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.

This brings us back to Newsweek. For the past generation or so, weekly news magazines have been set up for circulations of between about two and five million. US News on the low end, Time on the high end -- but in all cases, the business logic of the magazines was based on this kind of scale. Rates for advertising; the kinds of advertisers they could attract; the staff they could employ; the kind of coverage and photography and design they would use. The Economist can do a very good business with a circulation of roughly half a million. Time and Newsweek and US News cannot. They're built on a different scale. (Chart from this Pew report.)


All the tech/death-of-media forces mentioned above have pushed the weeklies below their comfortable scale. Newsweek's redesign last year weirdly illustrated the predicament, by creating a more "interesting" magazine with a smaller natural readership.

I bet that most people who read the Atlantic, in print or online, thought that the new approach made Newsweek edgier, more provocative, more thoughtful, more original, and so on. More essay-type articles and cover stories; much less summing-up of the news. The Atlantic's audience would like this version of Newsweek better, because it has been more like the Atlantic -- or the Economist, or the New Yorker, or the NYT Week in Review, or the New York Review of Books.  These are all great publications. But none of them is going to have three million or more subscribers, which Newsweek's business model has historically been based upon. Newsweek became a "better" magazine - but a kind of magazine whose natural audience is smaller by definition. It would be as if McDonald's or Applebee's became a tapas bar -- yet still needed to fill the same number of seats.

I don't know what else Newsweek could have done. I don't know what they should do now. I hope my many friends there can figure out a way to make this succeed. But it's worth understanding the larger numerical forces working on them.
Update: I see that the Atlantic's Derek Thompson had an item on Newsweek earlier today.  Naturally I agree with its emphasis on innovation. I fear that it doesn't really address the basic economics of large-, medium-, and small-scale magazines and the different business models that suit them. Also, for later discussion, I am amused by the idea that a merger of reporting and analysis is something that has been invented by blogging. Tell it to -- oh, let's choose a name at random -- Garry Wills.