Newsweek magazine, that venerable doyenne of the national news
trade, finally hit rock bottom. No more
print edition as of January 1. It’ll all
be online now. Good luck drawing an audience.
Newsweek’s decline began in the 1980s. The moment for me came in 1992 when they
featured Tipper Gore on the cover and identified her as “Second Lady Elect of
the United States.” Who elected
her? Before you think much further on
this, that was the moment Newsweek
editors decided the real audience was in celebrity journalism. Mrs. Gore didn’t have a political agenda,
didn’t stand for elective office, didn’t have much to say that hadn’t been
written by the Clinton-Gore campaign staff.
And, yet, our attention was drawn to her because she was suddenly
When Time magazine realized that the “People” section of its widely read
weekly was more popular than any of their mainstream news, the folks at
Time-Life quickly capitalized on that insight and opened a magazine called People Weekly. The weekly portion of that title was soon
jettisoned. The inaugural edition on
March 4, 1974 featured actress Mia Farrow on the cover and stories about Gloria
Vanderbilt and other celebrities of the day.
Nothing in the way of serious news ever made its way onto the pages of People.
When Newsweek editors realized they had closed down most of their
news-gathering bureaus, they were left with little other than celebrity gossip
and paparazzi pictures to print. That
space, unfortunately, is now occupied by TMZ and a wide range of online and
cable-based sources. I would give Newsweek another six months before the
current publishing staff realize that Sidney Harman overpaid The Washington Post when he gave them $1
for the magazine in 2010.
Felix Salmon of Reuters news
service says he’d be worried about the long-term value of owning a magazine
these days and, without question, there are plenty in the business who would
agree. The short-term cash value of a
magazine, though, is unquestionably a good deal. If you compare magazines to digital startups,
it’s no contest. Digital platforms are
designed to burn through their cash reserves until they’re gone or someone buys
the company. Well-run, tightly-edited,
thoughtful magazines, on the other hand, will continue to make money.
Magazine subscribers tend to be
loyal, better-educated, higher-earning, informed attenders. Advertisers realize that and are willing to
pay more to put a message in front of such audiences. This is a rough time to be in the newspaper
business, and even rougher to be in magazines, if you don’t know who your
audience is and what messages they’re searching for. On the other hand, if you write for an
intelligent audience, delivering useful, thought-provoking composition you’re
likely to find a welcoming, profitable niche for many years to come.