Finding a Niche
Is there a role for the weekly newsmagazines and their Web sites in a 24-7 news environment?
By Rachel Smolkin
When Edward R. McCarrick, the president and worldwide publisher of Time magazine, says the genesis for his weekly's new direction came when "I went to St. Patrick's and I prayed," he's kidding. Probably.
McCarrick follows this bit of whimsy with a hearty laugh and a more measured explanation for changes at his magazine that have included a shift from a Monday sale date to Friday and a vastly increased emphasis on the Web. "The marketplace never stays static," he says. "It constantly changes. It constantly evolves. And you have to stay contemporary. You have to stay in step with what marketplace demand is all about."
The weekly newsmagazines could use some divine inspiration as they grasp for a foothold in a media landscape increasingly dominated by the Web. Over the last few months, the repositioning has been illustrated most dramatically at Time. In addition to shedding about 50 staffers as part of a larger contraction at parent Time Inc., the magazine has hiked its newsstand price by $1, reduced its guaranteed circulation to advertisers from 4 million to 3.25 million, debuted a new advertiser option for counting readers and unveiled a redesign in its March 26 issue. Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report are adapting as well, if at a less precipitous pace.
As newspapers embrace more analysis, enterprise and lifestyle pieces, long the province of magazines, to distinguish themselves from their fast-paced television and Internet competition, the newsweeklies are betting there is still room in the marketplace for them to tackle such work. They also are experimenting with the appropriate online role for publications that have specialized in long-form (or longer-form) journalism, adopting somewhat different approaches to their Internet identities and to the relationships between Web site and magazine.
Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham, who says his Web site roughly equates to a daily paper and the print edition to a Sunday paper, uses an assembly-line analogy to describe the shifting place of weekly newsmagazines in the media pantheon over the last two decades: "What's happening now is that headlines are delivered by the Web. That has pushed newspapers to become more like the newsmagazines were in '82, and it's pushed the newsmagazines to produce a monthly-quality product on a weekly basis, and it's pushed the monthlies into the place of the great quarterlies, and now the quarterlies have become books."
The newsweeklies have suffered in a difficult old-media economy, particularly from sluggish automotive advertising. After a disappointing 2005, when all three dipped in ad pages and Time and Newsweek experienced double-digit losses, the number of pages was basically flat in 2006, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.
A January analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism noted that Time's ad pages have dropped to its range in the 1990s, U.S. News' are below its levels throughout the 1990s and Newsweek's have receded to its performance in late 2001 after 9/11. "The industry was hoping 2006 would bounce back," the report said. "It didn't happen."
Circulation also was flat for the three newsweeklies for the six-month period ending in December, with Time holding at about 4.1 million, Newsweek at 3.1 million and U.S. News at 2 million. Single-copy sales, a small portion of the mostly subscription-based publications but one barometer of a magazine's health, dropped for all three; Newsweek took the biggest hit with a 16.8 percent decline.
"I worry about the future of newsweeklies," says Michael Nathanson, a media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "I don't know what their relevance is in the world today. The model has changed so much; the world has moved to a 24-7 pace. I don't know how they fit it anymore."
Writing obituaries for the newsweeklies has been a popular pastime for media handicappers for decades, as nearly everyone I interviewed for this piece noted. (See "Still Going.") As we talk in his office, Newsweek Chairman and Editor-in-Chief Richard M. Smith points out a 1989 Columbia Journalism Review cover on the wall behind me that depicts the magazines as dinosaurs.
"I think everybody should be aware that this whole genre has outlived by 10 or 15 years already what people said was its logical expiration date," says Jack Shafer, editor at large and media critic for Slate, which, like Newsweek, is owned by the Washington Post Co. "They seem to be the cockroaches of publishing," Shafer posits, before rethinking that intriguing, if inelegant, metaphor because so many people want to kill cockroaches.
Be they cockroaches or some more palatable long-surviving animal, the weekly newsmagazines recognize the pressing need for evolution. "You can crawl under your desk in the fetal position and ... wait for the storm to pass, but the storm is not going to pass," says Brian Duffy, who was editor of U.S. News until March 23. "We're going through a fundamental realignment in our business."
