Newsweek Shrinks Circ to Sell 'Elite' Audience

But Can a Mass Magazine Switch Models Now?

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The narrator in Peter Pan -- not to mention staff writers on "Battlestar Galactica" -- would know how to view the new reduction in paid circulation planned by Newsweek. All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.

Slicing into paid circulation will cut costs, but Newsweek will likely take the opportunity to simultaneously steer toward a more a elite readership.
Slicing into paid circulation will cut costs, but Newsweek will likely take the opportunity to simultaneously steer toward a more a elite readership.
Magazines' print editions will continue this way for a while, it seems increasingly certain, particularly as the recession amplifies the abundant challenges already posed by digital media and splintering audiences. There may never be a stable "new normal" for magazines. But their print editions are being slowly distilled into cheap, mass titles on one hand and luxurious niche books on the other -- with the web in between.

Newsweek is planning to cut 500,000 to 1 million copies from its paid circulation guarantee of 2.6 million, as Folio has reported. Newsweek confirmed the news today as it also eliminated 10 positions and offered buyouts to 65 employees.

Slicing into paid circulation will cut costs, but Newsweek will likely take the opportunity to simultaneously steer toward a more a elite readership -- by eliminating the least-valuable, most-discounted subscriptions on its books.

That's what Time did in 2006, when it cut its massive paid circulation by almost 20% in 2007, a step eventually followed by Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. And that's how Newsweek will argue to advertisers that its smaller audience represents a more select crowd.

The long-term wrinkle is that paid circulation looks less and less enduring on the whole. Except for some titles that have always charged a ton, such as People, magazines have long taught readers that they should expect subscriptions to cost close to nothing. Now the internet is serving up free content that's sometimes very good quality.

Free may not be a business model, but it's competition none the less. Except for magazines with highly specialized or highly motivated audiences, the better part of valor may mean making themselves cheaper to readers. Let them have you for free so long as they opt in, signaling their engagement to potential advertisers. Unless your audience really is elite, sell your scale to marketers.

As one media buyer put it, how do you ask consumers for more, in times like this, or in the future of ever more free content?

"How do you change consumers' behavior after you trained them so long to buy it for less?" asked Robin Steinberg, senior VP-director of print investment and activation at MediaVest. "Unless an entire industry adjusts to this model, how can one stand out on its own?"

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