The shutdown of the venerable print edition of Newsweek is yet another step in the long, inexorable march of all things print to digital -- a familiar storyline.
Except when it's not.
Many pundits will proclaim Newsweek as simply the latest in an inevitable parade of former print publications crossing over to digital-only form -- following PC Magazine, Gourmet and Smart Money, to name a few. But the newsweekly faced a specific set of challenges, not the least of which came from within its own organization. "Newsweek is unique in that it was already damaged goods; it's not the canary in the coalmine," said Sid Holt, former managing editor of Rolling Stone and CEO of the American Society of Magazine Editors. In fact, for Newsweek, the past decade has been all about a decline in subscribers, down to 1.5 million from 3.1 million in 2007, and a falloff in advertising.
The 90s brought competition in 24-hour TV news, but the newest challenge for Newsweek and other publishers of high-end, well-reported journalism and opinion comes from producers of high-volume "good enough" content and aggregation. Sites like, well, The Daily Beast.
Newsweek and The Daily Beast are meant to be compatible, but one could argue The Daily Beast is the very thing killing Newsweek. It's the kind of site that will make it impossible to charge $24.99 a year for a digital subscription. What TDB and its ilk offer -- original writing from a few big names mixed with aggregation-with-attitude -- turns out for many readers to be a just-good-enough substitute to a newsweekly.
Baba Shetty, the new CEO of Newsweek DailyBeast Co., described how both brands can co-exist: "The Daily Beast is part of the stream -- part of the constant flow of information. It's of the moment. It's hot, fast, sexy, cool. Newsweek is by its nature about perspective and framing around the themes that matter in the world today. It's about longer form, sitting back, taking it in and gaining perspective."
In the world of print, competition isn't just a click away. But the web is a different story. Online, a four-paragraph summary of a story, skimmed between emails, will generally suffice when the alternative is a longer-form, high-polish take that requires pulling out a credit card or remembering a password.
Most magazines and newspapers won't follow Newsweek's lead because they're too busy balancing what analyst Ken Doctor calls "the straddle," using the prestige of the print brand and the old-media cash flow to fund investments in digital.
"If you can hold on to both franchises, even if print goes down 5% to 7% a year, you have a chance of transitioning and being one of the survivors at the other end," Mr. Doctor said.
Even for magazines that have built a big readership online or on tablets, dumping print would be a silly -- even suicidal -- move. The Economist, for example, has about the same circulation as Newsweek, 1.5 million, and it has been hugely successful in getting its readers to adopt its tablet app; some 632,000 used it in the month of June. But The Economist has only 88,000 paid digital-only subscribers.
"All magazines are facing the same issue -- readers are migrating to digital, and the ad dollars are following," said Paul Rossi, managing director of the Economist Group, Americas. "If you are dependent on print advertising, this migration is doubly difficult."
The U.K.'s Guardian is another news publication with a declining print product but a thriving website, with more than 34 million global unique visitors a month. Yet print revenue accounted for $240 million of the Guardian's $340 million in total revenue last year. This year the mix will be two-thirds print, spokesman Richard Lindsey said. The hope is to get to a 50/50 split by 2017.
"The print business is in decline, and nothing is going to reverse that ," Mr. Lindsey said. The company is operating at a $70 million loss. Its U.K. print business -- and willingness to lose money, for now -- allows it to fund the parent company's investments in digital.
For its part, Time magazine Managing Editor Rick Stengel told MSNBC that the print magazine will remain "the centerpiece of the brand." While Time 's ad pages have declined 18% year to date, it notched 870 ad pages through Oct. 22 , far higher than Newsweek's 578 during that same time period.
At this point, publishers have a pretty good idea what their business looks like without print: a lot smaller. Most publications that try to survive on online ads alone have bare-bones staff and do a lot of content aggregation. The wildcard for publishers considering a similar move is that they have no idea how much revenue to expect from e-readers and tablets. Advertisers like the tablet format because it provides a better visual environment than most online ads, but publishers have had little success getting readers to pay for tablet issues or subscriptions. While tablet apps have been the rage among publishers for years -- the Magazine Publishers Association said 1,728 magazine apps were released in the third quarter alone -- there are signs that 's begun to wane in favor of developing websites that display well on tablets and phones.
On one level, all publishers face the same problem, and that is a hazy future full of unknown variables: They're all challenged with inventing a model that will probably be uniquely their own.
"Every magazine has a different way forward," said ASME's Mr. Holt. "For some, print will continue to be the sweet spot. For others, the transition to all-digital will proceed quickly. Most magazines will be a combination."