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a former chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek, observes: "People have been predicting the demise of the newsweekly since the invention of television, but I think we may have really finally reached a tipping point–I hate to use that term–I think we've finally reached a point of real change. The basic conundrum they face is, 'What can you offer on a weekly basis in a 24-hour news culture?'"
To Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel, the answer is to help readers make sense of a news maelstrom. "I would argue that the information explosion now is so tumultuous and so varied, that people actually need a guide, they need a trusted guide, someone to help sort out the wheat from the chaff," he says. "That's something that Time's been doing for 80 years, and we need to do it in new ways, and we need to do it with a point of view and great reporting and great writing."
Stengel, 51, who assumed his position in June 2006, previously had served as the magazine's national editor and arts editor and as editor of Time.com. Most recently he was president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. He describes the magazine's mission as "reported analysis. It's not somebody, you know, sucking their thumb or scratching their chin. It's someone who does a huge amount of reporting to come to a conclusion about something ... I want our readers to know what our law writer thinks about a certain decision or David Van Biema, our religion writer, thinks about the crisis in the Anglican Church." He cites the July 17 cover, "The End of Cowboy Diplomacy," depicting a cowboy hat emblazoned with a presidential seal on top of cowboy boots, as a "conceptual scoop" that "changes the conversation."
Media accounts of Stengel's moves have focused on his interest in showcasing star columnists. He has recruited prominent contributors to a publication that did not use bylines throughout the magazine until 1980, retaining Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol, former Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson and former Slate Editor Michael Kinsley. (The desire to identify a newsmagazine with prominent opinion writers is not new, notes Rosenstiel: "Newsweek made noises to that effect" in the early 1990s.)
As it tries to become a more nimble, modern organization, Time finally appears poised to shed the system instilled after Henry R. Luce and the lesser-known Briton Hadden founded the magazine in 1923 (see Books, October/November), in which a platoon of researchers and reporters in the field sent files to a writer in New York. "Henry Luce could come back and look at our masthead and recognize every job description there," Stengel says. He calls the magazine's restructuring a "work in progress," noting the environment is changing so rapidly, the point is "being able to adapt to it, not having some structure that's fixed in stone and then saying, 'This is our structure.' We're figuring it out."
The restructuring has been accompanied by painful losses. In January, Time Inc., the magazine division of media giant Time Warner, said it would cut its publications' staffs by nearly 300 people, including 172 editorial jobs, in a downsizing portrayed as preparation for a flexible, multiplatform future. The news followed Time Inc.'s elimination of some 600 jobs between December 2005 and December 2006.
Time magazine has shuttered bureaus in Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta, although three "laptop" correspondents remain in L.A. When we speak in his office in the Time-Life Building in Manhattan on a miserably snowy day in February, Stengel will not discuss the overall number of staffers he's losing. A January 19 bulletin from the Newspaper Guild of New York, posted on Jim Romenesko's media blog, said Time would shed up to 49 people.
When I ask about the loss of four correspondents from D.C. and five from New York, he replies: "Right, but now we're hiring national correspondents who will be basically laptop bureaus." He cites the addition of David Von Drehle, whom Time lured from the Washington Post, and says other hires will be announced soon.
Some media analysts see this adaptation as essential for survival. Samir Husni, a magazine consultant and chairman of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi, calls the changes at Time, including its new publication date, a belated step in the right direction. He says the move toward more analysis makes the magazine feel more cohesive–"it's no longer just a page about this and a page about that"–and describes the cuts as "liposuction. There was a lot of excess fat."
But Rosenstiel notes that some of the magazine's goals may conflict. "How do you put up content [on the Web] every day if you're focusing more on analysis and at the same time scaling back staff?" He says the large cuts suggest Time is "moving away from reporting and toward something else, something that is more commenting on the news rather than gathering it"–a notably cheaper mission.
