NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Remember Newsweek, once widely recognized as one of the great brand names in the media world?
Yes, you read that correctly -- I wrote "once." I don't think it's true any longer, sorry to say.
This looks like a magazine in decline, both financially and journalistically.
Covers not compelling
All too often, its non-newsy covers don't resonate with me. Maybe it's my old-school instincts as a news consumer, but I can't get enough of reading about the Obama transition, the final days of the Bush 43 presidency, the future of the bedraggled Republican Party and the nation's economic woes. These subjects never get old for me.
Conversely, when I see a provocative Newsweek cover like last week's "The Religious Case for Gay Marriage" -- the latest example of the magazine's infatuation with spiritual subjects under Editor Jon Meacham's watch -- I have to conclude that Newsweek is determined to be known as America's non-news weekly. I wonder if its editors' top priority is merely to jolt readers by offering a controversial treatment of a controversial subject.
My quibble isn't with the story itself or the way it was reported and written -- I simply don't think it merits the cover of the magazine.
It's no secret in publishing circles that Newsweek has been trying to mimic the success that the Economist is having in the U.S., by stressing news analysis in its cover stories. But the critical difference between the two magazines is that the Economist takes a wittier, whimsical, more sure-handed approach -- and has proven to be much better at this sort of thing than Newsweek.
Perhaps Newsweek would be better suited to analyze the news if it had retained some of its best journalists who have slipped away -- Wall Street expert Allan Sloan and Silicon Valley chronicler Steve Levy, to name two. Sloan left for Fortune and Levy for Wired, and both have been sorely missed (by this columnist) for their inside knowledge of these beats.
In Newsweek's defense, it can point to the well-discussed woes of the advertising-challenged magazine industry. Employees learned last week that the magazine will reduce the size of its staff, "as it adjusts to a weakening financial position" (in the words of The Wall Street Journal).
Newsweek's parent, the Washington Post Co. , is reoffering voluntary buyouts that had been offered last spring when Newsweek cut 111 positions. The new round of packages won't be as lucrative as those on the table several months ago.
If the magazine industry's financial position continues to worsen, companies will take drastic measures. We've already seen the Christian Science Monitor and Ziff Davis' PC Magazine announce that the future lies exclusively online.
It wouldn't shock me if the parent company eventually combined Newsweek with Slate, the Post Co.'s well-regarded online magazine, as a way to keep costs low while keeping the Newsweek brand alive.
Slate is everything Newsweek is at its best: clever, pointed, topical. On Friday, readers could click on that site and enjoy such thought-provoking headlines as Ron Rosenbaum's "Why Obama Should Keep Smoking" , Christopher Beam's "The Obama School of Crisis Management" , and Jack Shafer's "Blago: Sleazy, Yes, but Criminal?"
With Newsweek increasingly stressing provocative features on its covers, it resembles the style of such online magazines as Slate and Salon, not to mention the likes of Arianna Huffington's Huffington Post, Tina Brown's the Daily Beast, Newser, Politico and other rather edgy Web sites.
Maybe I'm just cranky because Newsweek has spoiled me over the years. It boasts a dream-team roster of journalists, such as Evan Thomas, Jonathan Alter and Fareed Zakaria (who has shrewdly parlayed his well-read column to be one of Jon Stewart's favorite guests and landed a show of his own on CNN), all three of whom I've profild in this space.
I think Newsweek is at its best when these sages and others at the magazine are writing about politics, culture and society. I'm not a slave to Top 40 news, but in times of the collapses of Wall Street, the auto industry and the housing market as well as -- oh yeah -- that history-making new president, I'm inclined to want Newsweek to explain to me what the hell is going on.
Meanwhile, you can look for plenty of big changes at Newsweek. The magazine, which has a circulation of 2.6 million, is expected to reduce its rate base, the number of copies it guarantees to its advertisers that it will deliver. Like many magazines, Newsweek has conceded that its best prospects for increasing readership exist on the Web.
This is a piece of the strategy to bring more content to digital platforms and reduce its dependence on print journalism. And it will make do with fewer employees.
What if the upheaval fails to work? Then what? Then, you might hear speculation about a Newsweek-Slate online product.
It would sure save the Washington Post Co. a lot of money.
What do you like or dislike about Newsweek?
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By Jon Friedman