Bad news for newsweeklies

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Are newsweeklies still relevant?

"No," said one editorial-side Newsweek-er. "And we all know that."

The question reignited last week amid reports that U.S. News & World Report may shift its focus to science and history.

U.S. News owner Mort Zuckerman said he didn't comment on "rumors in the press." When asked about a possible frequency change: "Absolutely not."

"But," Mr. Zuckerman added, "we are diminishing the focus on international news"-of less interest since the Soviet Union broke up-"and similarly, we find national political news is of diminishing interest. The action in the country is not in Washington, but in the private sector."

That may outmode its venerated brand name. And that speaks to the challenge the nation's three leading newsweeklies face in their future.

"We are reviewing the magazine to make sure that we're in sync with our readers," said U.S. News Editor Stephen Smith. "No decision has been made on what, if any-please emphasize `if any'-change might be made." U.S. News' potential changes were first reported on Inside.com.

On top of newsweeklies' secular challenges-second-by-second news coverage via major cable channels; the Internet's Drudge-ification of the process-this year is dreadful. Through April, Time's ad pages are down 23.9%; Newsweek's, 22.1% and U.S. News' 17.2%.

The magazines' sweet spots-technology, automotive, financial-are slumping. Circulation remains steady, though the demise of stampsheet sources for titles with such tonnage (Time had 3.9 million subscribers in the second half of 200o) isn't good news. Nonetheless, executives said they're comfortable with current rate-base levels. "They're just in a tough place," said an executive at a newsweekly publisher, "on all fronts."

On a certain level, all magazines should be in such a tough place. Last year Time posted record profits. Washington Post Co.'s Newsweek's record profits came in '99.

"Time's growth over the last five years is phenomenal," said Publisher Ed McCarrick. "There isn't any magazine in the world that wouldn't want our revenue," he said, save for corporate sibling People. In 1999, according to Ad Age figures, Time's total ad and circulation revenue was $962.7 million; Newsweek, $594.2 million; and U.S. News, $355 million.

"The business can be bolstered-and has-through all kinds of mechanisms," said the executive from the newsweekly publisher. "What are they doing to make the newsweekly relevant in an age of instant news?"

As steady readers know, the answer is features aimed at capturing cultural resonance, which is necessary. Last year's was the first election cycle in which political junkies could plausibly argue newsweeklies' coverage added nothing.

The counterargument: Newsweeklies still set a cultural agenda not aimed at cognoscenti. While trackers of the cultural zeitgeist say Time's recent yoga cover came years too late, Managing Editor Jim Kelly said it was a best seller.

"These guys have been caught in the teeth of the transition from a broadcast to narrowcast to microcast society," said Jim Harris, CEO of marketing strategist ThoughtStep, Chicago. "Younger people are into consuming things in a constant stream of smaller tidbits." A former Newsweek executive said its median reader age 20 years ago was 32. Now it's in the early 40s, as is Time's. U.S. News' median reader is 46.

"It's a Harry-and-Martha question," said Rolling Stone media critic Jon Katz, referring to prototypical middle-Americans. "If you took it away from Harry and Martha for six months, would it change their lives? With TV and the Internet, it would. Newsmagazines? Increasingly, the answer is no."

Thing is, consumer habits may be tough to break. The media landscape is still thick with what many call dead brands walking-from the broadcast networks to Reader's Digest-that haven't gone anywhere. Nor will newsweeklies-as long as paradoxes persist.

"They're dead in the water," said Jack Berkowitz, director of strategic planning for American Lawyer Media. "But they have phenomenal brands."

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