Rash Report: Newsweeklies stay strong in 24/7 world

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 8, 2011 - 4:30 PM
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Magazine covers: The Economist, The Week, Time and Newsweek.

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Last week's extraordinary news cycle seemed to span the life cycle: Birth (actually, "birthers"), adulthood (the royal wedding) and, ultimately, death (Osama bin Laden).

Instantly, websites did digital remakes of home pages. Twitter scooped the Bin Laden news.

Dawn broadcasts from Westminster Abbey became West Wing broadcasts at midnight. And at the New York Times, "Stop the presses!" was shouted in real life, just like in the movies.

Not exactly a pace favoring weekly news magazines, which were supposed to careen toward obsolescence in the Internet era. Instead, they're more valuable than ever.

For the first time, Time magazine, showing near-newspaper nimbleness, printed three issues in a week. The regular issue cover story was the well-timed "The Terrorist Hunter," about FBI Director Robert Mueller.

The planned special issue on the nuptials was glossy, gauzy (and gaudy, like nearly all royal-related coverage).

Then Time printed its second special issue of the week, with a blood-red "X" over an image of Bin Laden -- the same device it used with Adolph Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Abu Masab al-Zarqawi.

Newsweek also published a special Bin Laden edition. This was a sharp turn from its two most recent covers, which featured the beaming British royal couple and a brooding couple of sisters representing royalty American-style: the Olsen twins.

Although those two covers were interchangeable with People, Newsweek has recently had more consequential coverage of international issues as well.

Newsweek's royal-wedding story was written by Tina Brown, a Brit who made a splash across the pond due to her erudite editing of Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and Talk.

Brown had turned the page on magazines in favor of the Internet, launching the lively website the Daily Beast. But after a well-chronicled courtship, billionaire Sidney Harman convinced her to merge the Daily Beast with Newsweek, which he bought last year for less than the cover price -- $1 (plus a mountain of debt).

"Had they not appointed Tina Brown, I would have said it would be a three-magazine category, instead of four, right away," said Michael Klingensmith, the Star Tribune's CEO and publisher who previously was a Time Inc. executive vice president.

But Harman died in April at 92, which raised questions about Newsweek's longevity. While his heirs reassured readers and advertisers, Newsweek still faces formidable challenges: Its circulation is 1.5 million, compared with Time's 3.25 million.

And Newsweek sold 35 percent fewer ad pages in the first four months of 2011 compared with 2010, while Time had a 7 percent increase, according to the Publishers Information Bureau (PIB).

Yet Time and Newsweek have taken somewhat similar editorial directions. With today's speed of news measured in minutes, not a week, each has generally jettisoned a globe-spanning summary in favor of analysis and profiles (particularly of pop-culture figures). In the process, both have made pop-culture figures of many of their writers, too.

There's still a strong market for a more complete compilation and exhaustive explanation of world events. Only it's now being filled by two magazines, the Economist and the Week, that have U.K., not U.S., origins.

Actually, the Economist is "British-based, not British," insists Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait. "We're a global magazine with a section on Britain. We have a British style, spelling and tone of voice. And not too many cricket metaphors."

Actually, Yanks seem to like the British accent and cheeky covers. The magazine has a cultural caché, and the class has become mass: Circulation doubled the last decade to 800,000, and so far this year ad pages are up 7 percent. (Reflecting the readership, some are help-wanted ads for jobs at the United Nations).

Globalization increases interest, said Micklethwait. "If you live in Minneapolis, your life can get changed upside down by what is happening with some software house in Mumbai or politics in China, or by what a lunatic in a cave in Afghanistan is doing."

The Economist has itself turned the category upside down by emulating Time's original formula. The Economist, not surprisingly, emphasizes economics, as well as politics, in lieu of cultural coverage.

Stories have to be "useful, entertaining, provocative and sometimes disturbing," said Mickelthwait. But they aren't personalized.

Unlike Time and Newsweek's star columnists, there are no bylines, which gives power to the brand's voice. This isn't an innovation, said Micklethwait, it's tradition. "We are the ones who stuck with it, and everyone else changed."

That's true, said historian Alan Brinkley, the author of "The Publisher: Henry Luce and his American Century," the biography of Time's founder that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year.

"You weren't supposed to read it wondering who wrote it. Bylines would lead to variations in opinion and style, and they wanted a consistent style and stance on issues."

Conversely, as in most magazines nowadays, "I always tell my writers to have a point of view, said Rick Stengel, Time's managing editor.

Often those viewpoints turn up in the Week, which "curates and aggregates," according to its president, Steven Kotok.

A Macalaster College grad, Kotok adds that, "Most news publications try to be impartial and will say we write without bias. We establish credibility not by being impartial, but by being omni-partial."

The multiple opinions have multiplied circulation to 510,000. And ad pages were up 27 percent this year, according to PIB.

All four magazines are valuable tools to help readers sort out a news environment that's like drinking from a fire hose. Time's overall leadership will keep it on top for the foreseeable future.

But the magazine to watch -- and to read -- is the Economist, whose readership, revenue and influence is growing.

Its impressive growth is in part due to consumers realizing that the information explosion actually increases, not decreases, the need for an edifying, edited compilation of what's really going on in the world.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer. Rash Report appears on Saturdays.

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