A Note on Newsweek (long) (updated)

One thing I learned during my stint as a weekly news magazine editor* was how deceptively difficult this kind of journalism has become. Story selection? For a daily newspaper, it's easier. If there is a big airplane crash on Monday, you write about it on Tuesday. It's easier for a monthly magazine like the Atlantic, too. We're simply not going to write about the airplane crash at all unless we have some special angle to talk about, three months later. But for a weekly? If you cover the crash in your next issue, you're largely giving readers info they already know. If you don't, you're "off the news." So unless you have some hot reportorial scoop, you often end up splitting the difference -- having a little base-touching mention of the disaster, which inevitably gets squeezed for space until it's reduced to familiar newsmag-ese haiku, while meanwhile trying to figure out what people will find interesting to read on top of everything else flowing at them all the time. [*US News, 1996-1998.]

When these magazines were started three full generations ago -- human generations that is; more like a hundred technology generations -- the task was obviously easier. The Henry Luce/ Briton Hadden vision behind Time in the 1920s was to give people across the continent a weekly summary of news they couldn't get otherwise. The past half century of news magazine existence has involved constant rejiggering of the formula to reflect the fact that first radio, then broadcast TV, then 24/7 cable TV, then national distribution of the NYT and WSJ, then the Internet have steadily cut away material and audience from the weeklies, endlessly forcing them onto new terrain. This, for instance, is why US News came up first with "News You Can Use" and then with its lamentable "Best College" rankings. What originally had kept the weeklies going, readers could get someplace else.

This is not the time for a whole "economics of the press" discourse. Actually, I have what I think is a new approach on that theme coming out soon in the magazine. (Subscribe!) But here is a basic facts-of-life primer on Newsweek's predicament: Why is the magazine in such extreme economic trouble, if its recent redesign was in many ways more "provocative" and "thoughtful" and "interesting"?

The answer, in my view, has to do with the "scale laws" of magazine publishing. At least for print subscriptions, there appears to be a natural limit to the audience for different kinds of magazines. Let's think of these in big, order-of-magnitude blocks. All figures here are approximate but true to the general pattern.

In their heyday, the likes of TV Guide and Reader's Digest had circulations in the tens of millions. National Geographic has been over ten million.

The fallen giants -- Look, Life, Saturday Evening Post -- reached at their respective peaks somewhere between five and ten million.

At the other end of the scale, "opinion" magazines -- The Nation, National Review, New Republic, Weekly Standard -- seem to have a natural upper bound of around 100,000. For smaller political magazines, like my original employer The Washington Monthly, the upper-bound figure is more like 50,000.

The New Yorker's natural limit has appeared to be around one million; the Atlantic's, about half a million. Of course we all want to have ten times as many subscribers and readers as we do; and who knows, The Age of the Internets may make it all possible. The point for now is, there is a kind of natural matchup of magazine sensibility with audience size. (Eg, as shown by the categories for the National Magazine Awards.) And magazines that ignore this limit soon suffer; it's like opening a 500-seat restaurant for a kind of cuisine that only 100 people are going to want to eat on any given night, or flying a 747 between Fresno and Bakersfield.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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