The Method Behind Newsweek's Back-to-the-Presses Madness

Newsweek's reversal back to print reflects broader trends in the media industry.

Newsweek Magazine sits for sale at a news stand on Oct.18, 2012, in New York City.
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The print edition of Newsweek is coming back from the dead, The New York Times reported late Tuesday. Only a day earlier, New York magazine announced it would be cutting its weekly edition to bi-weekly – a move that reflected the general belief that print is dying, making Newsweek's return to print after a one-year hiatus all the more surprising.

Yet the strategy Newsweek is taking – to "be a more subscription-based model, closer to what The Economist is compared to what Time magazine is," as the magazine's editor-in-chief Jim Impoco explained to the Times – is a gamble that others in the print world have also taken a flyer on.

"One of the interesting trends in the print industry in general is the shifting of the revenue base from advertising to subscribers," says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

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"We were actually giving our magazines away just to get the advertising," says Samir Husni, the director of the University of Mississippi's Magazine Innovation Center. "In 2008 that bottom line just fell out from under us."

A Pew Research Center study on six print news magazines (including Newsweek, which had not yet abandoned print) in 2012 found that revenue gained from ad pages and newsstand sales had taken a serious hit, but only Time saw a drop in subscriptions. The other publications saw minor upticks or more (Atlantic saw a 6 percent increase) in circulation numbers.

A variation on that theme is going on in the world of newspapers, which are rethinking the 80-20 advertisement-to-subscription model for a more balanced approach, particularly in their online revenue models. Circulation revenue at the New York Times overtook ad sales in 2012, a trend that has allowed it and other national newspapers to successfully install online pay walls. (Small local dailies are following suit with some success.)

Back in the magazine world, The Week – a general news weekly that also prioritizes circulation revenues over ad sales – said Tuesday that it would be expanding its frequency from 48 to 51 issues, in another contrast to New York magazine's bi-weekly maneuver.

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Newsweek's shift to a subscription-reliant model will depend largely on its editorial strategy, according to Jurkowitz. "Generally speaking, to be able to command a high price for your content you've got to offer something really creative, indispensable, kind of niche. You've got to have something that's very much value added," he says. The Economist, focused on international economics and policy serves as a fitting comparison for Impoco to make in this sense. A one-year print subscription to The Economist costs an average $99 to Time's $29 annual subscription, yet the publication saw 5.5 percent year-on-year growth in circulation in the first half of 2013, according to the Alliance for Audited Media data.

Three weeks after Impoco became editor of Newsweek (and two months before the print announcement) such shifts in editorial strategy were apparent in an interview Impoco did with Capital New York. "We're trying to put deep reporting in Newsweek and more news in Newsweek," he said. "Turning Newsweek back into an indispensable read, not an optional read."

But according to Jurkowitz, strong editorial content must be coupled with a comprehensive business plan for Newsweek's shift to print to work. "Where does this play into their digital strategy?" he says, adding an important element of The Economist's success is the way it packages print subscriptions with access to its website. On this front Newsweek faces a particular challenge. In 2010 the magazine merged with the Daily Beast website, with Tina Brown heading both entities. This experiment was deemed a failure, culminating with the Daily Beast's parent company selling Newsweek and Brown leaving the publishing industry altogether. Because of the ill-fated merger, Newsweek has had rebuild its own online brand. "To me, Newsweek has to kill the beast – it has to kill any memory of the Daily Beast," Husni says.