Sorry, Jon Meacham -- Reporting Doesn't Need Newsweek to Survive

Last Updated May 6, 2010 12:48 PM EDT

Some 24 hours after the Washington Post Co. (WPO) said, in a terse press release, that it wanted to dump Newsweek, two things stand out:
  1. The comments made last night on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham -- who just happened to be scheduled to be on the show on this fateful day -- about how Newsweek should (yet again) reposition itself -- making online the first priority and then, at the end of each week, aggregating the Web content into a print edition for people who "want to hold the magazine in their hands. And there are people that still do that." (Here' a link to Part 1 of the Meacham/Stewart interview and to Part 2.)
  2. That its online-only, soon-to-be-former sister publication, Slate, sported a 30 percent increase in ad revenue in the first quarter of 2010, as Newsweek posted a 37 percent decline in ad revenue during 2009. (Overall, ad revenue in the magazine publishing division came in at $184.2 million, dropping by 27 percent.)
While taking into account that the raw ad dollars at Slate (which the Post didn't divulge) are no doubt still much smaller than Newsweek's, Meacham still is wrong about there being any point to a print version of Newsweek. Over the last year, the magazine has slashed its rate base from 2.6 million to 1.5 million, or a whopping 42 percent, but, obviously, it still hasn't been able to get costs in line with bleak revenue reality. Otherwise, its parent company wouldn't be selling it.

The sad fact is that there's just no way for a print version of Newsweek to make money. So, what Meacham's plea for the future of the magazine makes obvious is how attached he --and a sprinkling of other people -- are to print, beyond any objective sense of what's going on in media these days. It's not just print's tactile nature that he's wed to, but its perceived ethos.

In the interview with Stewart, Meacham trotted out what has become print's war horse of a rational for its existence: That it is one of the only things that stand between civil society and anarchy. "I do not believe that Newsweek is the only Catcher in the Rye between democracy and ignorance," he said. "But I think we're one of them, and I don't think there are that many on the edge of that cliff."

But, is that really true?

While every medium is beset by rampant editorialization these days (case in point, of course, being Fox News), isn't there actually a plethora of reporting still out there? For instance, reporting done by the aforementioned Slate? Perusing that site this morning, I found an insightful interview with a man named Greg Meyer who has the experience, and the passion, to potentially save Blockbuster; a reporter's first-person account of trying to identify suspicious activity for an afternoon in Times Square; and a story interviewing public relations experts on how BP has handled its communications during the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Meanwhile, both publications ran stories on the oil spill that relied heavily on other sources, ranging from a local Louisiana TV station to CNN.

We may think that the differences in reporting between online-only and print/online hybrids are vast, but that's less and less so, in part because of the low costs of the former, and the dwindling resources of the latter. I'm not saying there would be no loss in the demise of Newsweek, or of print publications in general ... but, look around: there's still plenty of reporting going on all around us, from upstart Web sites to TV. Reporting doesn't need print, or Newsweek, to survive.

(Jim Fallows, once editor of U.S. News & World Report, has an interesting take on Newsweek's predicament at The Atlantic's Web site today: that it repositioned it into a more narrowly-targeted magazine that, given its cost structure, makes it unsustainable.)