Time's and Newsweek's Survival Strategy After Recent Cutbacks

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009

NEW YORK -- When Rick Stengel joined Time in 1981, every story in progress filled a thick binder -- the reporter's version, the editor's rewritten version, the top editors' version, the fact-checked version -- that would be unimaginable in today's cut-to-the-bone corporate culture.

Many of the recently laid-off staffers, Stengel says, "were people whose jobs really didn't exist anymore."

When Jon Meacham joined Newsweek in 1995, "there was a phrase in the culture -- 'We need to get something in on X' -- that we never use anymore," he says. The days of a "newsmagazine of record," Meacham says, are long gone.

The rival editors are turning out weeklies that are smaller, more serious, more opinionated and, though they are loath to admit it, more liberal. They are pursuing a more elite audience, in print and on the Web, abandoning the old Henry Luce notion of catering to the masses. It is nothing less than a survival strategy.

Morale in both shops has been devastated as staffers complain about a blurred identity, lack of direction, management snafus and outsourcing to big-name writers that has left them wondering if reporters still have much of a role.

Financially, the Time Warner magazine is faring better than Newsweek, which is owned by The Washington Post Co. Stengel says Time was profitable last year, while Newsweek has acknowledged losing money. Time has reduced the circulation guaranteed to advertisers from 4.1 million to 3.25 million. Newsweek has cut back from 3.1 million to 2.6 million and is mulling further reductions. U.S. News & World Report essentially left the field this month, becoming a Web site with monthly editions on consumer issues.

Meacham, wearing a dark sweater in his office overlooking Central Park, says that "we don't edit with the idea that there is a poor and uninformed reader out there who somehow needs illumination." He sees his audience as "the virtual Beltway," which he defines as people who watch Sunday talk shows, read newspapers and buy hardcover books.

Stengel, wearing a dark sweater in his office with a view of the Hudson River, says his philosophy, especially online, is "news for smart people. . . . We are arguably the best-known news brand in the world, and we want to leverage that."

Both magazines have moved away from the health and pop culture covers that were so prevalent in the past. Time ran 19 cover stories on politics last year, others on war, the economy and foreign affairs, and exactly one on a movie star, George Clooney. Time served up such titles as "How Wall Street Sold Out America," "21 Ways to Fix Up America" and "How to Fix America's Schools."

Stengel says his goal is to "make Time lead the conversation, not follow it. To speak stronger with a point of view. To mix more analysis with reporting. Not to ask questions, but to answer them on the cover" -- as with this week's story, "Why Israel Can't Win."

Newsweek ran 26 cover stories on politics last year -- including two on Michelle Obama -- and a spate of serious essays such as "How to Fix the World." The few feature covers dealt with such subjects as addiction, bipolar disease, divorce and surrogate mothers.

"It is a conscious strategy to serve the base," Meacham says. "We have done more politics, more foreign policy, more economics." Editors sometimes debate whether they are getting too wonky, but Meacham says he is "enormously proud," for instance, of putting William F. Buckley Jr.'s death on the cover.

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