The severity of the cuts distressed journalists inside and outside the magazine. "Don and I really bleed for what's going on at Time," says James B. Steele, who, along with longtime reporting partner Donald L. Barlett, lost his job there last year in a previous round of cost-cutting. The investigative team now works for Vanity Fair. "It's folks we know there, and we have a lot of affection for the place, but it's hard to tell where things are headed there right now."
In an e-mail interview, Henry Muller, who tried to modernize Time when he became its managing editor in 1987, offered this insight into its past success and future prospects: "Time has survived for more than 80 years by knowing how to adapt to the changing media landscape. That has usually meant making the magazine smarter, not dumber. Today it also means committing at the very top that Time will be a first-rate newsmagazine–not just one of hundreds of cost centers. It's an American institution, respected and influential around the world. Time can still bring luster to a corporation that, God knows, needs a little class." (Time Inc. Chairman and CEO Ann S. Moore and Editor-in-Chief John Huey did not respond to interview requests for this article.)
Joe Klein, Time's political columnist and a former Newsweek writer, says his own role isn't changing all that much–he's paid to report, analyze and share his opinions–but to "the extent that the rest of the magazine is changing, it's that the role of writers is going to be more important than it has been in the past."
He adds that "because we are in the process of gestation, and we've had the labor pains but not quite the baby yet, I think there's a fair amount of consternation here." Asked when to expect delivery, Klein replies: "It's going to take more than nine months, I'll tell you that. It's something that's going to evolve. To me, it's very exciting but also a little scary. We're in new territory, and nobody knows exactly what we're going to look like."
Von Drehle says he was drawn to Time by the appeal of trying something new, "the idea of rebuilding the magazine around writer-reporters who would gather their own facts and see things for themselves and write with their own voice."
He plans to move to Middle America–likely to Kansas City, Missouri, where his wife has family–and give life to news and trends outside the insularity of Washington. He hopes to achieve "kind of a storytelling, narrative voice with some kind of historical perspective, maybe a sense of where things might be headed," as he attempts to get in front of the news each week rather than recap it. He adds: "It's probably better to be a person coming in with a new mission than a person trying to figure out how their old mission fits in."
As part of the new mission, Time's leaders have ushered in a series of other changes on both the business and editorial sides. They are hoping to make the transition to an audience-based model for advertisers, as television uses, rather than the traditional model of rate base, which uses a circulation guarantee. Advertisers in Time now can base their buys on either the decreased 3.25 million guaranteed circulation or on a promise that 19.5 million people have read each print issue, as measured through weekly online surveys by Mediamark Research.
Dante Chinni, a senior associate for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, notes that the circulation drop may save Time money; it's expensive to support the higher circulation figure. "A lot of those subscriptions are third-party subscriptions that Time sells through other people," he says. "They don't see a lot of that money."
Time tops its competition in ad revenue as well as circulation; in 2006, the magazine's 2,311 ad pages brought in $661.3 million, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. McCarrick, who calls Time "by far and away the most successful weekly newsmagazine," has depicted the moves as vital to its continued leadership.
A November press release proclaimed the changes a "bold attempt to revolutionize the way mass magazines sell advertising" and quoted McCarrick as saying Time was "taking a leadership role by delivering to advertisers what they've been demanding from the industry for some time–greater transparency, timeliness and accuracy of audience and circulation." In our interview, McCarrick adds that it's "certainly a revolutionary concept in the sense that nobody in the print world before has really been pushing that initiative." So far, he says, about 20 percent of Time's clients are opting for the audience guarantee.
McCarrick also is bullish about the improvements on Time's Web site. "What we're doing right now with Time.com is the most revolutionary change in the 34 years I've been here," he says.
The site relaunched in January to offer continuously updated news, free archives dating back to Time's debut issue, new interactive features and blogs. Swampland–hosted by Time.com's Washington editor, Ana Marie Cox, whose snarky commentary catapulted Wonkette to blog celebrity status–offers political dish from writers such as Klein and Karen Tumulty, Time's national political correspondent. In January, Time.com attracted 3.8 million unique visitors in the U.S., according to Nielsen//NetRatings, on par with its numbers over the last few months.
