In all the conventional wisdom around about Newsweek’s failure, some important facts are being missed. As someone who started out as a writer at Newsweek and later became the editor of Time, I labored in the newsweekly category for much of my career and participated in the course of events that has led to this moment. Failure is an orphan, as President Kennedy noted wryly after the Bay of Pigs, but in this case I know its parents well.
The usual suspects are cable TV and the Internet, which supported the 24/7 news cycle that undermined the weekliness of news. Closer to the truth is the tiger-cow-dog model of business life cycles, in which vigorous growth gives way to harvesting strategies that lead to decline.
Alan Brinkley’s new biography of Henry Luce, who created the category and term “newsweekly,” is timely (no pun intended). It reminds us that Time began as an aggregator with attitude—no bureaus, just smart researchers and writers doing a weekly summary of the most important events of the week for people with lives that were otherwise consuming. An overabundance of news is nothing new: Time began in the 1920s, in the early days of mass media, when there were umpteen daily newspapers and radio was just getting started. That was the point, the reason for Time’s success: People felt inundated with information and needed a weekly summary.
They still do, which is why The Economist and The Week work just fine and why, if I’m right, both the Christian Science Monitor and the Bloomberg BusinessWeek reinventions are editorially and, if rightly scaled, financially sound.
Blame the Sneaker-Phone
For me, the real turning point for newsmagazines was the sneaker-phone—that and other TV give-aways offered in the 1980s and 1990s to build circulation rate bases, which supported ad-rate increases, which supported quarterly growth in the bottom lines of the corporations that owned the newsmagazines. Sneaker-phones and other such “premiums” were to newsmagazine circulation like steroids to an athlete, except that newsmagazines were in their sixties at the time. The standard of performance kept getting higher, driven by the inexorable demand for quarterly growth, which drove the newsmagazines’ standards for coverage increasingly toward popularity over importance.
Then there was People, the young tiger that entered the lists in the Seventies and which over time subtly changed the sense of what news is. By the time I ran it, in the late Eighties, People was outselling Newsweek, and Time was selling more only by outselling itself, meaning by stretching its natural demand—and its mission—to the breaking point.
Newsweek learned the lesson of People well, and for a while—ironically, when I was running Time—they outsold us on the newsstand with pop-culture cover subjects during big hard-news weeks (I did not consider these choices illegitimate, and I assumed they would make them). But they made the most of a newsstand victory among advertisers and the losing circulation game won again.
U.S. News, always the laggard, fell first. Now comes Newsweek, which too late had, like Time, redesigned itself around lower cost and rate bases. Newsweek’s redesign never really had a chance, because those bases were still not low enough: The game of chicken had made both Time and Newsweek flinch as the last chance came and went when they could have returned to their core mission.
That mission is precisely not to indulge in trendy takeouts or windy analysis. It is to provide a serious weekly brief for engaged and intelligent people who are short on time—“to keep busy people well informed,” as Luce put it. New communications technologies will either be a force-multiplier for the traditional newsmagazines’ mission or those magazines will be shuttered and replaced.
As a newly minted digital publisher with the benefit of hindsight, all this is easy for me to say, but at the same time it is not easy at all. I had a full share of responsibility in parenting this failure—for not seeing far enough and not arguing loudly enough at the right time, which may well have been exactly that moment when I was in charge, when we started Time.com.
[Washington Post VP-at-large] Ben Bradlee recently told an interviewer he was not at all sure Newsweek would ever be sold. Time needs to hope he is wrong. Time without Newsweek is a magazine without a category. The publisher of The New Yorker can tell you what that means.
James R. Gaines is the founder of Story River Media, a Washington, D.C.-based publisher devoted to interactive multimedia story-telling across all digital platforms for corporate, government, non-profit and publishing clients. He is the former managing editor of Time, Life and People magazines, and was corporate editor of Time Inc.