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Newsweek's hazy future

(And Newsweek invented the much-copied Conventional Wisdom Watch. I suppose we must award the magazine a down arrow these days.)

Newsmagazines can no longer cling to the old Henry Luce formula in the Twitter age. No one really needs them as a digest of the week's news, and newspapers now do the instant analysis and textured tick-tocks in which the newsmags used to specialize. Even the old head-to-head competition was diminished once Time shifted to Thursday publication while Newsweek stuck with the traditional Monday.

Time took some of the steps that Newsweek did -- including a redesign that gave the magazine a stronger point of view -- but started earlier, in 2006. "The competition is for people's mindspace," Time Managing Editor Rick Stengel told me. Time, which also beefed up its Web site with, for example, the "Swampland" blog, is backed by the resources of a bigger company, Time Warner.

The buzz in the magazine world is that the Post Co. must have quietly tried to unload Newsweek before yesterday's announcement. I don't know whether that's true, and I can think of a couple of rich guys who'd love to own it. The question is whether it can still be a viable weekly -- and whether its stars will start jumping ship before a potential owner emerges.

In that May 2009 piece, I concluded: "Newsweek appears to have no Plan B. If the effort fails, its future as a print magazine could be in doubt."

Unfortunately, I was right.

Some other voices, starting with MarketWatch's Jon Friedman:

"I have another idea: Why can't the Washington Post Co. combine Newsweek and Slate, another of its well regarded media holdings, into one all-online operation?

"The move would accomplish one big priority: saving money. Newsweek would go forward with a smaller staff and still preserve some of the jobs of staffers currently at the magazine.

"The news that the Post Co. may unload the money-losing Newsweek should hardly come as a shock. All over the industry, big names, new and old, have been vanishing, such as Gourmet and Portfolio. BusinessWeek received a stay of execution when Bloomberg stepped in at the 11th hour and acquired the publication from McGraw-Hill."

Newsweek is far bigger than Slate, so that might not have accomplished much.

The Wrap asks whether anyone will buy Newsweek: "With ad pages and newsstand sales tanking -- and carrying a name that's become redundant in the 24-hour news age -- the short answer is: Probably not." But it gives the best odds to Bloomberg News and Meacham himself, who is reaching out to investors.

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