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That Shrinking Feeling: Time, Newsweek Narrow Their Focus

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.

Stengel, 53, who grew up in New York's Westchester County, and Meacham, 39, a Tennessean, are cut from similar cloth. Both are savvy, slightly graying journalists who took over their magazines in 2006. Both are frequent television guests and authors; Meacham's latest book is a biography of Andrew Jackson, while Stengel is working on a book about Nelson Mandela. And both are enamored of ideas and recognizable bylines: Meacham has had Christopher Hitchens and Sean Wilentz writing for Newsweek, while Stengel has enlisted Caroline Kennedy and Zbigniew Brzezinski for Time.

The shift toward analysis carries an ancillary benefit: It is cheaper than shoe-leather reporting. Each magazine's editorial staff -- 215 for Time, fewer than 200 for Newsweek -- is about half the size it was a decade or so ago. But both editors say even their opinion pieces are built on gathering facts. "If you don't have new information, break stories, you do find yourself simply commenting on stories other people break," Meacham says.

Still, both publications handle more of their breaking news online. Newsweek has fared better on the Web, drawing 9.9 million unique visitors in November to Time.com's 7.6 million, according to Nielsen Online.

The magazines are facing the same problems as every other part of the news business: declining revenues, shrinking audiences and a speeded-up digital culture that makes them seem slow. Newspapers scramble to catch up with bloggers; magazines lag behind newspapers; network broadcasts are hours behind the cable news channels. The idea of a weekly news product seems almost quaint. Analysis is great, but how do you stand out in a world that is saturated with opinion?

One answer is to jettison the old straddle-the-center formula in which the newsweeklies spoke with an institutional voice rather than publish bylines. Each magazine's lead columnist -- Time's Joe Klein, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter -- is liberal. Newsweek has been running columns by Jacob Weisberg, the liberal editor of Slate, another Post Co. property. Newsweek also ran a controversial cover last month headlined "The Religious Case for Gay Marriage" -- "one of the last great civil rights issues," Meacham says. And its top writers appear regularly on liberal talk shows on MSNBC, with which it has a news partnership.

"I'm not going to be silly about it," Meacham says. "A lot of people think we're left of center. I think it depends on the week and the issue. . . . I'm not ideologically driven by any means." He notes that Barack Obama's campaign limited cooperation with the magazine when Newsweek ran a cover photo of arugula last spring to symbolize his elitist image. Meacham himself wrote a post-election cover piece on why America is still a center-right nation.

Time ran a column last week by liberal academic Jeffrey Sachs titled "The Case for Bigger Government." This week's issue features Obama, Time's Person of the Year, yet again, and the cover headline "Great Expectations," plus a piece on his wife as "America's Next Top Model."

Stengel, who worked for Bill Bradley's Democratic presidential campaign, says he has tried conservative columnists -- including Bill Kristol, who left -- but has not come up with a star. "I get as many complaints from readers that we're too left as complaints that we're too right," he says. "I'm really conscious of trying to be fair and balanced."

Stengel's ideal staffer is Mark Halperin, whom he hired from ABC. Halperin created the political tip sheet The Page for Time.com and the magazine, and often appears on television. Both newsweeklies now realize they are competing on the Web as much as on the newsstand.

The cutbacks are taking their toll in more ways than one. As several key women have left Time, nearly all the top editors are now male, prompting considerable internal grumbling. Stengel acknowledges the criticism, saying, "I would love to rectify that."

Once, making the covers of Time and Newsweek was an event. Now, with Stengel having moved his publication date from Monday to Friday, it is more of a cultural blip, one more bit of data in a crowded marketplace.

"Of course, you'd rather be expanding and having everyone do everything," Meacham says. "But we're realists. We've got to make do with what we've got."

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