U.S. News Loses Weekly War as Sector's Ad Pages Plummet

Biweekly Will Focus on Franchise Rankings, Cede Space to Time, Newsweek

By Published on .

Most Popular
NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- U.S. News & World Report, the longtime No. 3 weekly news magazine, is dropping to a biweekly frequency starting next year, effectively ceding its troubled category to larger rivals Time and Newsweek.

News weeklies graph
Source: Media Industry Newsletter
All three traditional newsweeklies have already taken steps such as cutting paid-circulation guarantees as competition has increased and the news cycle has gone into hyperdrive. U.S. News has already trimmed its frequency to 36 issues this year from 46 last year. But the move to publish issues only every other week -- with additional specials on occasion -- provides the strongest signal yet that the ground has permanently shifted under the old newsweeklies.

"'News' and 'week' becomes an oxymoron," was how Brian Kelly, editor of U.S. News, described the effect of always-on media last week.

"It's a very smart, strategic move," said Brenda White, senior VP-director of publishing activation at Starcom Worldwide. "When you think about it, what their brand stands for is the rankings: the 100 best hospitals. There is a franchise there, and they capitalized on it."

"They're really embracing change," Ms. White added, "vs. fighting or just thinking about it." It's probably helped focus everyone's mind that ad page sales are suffering this year under the added weight of a recession. Ad pages so far have fallen 23.7% at Newsweek, 27.2% at Time and 32.7% at U.S. News, according to Media Industry Newsletter.

Around in five years?
At a panel last week, media critic and provocateur Michael Wolff suggested the newsweeklies' challenges would only get worse. "If Newsweek is around in five years, I'll buy you dinner," he said. (Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham sees a different future: "I like steak," he told Ad Age later, "and look forward to dinner.")

But there's no getting around the fact that demand for the print versions is dwindling. Time reported average paid circulation of nearly 3.4 million for the second half of last year, down 17.6% as it drastically cut its guaranteed circulation; newsstand sales declined 19.4%. Newsweek's average was flat at 3.1 million, including a 16.3% decline on newsstands; its rate-base reduction did not take effect until January. U.S. News also reported flat circulation, at just over 2 million, as newsstand slipped 7.9%; it, too, cut its rate base in 2008.

The newsweeklies are investing heavily in their websites, where they expect to find future audience growth. The new idea at U.S. News is to let the web do what it does best -- provide instant news updates and vast stores of reference material -- so the print edition can publish less often. "Because we're able to provide our audience with much more current information on the web, it frees us up to do some better storytelling in print," Mr. Kelly said.

Websites for all three are, in fact, turning in growth, but Time and Newsweek are faring much better, in part because of their collaborations with other players including CNN and MSNBC. Time's site averaged 4.5 million monthly unique visitors last year, up 34% from the year before, according to Nielsen Online. Newsweek's 6.5 million average unique visitors represented a 38% gain. U.S. News averaged 1.3 million unique visitors for a gain of 6.5%.

Redesign in store
U.S. News executives are turning away from the old category battles. "We're definitely less concerned about the broader issues for the newsweekly category," said President William D. Holiber. "We're more concerned about focusing in on how we can connect our users and readers with our advertisers. The direction that we're taking puts us in a position to do that."

U.S. News is also revealing a redesign next month which will play to print's strengths, such as the capacity to engage readers with that better storytelling Mr. Kelly mentioned earlier. It is refocusing its editorial efforts on providing "what it means to me" content in health, education, personal finance, public affairs and opinion. Its online offerings will include expanded e-mail newsletters, themselves a relatively recent arrival, and a new opinion area later this month.

The brand is also creating a U.S. News Media Group to house and market its print edition, the companion site, its popular rankings of colleges and other institutions, the Rankings and Reviews site introduced last year, and newsstand specials such as "Secrets of the Civil War."
In this article: