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Friday, 28 December 2012

The Print Demise of Newsweek Magazine: Should We Be Shedding a Tear?

In case you missed it, the final print edition of Newsweek magazine has been published. As reported on bbc.uk/news here, the final issue contains a black-and-white picture of the magazine's Manhattan headquarters, with the strapline "#lastprintissue". The nod to Twitter is regarded as a backhanded compliment. The death of the print edition was caused by falling advertising revenues, as audiences moved online. At its zenith, the magazine had three million weekly subscribers. But in 2010 the magazine was sold by its parent for the previous 49 years, the Washington Post, for the sum of $1, to businessman and publisher Sidney Hartman. Three months later, the magazine was merged with the Daily Beast here. Starting next month, Newsweek magazine will be published in digital-form only.

This Kat, always a bit contrarian, remembers how proud he felt in the 1960s when he first took out a weekly subscription to the magazine, rather than to the more widely-circulated Time. He recalls that he was particularly fond of reading the weekly column of such notables as Milton Friedman here and Stewart Alsop here. But by the end of the 1970s, this Kat found the contents of the magazine decreasingly interesting and he drifted to The Economist. He wondered even then whether there was a long-time place for the magazine and he frankly had not read an issue for more than 20 years. Still, during all that time, the notion that Time magazine had a competitor in the space for a weekly news magazine was a source of comfort, but he did nothing to ensure that such competition would endure.

I have no idea whether the digital form version of the magazine will succeed (as the aphorism notes,"It is hard to predict, especially about the future"). Still, the demise of the print edition raises once again the question: are general content print magazines all ultimately doomed to extinction, or is the departure of Newsweek a specific tale of the challenge not met by being only second best in its space? Magazines (and newspapers) have come and gone for more than two centuries for a variety of reasons. This Kat imagines that the decline of readership is, and has been, the common denominator for most, if not all, of these defunct publications. When readership falls, a decline in advertising and other circulation-based revenues inevitably follows.

This Kat has no idea of the profitability of the print edition of weekly magazines such as The Economist or Time. Nor does he know whether such magazines are already plotting their ultimate departure from the print world. Whether they and others will do so by maintaining both print and online options, or by migrating wholly to the on-line environment, remains to be seen. But what seems certain, at least in this Kat's eyes, is that some of the current titans in print form will successfully make a partial or full transition to the online world. They will do so because of a combination of superior contents and a compelling brand.

At the end of the day, Newsweek failed because it was never quite good enough and its vulnerabilities were revealed in full when the online challenge was added to the competitive mix. As sad as it might seem, and even as this Kat thanks Newsweek for being an important part of his intellectual youth, its ultimate demise was sensed decades ago.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I followed a similar path, Neil, having left "Time" for "Newsweek". However, in an effort to differentiate itself from "Time", it had radically changed format and had completely lost direction. I didn't renew. Your comment:

"Newsweek failed because it was never quite good enough"

sums up the situation to perfection.

I personally like paper, but then I'm a dinosaur - and I like the fact that paper never runs out of batteries or doesn't go tinkle when I drop it. But who knows? Prototypes of flexible screens that can be rolled up like paper already exist, and that could lead to the demise of peper publications.

Suleman said...

In response to Anonymous' preference of paper, a lot of research has been done on the impact of screen versus paper (e.g. see http://www.ischool.utexas.edu/~adillon/Journals/Reading.htm), showing many different factors are probably involved, and so your preference may be more complex than you realise. When thinking about a political magazine like 'Newsweek' it would be interesting to know whether people consider paper somehow more 'authoritative' or credible in comparison to information seen on a screen.

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