A team of Newsweek staffers and employees of the design firm Huge were two months into the redesign of Newsweek.com -- which arrived this afternoon in beta -- when The New York Times published "Snow Fall", its ambitious multimedia story about a deadly avalanche.
"We just looked at each other," said Baba Shetty, CEO of The Newsweek Daily Beast Company, which was formed by the merger of Newsweek and The Daily Beast in 2011 and is changing its name to NewsBeast. What The Times had done with "Snow Fall" was similar to the look and feel of the new Newsweek.com they had in mind. "The design was already locked when ["Snow Fall"] was published," Mr. Shetty said. "We were astounded that a path that we had been on had surfaced in the world."
Newsweek shut down its U.S. print edition at the end of the year and survived primarily as a tablet edition called Newsweek Global and a section of The Daily Beast website. Now it was working toward a new long-form, immersive and multi-media experience in the web browser. "Snow Fall" lent the strategy momentum. But Newsweek was planning to do something similar on a weekly basis.
The result is a fairly dramatic re-imagining of a magazine website at a time when publishers have invested most of their digital hopes in the app economy -- certainly as far as paid content goes. Tablet editions and other apps can better hold readers' attention and command paid subscriptions, publishers believe, than web pages studded with links leading elsewhere and surrounded by free competition.
Unlike websites with continual publishing schedules, the new Newsweek.com will retain the tablet and the former print edition's weekly schedule. Every Wednesday, a new edition of Newsweek Global will go live on Newsweek.com, with three to five feature stories, a section called "Newsmakers" about the people making headlines that week, and images from photojournalists and pictures pulled from social media platforms such as Instagram. Instead of swiping through the issue, as readers do with Newsweek Global's tablet edition, readers scroll down to reveal sections.
A function soon to be implemented will load the previous week's edition when readers reach the bottom of the current one, a function Mr. Shetty said will recall a stack of Newsweeks sitting on a coffee table.
The web and tablet versions of Newsweek will publish at the same time, with the same content. Mr. Shetty acknowledged that tablet users could skip the tablet edition of Newsweek Global and go straight to the web version. "We'll be watching the behavior," he said.
Newsweek developed the redesign with Huge, the design firm behind the HBO Go app. Newsweek's editorial staff will put out each issue, with feature articles coming from writers at The Daily Beast as well as some contributors outside the company.
Newsweek.com will be entirely free at the start, but executives plan to eventually introduce a metered pay wall, in which frequent users will be asked to subscribe. All of the content will remain free to Newsweek Global subscribers.
No ads will appear on Newsweek.com during the beta stage of its life. When ads do become part of the mix, they will not look like the standard units promoted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, according to Mr. Shetty. Newsweek.com will instead adopt a sponsorship model featuring one advertiser in each article. "They're going to be bold, beautiful, high-impact units," he said.
Those sponsorship units will rotate, Mr. Shetty added, so a new sponsor will appear each time someone accesses a story.
"The experience is something [readers] aren't used to seeing," said Megan Man, associate creative director at Huge. She described the advertising on Newsweek.com as complementary to the editorial content. "It's right for the people who read Newsweek."
The ad model could be of interest to brands, said Ari Bluman, chief digital investment officer at Group M, who had not seen the redesign. Advertisers are looking for ways to shape advertising opportunities with online media, he explained. Marketers also worry about "banner blindness," web surfers' tendency to look past ads without really noticing them.
Some of the initial advertisers for Newsweek.com have worked with the company to customize media for the site, Mr. Shetty said, declining to identify the advertisers. It's not advertising disguised as content, but advertising that is more "native" to the experience, he said, using the buzzword of the year in web publishing.
Mr. Bluman stressed that regardless of the experience, the size of the audience -- and who comprises that audience -- remains important. "Sexy and shiny is part of the equation," he said, "but realistically, when it comes down to it, it's about audience and scale."
Mr. Shetty said he believes that there's room in the media universe for long-form storytelling to exist alongside the kind of quick-hit journalism practiced by The Daily Beast, and it will attract readers who want to read considered, reflective stories in which journalists get to stretch their legs. "Readers are our top priority," he said. "If readers love it, brands will follow."