washingtonpost.com
A Smaller But Better Newsweek?
Revamped Magazine Gambles on New Focus

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."

Earlier, in Newsweek's 100-day assessment of the new president, liberal columnist Jonathan Alter wrote, "Barack Obama has put more points on the board than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933." Allison Samuels wrote this month: "I knew that Michelle Obama was already changing the way we see ourselves as African-American women. . . . What's remarkable now . . . is how quickly and decisively Michelle has taken on the issues that matter most to us."

When Newsweek put a conservative's essay on the cover, it was by David Frum, assailing Rush Limbaugh under the headline "Why Rush Is Wrong." And when Newsweek took on Obama, it did so from the left, in a piece built around New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and his criticism of the president's economic policies.

Meacham sees only a perception problem. "In making arguments," he says, "we have to make sure people don't believe we're partisan." (Time, for its part, has also been sympathetic to Obama, and this month ran a cover story calling the Republican Party an "endangered species" pushing a "hard-right agenda" that is "shamelessly hypocritical" and "over the top.")

Meacham recently had lunch with Stengel, and they commiserated about the era of diminishing resources. "I don't take pleasure in any media organization shrinking or going away, but we definitely see opportunities that didn't exist before," Stengel says.

There is little doubt that Newsweek is trying to make the best of a tough situation. Catering to a more elite audience may or may not be a viable strategy, but Newsweek appears to have no Plan B. If the effort fails, its future as a print magazine could be in doubt.

"I'm not saying the battle's going to be easy," Meacham says. "It's going to be hard as hell."

Recounting a Nightmare

It is the most personal campaign Todd Harris has ever run.

The media strategist is a partner at a GOP firm and a presidential campaign veteran who has worked for such candidates as John McCain, Jeb Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But no client has been as important as his 67-year-old mother, who wound up in jail for a crime in which she insists she is the victim.

"Every time people hear this story, they say, 'My God, if this can happen to Margot Somerville, this can happen to anyone,' " Harris says. "I want the world to know my mom is innocent of these ridiculous charges."

Harris devised a media strategy that recently landed his mom on the "Today" show. "I was absolutely scared to death," Somerville says of her encounter with Matt Lauer.

The saga began in 2006 when Somerville, a retired Wells Fargo Bank vice president, found that her wallet had been stolen in San Francisco. She quickly reported the theft. Another woman, who was filmed by security cameras at two Wells Fargo branches in Colorado, obtained $20,000 from Somerville's accounts.

But police in Wheat Ridge, Colo., eventually concluded that Somerville was the leader of an identity-theft ring. In 2007, after a handwriting analysis, officers arrested and handcuffed her at her California home. A crying Somerville was shackled to another female prisoner and transported to jail, where she was held overnight. The nightmare was just beginning.

"It was terrible," Somerville says. "All of a sudden I was looked at as this criminal and I couldn't prove myself innocent."

Somerville later passed a lie-detector test, and police did not find her fingerprints on the forged documents used to access the accounts. Scott Storey, the district attorney in Jefferson County, Colo., dropped the charges in November. Somerville was not exonerated, though, with Storey saying only that "prosecutors determined that we did not have a reasonable likelihood of a successful conviction."

Although Wells Fargo eventually returned her $20,000 in lost funds and says it is "very pleased" that charges were dropped, Somerville is out $50,000 in legal costs. She believes that the bank, Colorado police and prosecutors mishandled her case, and is planning to sue all three. "I was pretty bitter -- still am," Somerville says. "I would do anything to make them look bad, because they made my life so miserable."

Still, one person's case is not usually deemed newsworthy. But Harris began working his media connections. With help from a reporter friend at the San Francisco Chronicle, he got that paper to run a lengthy front-page story headlined "ID Theft Horror -- Victim Blamed." Another journalist introduced him to the editor of the Denver Post, which also ran a piece.

Harris mentioned the case over drinks with NBC correspondent Savannah Guthrie, who pitched it to "Today," and that segment led to a call from "Inside Edition." He isn't surprised it has taken off:

"It's a story about a huge injustice, about conflict, about pain, a family coming together to help their mom. It's perfect. It should be a TV movie."

Any takers?

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company