Sacrifice Print Over Writing

Newsweek’s drop in quality at the root of its woes

Life expectancy in the United States is 78.2 years. Newsweek’s print magazine, narrowly edging out the average American, will reach its end at age 79. In the latter’s case, however, death may not be worth much mourning anymore.

The publication’s last physical pages will grace stands on December 31, 2012. But for Newsweek, the tragedy doesn’t lie in last week’s announcement of the magazine’s mercy killing. The ultimate, and likely inevitable, decision to put down Newsweek’s print edition came on the heels of a more truly tragic stretch, in which gaudy stories and cover images pasted over a decades-long journalistic tradition.

In the wake of the 2010 Newsweek-Daily Beast merger, the magazine, freshly helmed by Daily Beast co-founder Tina Brown, relied on increasingly pithless and provocative covers. Controversial choices ranged from a “what-if” extrapolation of Princess Diana’s face to a pair of risqué asparagus stalks to glossy accusations of rage—rage both of Muslims and of an unfavorably photographed Michele Bachmann. All of these and more signaled a preference for the eye-grabbing over the substantive. And they did grab eyes. Single-copy newsstand sales rose two percent for Newsweek from 2010 to 2011, even as the industry average dipped by nine percent. Unfortunately, Newsweek missed its own business model. Single-copy issues comprise a mere three percent of its circulation (with a net revenue premium of barely one dollar per issue). A two percent of three percent uptick proved far from enough. While occasional passersby splurged on the colorful covers, Newsweek’s subscribers left in droves for better reporting and analysis. Nearly 100,000, or 3.5 percent, departed last year.

Of course, blame for Newsweek’s woes cannot fall solely at Ms. Brown’s feet. Newsweek’s circulation had fallen from roughly 3.1 million in 2007 to1.8 million in 2010, the year of the “NewsBeast” merger. The plight of Newsweek in part reflects a wider struggle to monetize journalism in the internet age. For instance, online advertizing sales form barely five percent of total advertizing revenue for magazines, despite consistent double-digit shares of “digital only” readers across the industry. But even in the face of this trend, unique woes remain: Newsweek’s online viewership has dropped precipitously, too—from 6.3 million unique visitors in mid-2009 to 2.6 million Newsweek/Daily Beast visitors last month. That is a magazine hemorrhaging online viewers should now gear its operations solely toward online content is a serious cause for concern.

Ultimately, however, Newsweek’s example points to an area more deserving of attention than the specific numbers and the economics. Readers should care about the writing.

Flashy covers are a poor distraction from the journalism itself. If Newsweek’s sales are any indication, readers agree. But beyond that, pages and ink matter only to a degree as well. We value and believe in the endurance of high-quality journalism regardless of its medium. Hopefully, publications will find more ways to adapt and survive in the modern marketplace. Untethered by the newsstand’s lure, Newsweek will perhaps reemphasize its magazine’s core, its writing. If that is the case, we wish Newsweek success, just as we wish success to any publication—pixelated, on paper, or both—that esteems the words it writes.

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