Last year, Newsweek redesigned itself with an eye toward failure. Literally. The newsmagazine was getting itself out of the newsmagazine business and pursuing a higher-end market through a combination of news analysis and opinion. The idea behind the magazine’s redesign was to hasten its contraction from a circulation over 2 million to one around 1 million, while simultaneously raising the cover price. This was not, in and of itself, a silly idea. What Newsweek and its editor, Jon Meacham, were acknowledging is that the 2 million circulation was illusory, and that the actual readership of the magazine, with people renewing their subscriptions year after year or buying it on the newsstand week after week, was half the size.
Publication circulation numbers can be raised and lowered through all sorts of means, like charging almost nothing for it, and like stretching out the time period during which you send the publication out without collecting subscription revenue before you cancel it. And it’s incredibly expensive to get a new subscriber this way, especially if you need to use television to do so — it can cost you as much as $75 per new subscription, and you might only generate $12 in revenue for that. In other words, let’s say you want 2 million, but you only generate 1 million without incurring these costs; it can cost you $50 million a year just to do so. That spending is supposed to be necessary to keep advertising rates high, since obviously you can charge more for 2 million readers than you can for 1 million. But print advertising is increasingly hard to come by. Thus the notion of raising the demographics and the cover price; maybe you cannot only spend less to put out your publication but eventually charge more for every page of ads you get. Thus, you win every which way.
It was a sensible strategy. But it didn’t work. The Washington Post Co. is trying to sell Newsweek, and it may well fail, and the magazine may well close. “We don’t see a sustained path to profitability,” said the company’s chairman, Donald Graham, which is kind of an odd thing to say when you’re trying to sell something. More telling is the celerity with which the magazine lost money following the redesign a year ago: “Newsweek had operating losses of $28.1 million in 2009, 82.5 percent higher than the previous year’s loss of $15.4 million. Its revenue declined 27.2 percent, to $165.5 million in 2009, from $227.4 million in 2008, hurt by diminished advertising and subscription revenue.” One can only presume the numbers so far in 2010 are worse, otherwise the sale wouldn’t be happening.
So why didn’t it work? The line being proffered everywhere is that newsmagazines have lost their viability, nobody wants them, blah blah blah. This is almost comical nonsense. The most successful weekly magazine in the United States right now, by some measures, is the Economist, which is…a newsmagazine. The other line is that Newsweek’s website is retrogressive, and that helps to explain its decline. Again, this is ludicrous; nobody talks about the Economist’s website either. The problem isn’t the website, or the newsmagazine genre in absolute terms. The problem is that Newsweek has been misrepresenting itself to its readership for years, and lost the confidence of its readers; and continued to pretend through the redesign that it was something it is not.
For years, Newsweek was a liberal journal of opinion masquerading as a news publication that attempted to sell itself to a mass readership with a lot of health-care, entertainment, and lifestyle fluff. As a vehicle for news analysis, it was entirely conventional; as a purveyor of sociological fluff, it was kind of fun, though often enragingly so; as a journal of opinion, it was to actual journals of opinion as tofutti is to gelato, flavorless and bland and mock. Last year, Meacham and Co. ditched much of the news analysis and sociological fluff in favor of more and more opinion.
It will not surprise you to know that much of the opinion dealt with the ways in which Barack Obama was right and noble and good and strong and tough and resourceful and a good symbol and an agent of change and so is his wife, by the way — and when it was not about that, it was primarily about how the right is at war with itself and torn and in conflict and dominated by anger and full of rage and presumptively racist and anti-gay and anti-women and anti-media. That was to be expected. But there was really almost nothing else in there, and what was there as a matter of ideological coloration wasn’t especially tough or good or interesting or novel.
But in describing his redesign, there were two words that Meacham did not use, and they were “liberal” and “opinion.” Instead, he promised “complexity” and the publication of “the argued essay — a piece, grounded in reason and supported by evidence, that makes the case for something.” Even with the decision to jettison news from a magazine called Newsweek, its leaders could not bring themselves to acknowledge what the magazine actually was.
And the public beheld it, and like the child in the classic New Yorker cartoon, the public said, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”