over, Newsweek has 30% more text and fewer pictures.
Time and Newsweek have both used targeted voluntary buyout packages to help trim the budget in recent years. Time has also closed some bureaus to save on real-estate costs, replacing them with roaming "laptop correspondents," and removed some of the layers of intermediate editors.
Those who survived rounds of buyouts at both titles are adapting to new job descriptions. "We have to have stories that have original reporting and are well-written and that you can actually remember," said Newsweek Editor-at-Large Evan Thomas.
At a recent speech at Columbia University, Mr. Meacham delivered a blistering response after he asked who reads Newsweek and none of the 100-odd students in attendance raised their hands.
"It's an incredible frustration that I've got some of the most decent, hard-working, honest, passionate, straight-shooting, non-ideological people who just want to tell the damn truth, and how to get this past this image that we're just middlebrow, you know, a magazine that your grandparents get, or something, that's the challenge," Mr. Meacham said. "And I just don't know how to do it, so if you've got any ideas, tell me."