The Newsweekly’s Last Stand

Why The Economist is thriving while Time and Newsweek fade

Image: Stephen Webster

Newsweek’s recent decision to get out of the news-digesting business and reposition itself as a high-end magazine selling in-depth commentary and reportage follows Time magazine’s emergency retrenchment along similar lines. It accelerates a process by which the 76-year-old weekly will purposely reduce its circulation from 2.7 million to a bit more than half of that. (Its circulation was nearly 3.5 million in 1988.) Likewise, Time’s circulation, which 20 years ago was close to 5 million, is now at 3.4 million. Both newsweeklies are seeking to avoid the fate of U.S. News & World Report, which after years (decades?) of semi-relevance gave up on the idea of weekly publication entirely.

These tactical retreats by Newsweek and Time are brave stabs at relevance in a changing media environment. They’re also a decade late.


Video:
Michael Hirschorn talks to Bob Cohn about why the current age spells doom for Time and Newsweek, but not for The Economist

In the digital age, with its overabundance of information, the modern newsweekly is in a particularly poignant position. Designed nearly a century ago to be all things to all people, it Chaplin-esquely tries to straddle thousands of rapidly fragmenting micro-niches, a mainframe in an iTouch world. The audience it was created to serve—middlebrow; curious, but not too curious; engaged, but only to a point—no longer exists. Newsweeklies were intended to be counterprogramming to newspapers, back when we were drowning in newsprint and needed a digest to redact that vast inflow of dead-tree objectivity. Now, in response to accelerating news cycles, the newspapers have effectively become newsweekly-style digests themselves, resorting to muddy “news analysis” now that the actual news has hit us on multiple platforms before we even open our front door in the morning.

Given that even these daily digests are faltering, how is it that a notionally similar weekly news digest—The Economist—is not only surviving, but thriving? Virtually alone among magazines, The Economist saw its advertising revenues increase last year by double digits—a remarkable 25 percent, according to the Publisher’s Information Bureau. Newsweek’s and Time’s dropped 27 percent and 14 percent, respectively. (The Economist’s revenues declined in the first quarter of this year, but so did almost every magazine’s.) Indeed, The Economist has been growing consistently and powerfully for years, tracking in near mirror-image reverse the decline of its U.S. rivals. Despite being positioned as a niche product, its U.S. circulation is nearing 800,000, and it will inevitably overtake Newsweek on that front soon enough.

Unlike its rivals, The Economist has been unaffected by the explosion of digital media; if anything, the digital revolution has cemented its relevance. The Economist has become an arbiter of right-thinking opinion (free-market right-center, if you want to be technical about it; with a dose of left-center social progressivism) at a time when arbiters in general are in ill favor. It is a general-interest magazine for an ever-increasing audience, the self-styled global elite, at a time when general-interest anything is having a hard time interesting anybody. And it sells more than 75,000 copies a week on U.S. newsstands for $6.99 (!) at a time when we’re told information wants to be free and newsstands are disappearing.

All of this suggests that although digital media is clearly supplanting everything analog, digital will not necessarily destroy analog. A better word might be displace. And The Economist’s success holds a number of lessons for dead-tree revanchists on how to manage this displacement.

The easy lesson might be that quality wins out. The Economist is truly a remarkable invention—a weekly newspaper, as it calls itself, that canvasses the globe with an assurance that no one else can match. Where else, really, can you actually keep up with Africa? But even as The Economist signals its gravitas with every strenuously reader-unfriendly page, it has never been quite as brilliant as its more devoted fans would have the rest of us believe. (Though, one must add, nor is it as shallow as its detractors would tell you it is.)

At its worst, the writing can be shoddy, thin research supporting smug hypotheses. The “leaders,” or main articles, tend to “urge” politicians to solve complex problems, as if the key to, say, reconstituting the global banking system were but a simple act of cogitation away. A typical leader, from January, on the ongoing Gaza violence was an erudite, deeply historical write-around on Arab-Israeli violence that ended up arriving at the same conclusion everyone else arrived at long ago: Israel must give up land for peace. The science-and-technology pages tend toward Gladwell-lite popularizations of academic papers from British universities. A February report on new scientific analyses of crowd behavior seemed to promise a fresh look at how police might deal with potentially rowdy mobs, but it quickly degenerated into an unsatisfying gloss on a British professor’s explanation of why some crowds become violent and some do not, with some syntax-obliterating hemming and hawing for good measure. (“And it is that which may help violence to be controlled.”)

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Michael Hirschorn is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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