Josh Tyrangiel, Time's former music critic, was named an assistant managing editor of the magazine and managing editor of Time.com in September. "This is the first time we're actually committed" to the idea "that to be in the news space, you have to live there 24-7," he says.
Why try for a 24-7 existence when that space is so crowded already? "You're not in the game unless you're covered 24 hours," he replies. "If you're going to be in the news space, the world has changed. You can't be in it the hours you dictate. You have to be in that the hours the consumer wants."
Tyrangiel says he'd like the site to provide "24-hour news for smart people," offering more context than the straight headlines from the news aggregators. So far, he's getting about 25 original stories from staff on a good day, 15 on a less fruitful one. "It's all about changing the metabolism for a lot of writers, changing the metabolism for photo, for edit. It's hard, but it's interesting. It's pretty fun."
Part of changing that metabolism requires a new way of thinking about what goes into the magazine and what goes onto the Web. "I'm blogging now, and that's fun. It might even be addictive, but to the extent that it takes me away from making phone calls, I worry about that," Klein says.
There's less emphasis on the "eye-popping scoop" in the magazine now, writer Tumulty says, "because that, they keep telling us, belongs on Time.com the minute we get it."
She's altering her focus in the ink-on-paper version as well. When Tumulty wrote about the intervention of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the race between Reps. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for House majority leader, she filed a story exploring the behind-the-scenes maneuvering. "That kind of stuff used to be the bread and butter of Time magazine," she says. But this time, her editors didn't want it.
"What they wanted was a story about Nancy Pelosi and what was it about her character and biography that explained what she had done that week and trying to look forward," Tumulty recounts. "It was far less rooted in the palace intrigue of that week and much more about helping our readers understand who Nancy Pelosi is. As I try to get my own footing in this new world we're living in here, it was a very telling thing."
Like the Web site, the print version has gotten a makeover. Stengel describes the new look as an attempt to make sure the "architecture is more understandable, so you know where you are in the magazine at all times." That includes a front-of-the-book section that feels like a news handbook with a sprightly digest. The feature well offers "big, deep, long, reported stories," anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 words, such as Aparisim "Bobby" Ghosh's powerful August cover piece "Life In Hell: A Baghdad Diary," a first-person account of a country unraveling. The next section showcases reported ideas by writers with expertise on subjects such as law, medicine and society; the last is an arts section. The redesign debuted with a cover story by Tumulty, "How The Right Went
Wrong," illustrated with a photo of Ronald Reagan--crying. (The inside
credits hinted at this artistic liberty: "Photograph by David Hume
Kennerly. Tear by Tim O'Brien.")
The redesign also includes an aggregated celebrity index in place of the traditional "People" page, exposing readers to celebrity fodder without dwelling on it. "My feeling is if you're interested in celebrity, you are so well-served in this marketplace. Why would anyone want to buy Time magazine and read about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears?" Stengel asks, in a not particularly subtle allusion to the competition eight blocks away. "The Time reader wants serious news, and a serious take on the news and a serious way of interpreting the news."
At Newsweek's offices at 251 West 57th Street, Editor Jon Meacham relishes his February 12 Britney-Paris cover and his role as underdog to rival Time. He shares an old joke by Donald E. Graham, the Washington Post Co.'s chairman and chief executive: " 'We're the pirate ship, and they're the stately ocean liner sailing off.' There's a lot to that ... They're having their daiquiris, and we're sort of these–we all have one leg or something and parrots flying around and eating our own, or whatever." He laughs. "Not that. But it's true: We're a scrappier culture because we've always been number two."
Newsweek's personality "is less–" he grins and stops. "Let me say it more positively. I think that the tempo of the magazine, the metabolism of the magazine, is quicker here. I think that we don't take ourselves as seriously, though it's a serious time."
Meacham, who, at a mere 37, was promoted from managing editor in October, describes the heart of the magazine as reporting and "trying to tell the story of the country." He has a penchant for literary and historical references, and although our interview is sadly bereft of the FDR allusions he's known for (he wrote a 2003 book about the wartime relationship between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill), he offers liberal infusions of Homer. "Is it scary?" he asks of the magazine's adaptation. "Somewhat, because it's new in that the technologies are constantly evolving. At the same time it's as familiar, to beat a dead horse, as 'The Iliad' " in its unchanged mission of storytelling.
Asked about cultural coverage, Meacham says Newsweek is more provocative than its competition. "We're much more willing to make an argument about something that's rising out of pop culture, I think, than the other folks are," he says.
Like the Britney cover? "That's a clear example of what I'm talking about," he replies. "I knew we were going to get kicked around." His reporters had heard stories about dissolute cheerleaders, and a couple of mothers on his staff were discussing their fears for their young girls. He grabbed a couple of them, talked for five minutes and a cover story was born.
"The Girls Gone Wild Effect" explored how "OUT-OF-CONTROL CELEBS AND ONLINE SLEAZE FUEL A NEW DEBATE OVER KIDS AND VALUES." The cover photo showed Paris with her arm around Britney–an outdated shot, since Page Six, US Weekly and other celebrity chroniclers had reported the demise of the friendship weeks earlier. (Time put Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on its cover that week, U.S. News a "special report" on overselling the merits of ethanol.)
The "Girls" story was accompanied by a defiant editor's note conceding that some readers will "think we have, in the language of media critics, 'gone soft.' " Meacham denied in the note that Newsweek was playing the "celebrity card," reminded readers that newsstand revenue is a small fraction of the magazine's business and defended the piece as a "serious-minded attempt to figure out how the prevailing celebrity ethos of women behaving badly is–and is not–affecting girls." The article itself opened with a photo of a barely clad Britney and a slightly better covered Paris and pondered, "are we raising a generation of 'prosti-tots'?"
Weightier topics served as Britney bookends. The February 5 cover story, "The True Cost of War," explored the lives of 12 soldiers killed in a Black Hawk helicopter crash in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. The February 19 cover story on Iran, reported by a team of 14, detailed the brinksmanship between Washington and Tehran and also offered an intriguing look into moments of tentative cooperation between the two enemies. "Do three war covers equal one 'Girls Gone Wild?' " Meacham asks. "No. Not exactly, but I would also not be telling the truth if I said that we weren't conscious of the fact that a lot of people, whenever we do something like that, the Girls, think we've gone soft, and 'tut, tut, tut' and 'blah, blah, blah.' " He notes that the magazine put Mae West on the cover in 1934.
Newsweek's leaders are upbeat about their Web site, saying they made the types of changes Time is launching years ago. Newsweek.com, which partners with MSN and MSNBC.com, is the largest newsmagazine on the Web. In January, it attracted 7.8 million unique visitors in the U.S., according to Nielsen//Net Ratings, its largest showing since it launched in 1998. (By contrast, NYTimes.com, the largest newspaper site, attracted 14 million unique visitors in the U.S. in January.) A redesign of Newsweek.com is being planned for this summer to provide a fresh look and feel; it will incorporate new interactive features and better search tools.
"I think it's important that we provide breaking news, but I don't think it's the function of the site," says Deidre Depke, editor of Newsweek.com and an assistant managing editor of the magazine. She feels the site should provide readers with perspective on the news and offer exclusives, as it did with a February 28 piece by Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball about a missing secret video of federal officials interrogating "enemy combatant" Jose Padilla. She wants Newsweek.com to "exploit" the magazine's resources worldwide, as it does with "Checkpoint Baghdad," a blog launched in March.
The site also aims to engage readers with Newsweek. Depke notes that Time's magazine cover is downplayed on Time.com and observes, "I don't think you'll have to scroll to see [Newsweek's] cover" even after the redesign.
While Newsweek can and does play in the 24-7 space, Meacham says he doesn't want his staff to do so unless they can offer something original. The weekly magazine's conundrum is that "our strength is long-form in print, but there is no such thing as great long-form Web journalism. How do you fill that gap? And that's what we are spending all our time thinking about."
