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Newsweek's move to digital: watershed moment or Tina Brown's strategy fail?

At least now, maybe people will stop snarking about the provocative covers.

In fact, as word spread Thursday that Newsweek would cease publication of its print magazine on Dec. 31, shifting to a digital-only product just shy of its 80th birthday, the newsweekly's recent spate of in-your-face cover images symbolized the biggest question at hand:

Was this a watershed moment for the newsmagazine business, or just a sign that editor Tina Brown's button-pushing content strategy failed?

The new digital publication, Newsweek Global, will be funded by subscriptions, available on tablets and a website, with select content made available on the free site that joined forces with the magazine back in 2010, the Daily Beast.

Brown, in an announcement co-signed with CEO Baba Shetty, put the blame squarely on the new media economy: "In our judgment, we have reached a tipping point at which we can most efficiently and effectively reach our readers in all-digital format."

But Samir "Mr. Magazine" Husni, founder and director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, wasn't buying it.

"Tina Brown is going to be known as the Dr. Kevorkian of newsweeklies," said the professor, who blamed the former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor for injecting a tabloid editor's sensibility into a magazine that once targeted sophisticated intellectuals.

Her approach was reflected in Newsweek's attention-getting covers, calling Barack Obama America's first gay president for his support of gay marriage and highlighting "Muslim rage" in another.

As buzz built that a move to digital was in store for the magazine — which saw its circulation plunge over 50 percent in five years, reportedly losing about $40 million a year — such covers seemed a desperate, last-minute effort to stay visible.

"You take a magazine like Newsweek and make it more like a British tabloid … suddenly the audience that was depending on that magazine disappears," said Husni, who noted the United States sees 700 to 800 new magazines established each year, indicating print isn't dead. "It's not the messenger; it's the message."

Here are Three Things to Consider about Newsweek's move to digital:

1. Newsweek needs to define a new role for itself in the digital media age. Sylvester Monroe, who worked for Newsweek from 1973 to 1988, said the magazine's role was clearly defined in his time there. "If you read your daily newspaper and you read Newsweek, you would be well-informed on the issues of the world," said Monroe, now an editor on the radio business magazine Marketplace. "Then USA Today came along and newspapers began to do what newsmagazines did: give you a way of thinking about news stories and facts in a way you hadn't before."

Now that free access websites such as Slate and Huffington Post can offer that kind of analysis in an instant, Newsweek Global may still struggle to deliver material special enough to justify a paid subscription online.

2. History matters. Founded in 1933, Newsweek has had a series of tough breaks in recent years, including its 2010 sale by the Washington Post Co. to 91-year-old tycoon Sidney Harman for a dollar. Harman assumed the magazine's $47 million in liabilities as well, vowing to restore Newsweek to its old glory as it merged with Brown's Daily Beast. But he died in April 2011, eventually leaving Brown and Internet mogul Barry Diller's InterActive Corp. in charge. Diller hinted in a July conference call Newsweek might become a digital magazine as Harman's family ended its funding, so Thursday's news didn't surprise some industry watchers.

"Harman probably would have kept it alive in print had he lived," said Steven Cohn, editor of the Media Industry Newsletter. "I think if the late (Washington Post publisher) Katherine Graham had lived, Newsweek would still be owned by the Washington Post."

3. Moving to digital brings its own challenges. Brown has admitted the change will bring layoffs; can they provide the same quality of coverage with a smaller staff?

Since the Daily Beast remains a popular free site — with 15 million unique visitors a month, up 70 percent from 2011, according to Brown's announcement —will it maintain the same level of material or will some of its work move behind the Newsweek Global paywall?

"I think of U.S. News and World Report," Cohn said of the rival newsmagazine that went to a mostly online format in 2011. "It's not very visible anymore."

Newsweek's move to digital: watershed moment or Tina Brown's strategy fail? 10/18/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 18, 2012 10:45pm]
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