Media Notes: With Makeover, Newsweek Eyes a More Elite Audience

Newsweek's update debuts this week, with President Obama on the cover.
Newsweek's update debuts this week, with President Obama on the cover. (Newsweek)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 18, 2009

Jon Meacham admits it is hard to explain, even to his own people, why chopping Newsweek's circulation in half is a good thing.

"It's hugely counterintuitive," the magazine's editor says. "The staff doesn't understand it."

That step -- along with a redesigned, revamped publication that hits newsstands today -- may well determine whether the 76-year-old newsmagazine survives. Newsweek will concentrate on two things -- reporting and argument -- while kissing off any recap of the week's developments.

Time has been gravitating in that direction as well. But Newsweek, owned by The Washington Post Co., is accelerating the process because it is bleeding red ink, losing nearly $20 million in the first quarter. Newsweek, whose circulation was as high as 3.1 million in recent years, plans to cut that to 1.5 million by the beginning of 2010, in part by discouraging renewals. The magazine will begin charging the average subscriber about 90 cents an issue, nearly double the current rate.

"If we can't convince a million and a half people we're worth less than a dollar a week, the market will have spoken," Meacham says. The newsstand price will also jump from $4.95 to $5.95, a buck more than Time.

The new layout, with larger photographs, splits each issue into four parts: Scope (News, Scoops and the Globe at a Glance); Features; The Take (What We Think About the World); and The Culture. Meacham, an admirer of the Economist, is fashioning a serious magazine for what he calls his base, with a heavy emphasis on politics and public policy.

Time, with a circulation of 3.25 million, will sell more than twice as many copies. Meacham says he wants to get away from the "Cold War metaphor" of Time vs. Newsweek, insisting that "we live in an age of asymmetrical warfare."

Time's top editor, Rick Stengel, agrees, saying that "we are effectively by ourselves" in the newsmagazine category. "There are advertisers who need scale, who need to reach a mass audience, and we will be the vehicle for that."

Time will continue to recount some of the week's news but is concentrating on "long-form journalism about people, about ideas," Stengel says. "We came up with that mix and it's been ratified by our readers." The magazine, which expects to make a substantial profit this year, will benefit from Newsweek's retreat by being able to raise its own subscription fees. Time, which has already lowered its circulation from 4 million, has benefited from being part of a much larger news and entertainment conglomerate that has helped leverage its worldwide brand.

Newsweek executives are gambling that advertisers will support the equivalent of shifting from beer to wine. "Will they accept a more affluent Newsweek demographic," Meacham asks, "given that they've been acculturated all these years to think of us as a mass vehicle?"

And will a smaller magazine have less cultural clout? Such recent cover stories as "The Decline and Fall of Christian America" sparked a flurry of op-eds, suggesting that the power of ideas still trumps circulation.

The ideas that Newsweek is promoting are mainly left-of-center. The cover story in today's issue is a generally sympathetic interview with President Obama, written by Meacham, that describes Obama "moving as he wishes to move, and the world bending to him." An accompanying piece by Tina Brown on Nancy Pelosi -- who's just endured her worst week as House speaker over the waterboarding controversy -- calls her "fast-talking, formidable, high-energy and supremely self-confident."

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