Newsweek says goodbye to the printing presses. Who’s next to go digital-only?
“As a former editor in chief of Psychology Today, I know how hard it can be to sell magazines,” begins a letter in the current edition of Newsweek. “But how do you get from a neurosurgeon’s report about his near-death experience to your cover headline?” A thumbnail opposite the letter shows the previous issue. It is emblazoned with the words “HEAVEN IS REAL”.
Not even the discovery of an afterlife was enough to save Newsweek. The current affairs magazine, which had been due to celebrate its 80th anniversary next year, has announced that its December 31st edition will be the last time it rolls off the printing presses in the US.
Editor in chief Tina Brown, who enjoys a near-Wintouresque celebrity status, put her spin on it (just as she did in July when she described suggestions the current affairs magazine was planning to ditch print as “scaremongering”). In a post titled A Turn of the Page for Newsweek, she yesterday admitted that the publication would “transition to an all-digital format” in early 2013. “We are transitioning Newsweek, not saying goodbye to it,” wrote Brown and chief executive Baba Shetty in the co-authored post, placed on the website of Newsweek’s online sister publication, the Daily Beast.
“Exiting print is an extremely difficult moment for all of us who love the romance of print and the unique weekly camaraderie of those hectic hours before the close on Friday night,” they write. But jobs, as well as romance, will be lost. “Regrettably we anticipate staff reductions and the streamlining of our editorial and business operations both here in the US and internationally.”
Newsweek will “expand its rapidly growing tablet and online presence”, as well as that new must-have for media companies – an events business. The all-digital publication will be called Newsweek Global and will be aimed at “a highly mobile, opinion-leading audience who want to learn about world events in a sophisticated context” – and pay to do so, with just “select content” available for free on the Daily Beast.
Newsweek is already available to buy via the newsagent app Newsstand for €2.39 per issue or an annual subscription of €19.99, which is how I read that letter complaining about its stretch of a headline. Now I happen to think Brown was indulging in fair editorial licence there – if you can’t pander to the mumbo-jumbo coma-convert crowd every now and again, we might as well all give up and go home. But the problem is that the wow-heaven-exists cover story is part of a pattern: Newsweek‘s “BUY ME” desperation has been writ large in recent months.
Sure, a lot of people seem to get a kick out of knocking the British-born Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. So much success so young – everyone hates that. But it’s hard not to agree with those who believe that under her tenure the magazine has ceased to provide a “sophisticated context”. Instead, it seems to have adopted a policy of trolling – the act of deliberately provoking an angry reaction (plus clicks). Controversial moments during 2012 to fit into this category have included a cover image of Barack Obama with the strapline “the first gay President” and a sensationalist cover story titled “Muslim Rage”. It might be eye-catching, but not in a way that’s edifying.
Newsweek’s decision to “embrace the all-digital future” follows a series of similar moves by US newspapers, led by the Christian Science Monitor in 2009. But those were inky, disposable and mostly classifieds-dependent newspapers. Newsweek is a shiny, glossy magazine – for leisure, not commuting; for big brand advertisers, not local businesses. It turns out such magazines are not insulated from the reader trends that have seen the percentage of US people who get their news from online sources rise to 39 per cent. Newsweek‘s print circulation has halved since 2006.
It’s been a rocky week for print believers, all told. On Wednesday, the Daily Telegraph‘s media editor Katherine Rushton published a story online claiming the Guardian had plans to dump its print edition. Not true, tweeted Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. “Plain wrong,” wrote its media blogger Roy Greenslade. But the Telegraph refused to backtrack, publishing the story including the company’s denial in its print edition on Thursday.
I guess it all depends on your definition of “plans”. Crucially, the Telegraph didn’t hazard a guess as to when the Guardian might abandon print, which means the story has a good chance of proving right – eventually.
It certainly wouldn’t be too shocking if it were to make like the London Independent and cease distribution in Ireland. I wouldn’t care. I no longer buy the Guardian in print, as I’ve signed up to its iPad edition. Why pay €13.99 a month when all that content is available on the web for free? It turns out I quite like the edited product in digital form, and the convenience of having downloaded editions available to read even if my device isn’t connected. The free trial, surprisingly, worked its magic. (I still miss the paper Indy though.)
The other publication frequently mentioned in “online-only” dispatches is the Financial Times – one of the few news publications to have triumphed in the science of making money from its paywall. As a specialist affair, it has an advantage – its readers belong to a demographic that is affluent and iPad-friendly. But quite aside from the digital-only debate, this could well be a time of flux for the FT following the resignation of Marjorie Scardino as chief executive of parent company Pearson. She was on record as being an FT loyalist, where others in the Pearson hierarchy may favour a sale.
Few media companies are blessed with enough scale and enough niche appeal to make a convincing go of it right now as an online-only entity – even if they weren’t still pulling in print advertising revenues too big to sacrifice just yet. But failure to figure out a viable digital model won’t preclude some companies from “transitioning” their print product. As with Newsweek, which was reportedly on track to lose $22 million this year, it may not be much of a choice. Printing eats money, as does distribution – Brown described such costs to Bloomberg as “incredibly archaic”. A struggling media company looking to rationalise its operations will inevitably look to the print side of its operation in any cloth-cutting exercise, on the basis that if it’s not part of the solution, then it must be part of the problem. That’s the thing about romance. It fades.