He sees the question as one of translation between mediums: "How do you build out an immersive storytelling experience online in conjunction with what we've got in the magazine?" he asks. "What is the polished narrative writing of the 21st century online? ... We're in the process of trying to figure out how you tell stories in-depth and in a multimedia way online."
Meacham believes the answer lies in the emerging interactive and visual possibilities of the Web, including video, photo galleries, quizzes and tests for readers; Newsweek is building a studio so it can create video in-house. Meacham hopes to see more online storytelling like the December 14 piece by Paris Bureau Chief Christopher Dickey, which re-created Princess Diana's fatal drive through a Paris tunnel after a British Police Commission report debunked conspiracy theories about that night.
Meacham and Rick Smith appear unimpressed by the changes at Time. "We tend not to announce revolutions," says Smith, who has been Newsweek's chairman since 1998, its editor in chief since 1984 and wrote his first cover story for the magazine in 1970. ("I almost go back to the days when 'The Odyssey' and 'The Iliad' were written," he volunteers after I recount Meacham's Homer references.) He says a longtime senior editor once called Newsweek "the 'existential newsmagazine' because we make it up every week; we make the formula up every week, and to a certain extent we still do. And I think that's great."
Smith describes Newsweek, which raised its cover price twice in 2006, as "solidly profitable last year." He says he likes his magazine's Monday sale date just fine, and if he does decide to lower the circulation guaranteed to advertisers, it will be an economic decision based on skyrocketing postal rates–Newsweek will spend $12 million to $13 million more on postage in 2007 than in 2000–rather than an "existential choice."
When I share Stengel's goal of "reported analysis" with Meacham, he responds with delight: "I love that. Do you know what we used to call that? Journalism." As I leave the interview, he calls out: "They're doing reported analysis. That means they're Writing Stories."
U.S. News & World Report is a newsweekly of a different sort–far more service-oriented than its rivals in areas such as health, education, business and personal finance. It favors heavy doses of "news-you-can-use" and lots of "best" rankings and data analysis, including its marquee franchises, Best Colleges, Best Graduate Schools, Best Hospitals and America's Best Leaders.
Unlike its Manhattan-based competitors, the editorial offices of U.S. News are located in Washington, D.C., in the heart of Georgetown. When I visit a news meeting in early February, led this Tuesday morning by Executive Editor Brian Kelly, editors engage in an animated discussion about which failed presidents to feature on the cover for a "Worst Presidents" story. A collage? A few faces without names? Or maybe a loose tie on President Harding, with "his gut sticking out, kind of a Monty Python image," jokes Kelly. They later opted for unidentified photographs of Presidents Nixon, Hoover, Tyler and Grant. (Kelly became head of U.S. News' editorial operations in late March after Brian Duffy stepped down to focus on writing books.)
The magazine's year-end cover story, "50 Ways to Improve Your Life in 2007," included suggestions such as: "Start Your Own Blog," "Give Your Teen More Driving Time," "Hit the Road Without the DVDs" and "Do Something About Darfur."
It also tackles some serious investigative work, particularly about government agencies. A November 6 package on intelligence reform, the first of a two-part report, offered a vivid glimpse inside the National Counterterrorism Center and into issues such as anthropologists assisting U.S. intelligence services. A September 25 cover story on "Capitol Crooks" explored the rise and fall of defense contractor Mitchell Wade and the billion-dollar world of such big-time contractors.
U.S. News has endured heavy staff cuts in the last few years; its editorial staff of about 125 is roughly 30 percent smaller than five years ago. Duffy, 52, says U.S. News had to reduce costs and staff size before its rivals because it lacks the shelter of a larger corporate structure in withstanding market pressures. Real estate magnate Mortimer B. Zuckerman, who also is chairman and copublisher of New York's Daily News, bought the formerly employee-owned magazine in 1984. "We've had to cut in ways that have been hurtful," Duffy says, noting the pain has been widely shared by other news organizations.
