This morning, Newsweek editor Tina Brown and CEO Baba Shetty announced a change to the magazine that seemed both seismic and inevitable: the December 31 issue of the print edition will be Newsweek’s last, and the publication will continue as a tablet and web publication. “Newsweek Global, as the all-digital publication will be named, will be a single, worldwide edition targeted for a highly mobile, opinion-leading audience who want to learn about world events in a sophisticated context,” they wrote. “Newsweek Global will be supported by paid subscription and will be available through e-readers for both tablet and the Web, with select content available on The Daily Beast.”
That language, and the task at hand, sounds strikingly similar to the way David Bradley, the owner of The Atlantic, talked about his vision when he and the editors who worked for him re-conceived the magazine when Bradley moved it from Boston to Washington, cutting fiction and devoting more space in the magazine to long-form reporting on policy. In 1999, Newsweek actually discussed the question of how The Atlantic could adapt itself to the internet age:
Every magazine has its ideal reader, and for the “thought-leader” category The Atlantic belongs to, that reader is the lay intellectual. Reflective lawyers, like federal Judge Richard A. Posner, are ideal readers. So are military intellectuals such as Col. Harry Summers, author of “On Strategy.” But the number of such people is small — no more than a million Americans, by the estimate of John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s magazine, The Atlantic’s chief rival. And with a number of magazines carving up this constituency — not only The Atlantic and Harper’s, but also publications like The New Republic, Commentary and The National Interest — the commercial prospects for any one of them don’t seem bright.
How often does a thought-leader magazine spark a controversy outside its core readership? It does happen: Francis Fukuyama’s much-debated proclamation of “The End of History” first appeared in the National Interest in 1989. And in 1993 Foreign Affairs printed Samuel Huntington’s argument that cultural fault lines — based on differences of religion, language and tradition — would be the battlegrounds of the future. The Atlantic itself found broader readership for a 1993 article supporting two-parent families, perhaps less for its content than for its title: “Dan Quayle Was Right.” These are, however, rare events…
Still, every problem is an opportunity. Michael Kelly, The Atlantic’s new editor and formerly editor of The New Republic, argues that “It’s the smog aspect that makes [publishing] work for magazines like us. We have a culture of a ratcheted-up bombardment of everyone, a great wash of talk, blather, chatter… and it’s all sending the same message: ‘You have to pay attention to this right now. The zeitgeist is changing from what it was two minutes ago, and you don’t want to miss it’.’’ The Atlantic, he says, should be an “antidote” to media overheat, “the absurd topicality of everything.”
The Atlantic ended up embracing “the absurd topicality of everything” with not just its booming core website but news aggregator The Atlantic Wire. But it also revitalized the magazine’s buzz quotient by thinking somewhat more narrowly about what kinds of stories “lay intellectuals” would want to read. Where once that might have meant the same broad subject palatte that magazines like the New Yorker and Harper’s still publish, The Atlantic doubled down on the kind of stories about the future of family and foreign policy, and the snappy cover lines, that Newsweek said served the publication well in 1993.
Newsweek has an advantage that The Atlantic didn’t have in 1999 when Bradley bought it: a strong web arm of the publication that boasts established internet-native writers (rather than traditional print journalists who are in the midst of transitioning to learning to write comfortably for the web) who do a mix of reporting and commentary. But it also has two deficits. First, it remains a very general interest magazine, which means it’s competing with everything, even when it can’t necessarily do, say, food coverage better than a specialist magazine like newcomer Lucky Peach, which caters to exactly the kind of wealthy, sophisticated readers the new, digital readers Newsweek would like to lock down. And even worse, unlike The Atlantic’s brand at the time of its reinvention, which may have been somewhat dry, but was definitely positive and respectable, Newsweek has degraded its own editorial reputation in a mad, and as it turns out final, rush to sell issues and generate traffic. “Final Newsweek cover: Why Barack Obama is the Worst Gay President to Ever Breastfeed Muslim Rage,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted this morning. Certainly, Newsweek has had covers in the past that look unattractive today: the July 30, 1945 cover with the tagline “The Jap: How Long Can He Take It?” is less than attractive. But the magazine has seemed exceptionally cheap lately, recycling sexually provocative stock images for shock value, in marked contrast to, say, its shattering cover photo for the feature on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral, or fanning Islamophobia rather than substantively dissecting the attacks on American diplomatic facilities. Newsweek will have to figure out what issues and framing a “highly mobile, opinion-leading audience” craves, just as The Atlantic doubled down on family and foreign policy. It may be irksome to use a baby in a briefcase or a call for women to settle to get readers to engage with the actual content, which at The Atlantic, tends to be more nuanced than its packaging. The Atlantic can risk sexing up its presentation because its general reputation for publishing serious, agenda-setting articles remains largely intact. But Newsweek will have to convince readers that the magazine deserves, once again, to be treated like a place from which they can “learn about world events in a sophisticated context,” in part by picking which issues it will try to cover better than anyone else, proving that they can, and emphasizing that coverage while continuing to provide good meat-and-potatoes coverage elsewhere. Too often recently, the magazine’s operated as if buzz and sophistication are anathema to each other. And it’s been reactive, rather than seeking out emerging ideas, trends, and people and setting the agenda, a position that was deadly for it in print and is even riskier in web and tablet form. With the decision to target a smaller, but more potentially lucrative group of readers, maybe Newsweek can replicate The Atlantic’s feat of luring readers in the door and getting them to stay, not out of disgust, but out of genuine interest.