For now, 'Newsweek' advertisers sit tight

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Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker spent the week apologizing for a report that touched off riots in the Muslim world, resulting in a number of deaths. The item, since retracted, earned the Washington Post Co. title a public spanking from the White House.

But Newsweek's advertisers hardly blinked.

Whether that will remain true as the magazine tries to put its first news-gathering crisis in recent memory behind it is still to be determined.

A spokesman for the magazine said last week that not a single advertiser had pulled out. Asked if any had expressed concern, the spokesman said only that the magazine is in constant communication with advertisers.

Media buyers said much will depend on Newsweek's ability to hold on to readers and patch up any holes in its editorial policies in the wake of the scandal.

"There is always a possibility of advertisers rethinking their strategy," said Robin Steinberg, senior VP-director of print investment at Publicis Groupe's Media-Vest, New York. "Whether that will happen here is undetermined. We need to understand what happens from a readership standpoint and understand the controls that are put in place."

Roberta Garfinkle, senior VP-director of print strategy at TargetCast TCM, called the mess a "temporary blip" that could play out in short-term advertiser pullback.

In contrast to the circulation-inflation scandals that led to advertiser backlash for other publications, these high-profile journalistic mishaps haven't historically sparked dramatic moves from marketers. Both The New York Times and CBS News avoided major commercial fallout during their high-profile scandals. Newsweek's biggest advertisers include automakers-though Detroit's Big Three have reduced magazine spending-and pharmaceutical companies. Last year, its 2,230 ad pages ranked it 18th among Publishers Information Bureau titles.

The May 9 report of Muslim prisoners' Qurans being abused, based on one anonymous source, was reportedly used to fan widespread protests of the U.S. in the Middle East, Pakistan and elsewhere. While White House officials criticized the magazine loudly, other reports surfaced that complicated the story, raising questions about why the Pentagon didn't deny the information prior to publication and even the possibility that the report wasn't totally wrong. All in all, the story's long tail last week left a more complicated portrait of a journalistic screw-up than in any of the other news-media scandals.

NO `SYSTEMATIC FAILURE'

If Newsweek does escape commercially unscathed, it will be at least in part due to sound crisis-management strategy.

Mr. Whitaker was at the forefront of a PR blitz last week that isolated the incorrect report as a one-time error rather than a general breakdown in editorial policies at the venerable newsweekly. And there's no evidence there will be the painful, public inquisitions that went on at news organizations like The New York Times, USA Today and CBS News.

Media ethicist Bryan Keefer said Newsweek's deft handling of the crisis-especially its decision not to give itself a "public flogging"-makes it unlikely that the magazine or its editor will suffer long-term negative effects.

"CBS and The [New York] Times came to view their scandals as systemic failures and Newsweek isn't approaching it as that," said Mr. Keefer, assistant managing editor, CJR Daily, the Columbia Journalism Review's blog. "They messed up, but they're approaching it as a one-off as opposed to something that's really wrong with the processes."

As a result, the lapse looks like a smudge rather than a big black mark on the Mr. Whitaker's resume. He's been editor of Newsweek since 1998.

Mr. Whitaker said he's confident his credibility won't be diminished. "I have tried to deal with this problem in the most straightforward and principled way possible," he said. "We're now looking at ways to improve our internal standards." This week's issue offers new guidelines on anonymous sources, single sources, confirmation and a restatement of the magazine's general guiding principles.

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