As the littlest newsweekly, U.S. News sometimes gets overlooked by media observers and by its larger competitors. Robert S. Boynton, director of the magazine writing program at New York University, says he doesn't want to denigrate the journalists there, but he's blunt about its status in the media world. "I think everyone in the industry is sort of shocked it's still around. I can't imagine what's in it for Mort Zuckerman," Boynton says. "It's always been the also-ran. I don't think it's part of any bigger dialogue. It exists for non-economic reasons. It's just the ego of the owner. He wants it there."
In a lightning-fast phone interview, Zuckerman says, "Obviously, I think the magazine is here to stay." He concedes that the "newsweekly field is now surrounded and in a sense under siege" by other competitors; to triumph, he says, the magazines have to "give uniqueness that you can't get anywhere else."
One way U.S. News' leaders hope to highlight its individuality is through USNews.com, which offers troves of education and health data. Over the last year, they have pumped more than $1 million into improving the site, which attracted 1.3 million unique visitors in the U.S. in January, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. "All of the things I've found so frustrating and infuriating about our Web site, I'm assured will be fixed," Duffy said in early February, citing his long-standing displeasure with a somewhat impenetrable layout and a needed technical overhaul. "If you compare all three sites, though," he says of his competitors, "you'd see that ours is a much richer site, much more content-based."
A redesign debuted February 24, giving USNews.com a cleaner, more modern look. It offers a daily cover story, although not necessarily about an event from the past 24 hours, and elements will be added throughout the year, including more interactive opportunities, more video and new education and personal finance installments in the "best" series.
Its Best Health segment "will be the prototype for every other area," says U.S. News President Bill Holiber. In addition to tools such as a doctor finder searchable by specialty and ZIP code across the U.S., Holiber hopes that the site soon will offer live video of surgeries performed by medical centers deemed superior in specialties such as heart surgery and orthopedics. Health Editor Bernadine Healy–a cardiologist, past president of the American Red Cross and former director of the National Institutes of Health–will explain the unfolding surgical procedures; she also will answer questions that viewers e-mail to her.
Ryan Thornburg, managing editor of USNews.com, came aboard in September to oversee the innovations. He previously directed Congressional Quarterly's site and spent seven years at washingtonpost.com; he was editor of national and foreign news when he left. Thornburg wants USNews.com to function as a daily online magazine that provides easy access to breaking news but doesn't see a need for U.S. News reporters to write those stories themselves. "We cannot be a commodity news site," he says. "I think the AP and Yahoo! have got that market covered."
Instead, he sees a magazine's role online as adding a layer of analysis, filling in gaps between the news and melding that mission with its tradition of narrative journalism. "What's in the news that you don't understand, and how can we help you understand it better?" he asks.
The magazine has hired its first audio and video editor, and reporters will begin to carry digital cameras. Senior writer Michael Barone, a political institution, brought an audio recorder to the Oval Office for an October 25 roundtable that President Bush held with conservative columnists. To his editors' delight, he recorded it successfully, and U.S. News posted the audio on its Barone Blog a few hours later. ("He's not so technologically proficient, by the way," Holiber observes. "He was very proud when he came back.")
Surprisingly, U.S. News' leaders say there is little crossover–only about 10 percent–between the site's visitors and readers of the print magazine. In addition to its free content, the site offers premium online data about best colleges and best graduate schools; each costs $14.95 a year. Most of these customers just want the data and never pick up the magazine, Duffy says.
About 15 percent of U.S. News' ad revenue comes from its Web site. The challenge will be sustaining the print side, where Holiber foresees substantial pressure over the next few years. He feels his magazine's service role gets lost in the advertising community. "To them, in a lot of cases, we're just three newsweeklies doing pretty much a similar sort of thing," he laments. Advertising choices have exploded from five years ago, which "means you have to fight that much harder to try to get the business." It's easy for a potential advertiser to say, "'All three of them are the same; the big difference is that U.S. News is the smallest.'"
Holiber won't discuss whether the privately held magazine is profitable, but he does say that the overall franchise, including the magazine, the Web site and guides such as Best Colleges, is "getting closer and closer to producing some nice profits."
Duffy offers a marginally less opaque insight into the magazine's financial performance: "It has not been profitable in the past, but we have improved that picture dramatically" in the past three to four years. If USNews.com continues to grow, U.S. News may reduce its guaranteed circulation to advertisers at some point, Duffy says. "But the print magazine will always exist."
In both the print and online spaces, newsweeklies confront a burgeoning universe of competitors. "For the last decade or so, they have become less newsweeklies and more general interest magazines with news in the front," Rosenstiel says. "In the last three or four years, one consequence is that other publications have come in and taken that news function away even further." The Atlantic and The New Yorker have gotten newsier. The Economist and The Week are encroaching on the newsweeklies' space as well.
John Harrington, a newsstand sales analyst and publisher of the New Single Copy newsletter, calls The Economist the "fourth news magazine." With its unbylined pieces and short items, it "has the characteristics that Time or Newsweek had 20 years ago or more," he says. "It's the same format that newsmagazines made famous."
Moving into the newsweeklies' space isn't necessarily The Economist's goal, says Paul Rossi, its North American publisher. Instead, "I think what we're seeing is we have a product that people increasingly want, because we have a product that's different from what they've been offering traditionally." The Economist, which is edited in London and spans the globe with its authoritative analysis, starts "from the premise that what happens around the world affects everybody, that there's a connection between business and politics, and the world is globalizing."
Paid sales for The Economist's North American edition reached about 639,000 for the six months ending in December, up 12.3 percent from the same period in 2005, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. It's still far smaller than its newsweekly competitors (although its single-copy sales exceed those of U.S. News), but Rossi foresees continued growth. "I don't see any reason why we can't be bigger than Time," he says, while declining to predict the date that might happen. "I'm doing that Economist trick of using a number but not telling you when," he says. "Always have a number and a date, but never together."
At The Week, Editor-in-Chief William Falk is blunt about competing for the newsweeklies' readers: He wants them, and he's got at least some of them. "It's clear that we are an alternative to the traditional newsweeklies and have been so since we launched almost six years ago," Falk says. "A number of people at Time-Life have told us that we remind them of what Henry Luce originally had in mind for Time when he launched it."
Owned by Dennis Publishing, The Week has no bylines and no original reporting; it's a compilation of information from elsewhere. It aims to be a smart aggregator that recaps news coverage of the past week in areas such as "The world at a glance...," "Health & Science" and "Art." "There's a sort of edgy attitude about the magazine that I think is a little different from the traditional newsweeklies," Falk says. "There's some humor in there, some irreverence."
Falk's The Week is the U.S. equivalent of its London namesake, which was launched out of a garage in 1995. For the period ending in December, its circulation reached nearly 444,000, up 21 percent from a year earlier. "I don't think we're going to replace Time and Newsweek, but we feel we're a very viable alternative to those magazines," Falk says.
Ironically, he notes, The Week wasn't envisioned as a Web-era publication. When we spoke, the staff was preparing to upgrade its rudimentary Internet site in late March ( www.theweekmagazine.com) to offer a shorter daily version of the magazine online.
Newsweeklies' Internet competitors are no less formidable. In addition to news aggregators such as Yahoo! and Google, newspapers have outpaced the newsweeklies in their use of Web video, interactivity and overall online creativity (see "Adapt or Die," June/July 2006). With their daily orientation, they fit more naturally into the online space. The broadcast networks, another old-media dynasty often consigned to oblivion, also have stepped up their online offerings, with more video choices and the likes of Katie Couric and Brian Williams turning to blogging (see "Hold That Obit," August/September 2006). New online rivals are fast emerging. In January, Robert Allbritton launched the Politico (www.politico.com), a newspaper-Internet hybrid–the same sort of combined print-online destination that Time's leaders have been touting. (See Drop Cap, February/March.)
Through that media cacophony, the leaders of the old-guard newsweeklies believe they still provide a special service–no matter what the platform. The metaphor-prone Meacham suggests a nautical analogy that his rivals would probably embrace. "In an ocean of information, there have to be lighthouses," he says. "Could people survive without Time or Newsweek? Sure. I think their lives would be the poorer for it."