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Who Would Buy Newsweek?

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The new Newsweek has hit an old dead-end. Its numbers are depressing:

  • Almost $30 million in losses last year, mounting from 2008.
  • 26% down in ad pages 2009/2008 and another 20% down in the first quarter.

If it’s been a death spiral, it’s been an honorable one. Its owner, the Washington Post Company, has given it room to try to find a way forward. That led to a reinvention by editor Jon Meacham and managing editor Danny Klaidman, as the magazine has taken a soft left into beginning a journal of ideas. It had long asked the “how” and “why” questions, in its weekly newsmagazine history; now it’s been focused on those as a brand. Many observers have derided the new Newsweek as the Economist Lite, as it has sought new positioning and a new journalistic place. My own sense is that it’s still a bit betwixt and between, with some fine columnists (Fareed Zakaria, Howard Fineman, Jonathan Alter, Dahlia Lithwick, Daniel Gross), but it still hasn’t — and may not now — find a new place in this changing world. Symptomatically, its weekly podcasts sound too old-world, lacking a contemporary web informality. Meacham’s photo in the magazine still looks too preachy, and that’s set a wrong tone. More than anything, though, its weekly-review mojo is just out of sync in a round-the-clock news world, and there’s little anyone can do about the new bio-news-rhythms of the day.

Certainly, it’s been eclipsed by the advent of other media. Its top columnists are all over cable TV, speaking in real time about the unfolding events of the day. Slate, its sister WashPo property, offers more definition, more attitude and more point of view. Though it’s not a big success yet for the Washington Post company, its non-print expenses are lower, and it promises a bigger future.

So might anyone take on Newsweek and keep it going? Well, the easiest answer was under the Post Company’s nose, and apparently rejected. That answer: turn Newsweek into Slate Weekly (or monthly). Leverage the same staff, personalities, attitude and brand — and cost structure. Apparently, though, the notion of selling enough advertising to see profit wasn’t there. Ironically, the advent of Slate, I believe, hastened Newsweek’s apparent demise. Slate is the new Newsweek.

So I think that leaves us with two kinds of buyers:

  • Strategic buyers: Just as Bloomberg bought Business Week for a couple of songs, a major publisher wanting — and needing — consumer print distribution points could take on Newsweek. Unfortunately, for Newsweek, there are two big sticking points here: 1) it’s not a business publication, and B2B and B2C advertising is still much stronger around business news than (shudder) general news. Second, there aren’t many companies like Bloomberg, with the profile of being a large global/national news organization without major consumer print access points.  It doesn’t make much sense for the New York Times or Dow Jones; they’ve got those consumer print points and the only new ones they want are specialized niche ones, in luxury and other categories. ABC, NBC or CBS? Well, since they are becoming digital news organizations, outputting to multiple platforms, a print distribution point could make sense. The constraints there: #1, they’d want to use their own content, not pay Newsweek’s higher-priced staff and #2, each of those companies is in its own cutback mode. CNN could make parallel sense, but as a sister Time Warner company, it certainly isn’t going to get in the way of Time Magazine finally ditching its main head-to-head competitor. Fox?; no political fit. Thomson Reuters? It certainly has the heft, but it is increasingly redefining itself as the business news source, so unless it took the brand and turned it to a Business Newsweek, that wouldn’t make a lot of sense.
  • Firebrand owners: You can see how someone like a Marty Peretz, a Victor Navasky, a Mort Zuckerman might want to take on the Newsweek brand, turn it to monthly. Maybe there’s a liberal Philip Anschutz (conservative owner of Clarity Media and The Weekly Standard) out there; they could certainly buy it cheaply. They’ve kept other publications (New Republic, the Nation, USNWR) alive, sometimes through sheer tenacity. The upside here: a good brand, needing new definition. The downsides: it may easier and cheaper to try a new brand than re-purpose old one, and anyhow digital-only news products seem far more economical than hybrid ones. The big question: how much of the remaining Newsweek readership will show much patience for another new approach and stick with the magazine a little longer?

In an age of hot and loud debate, amplified by cable TV and the web, Newsweek’s cool demeanor may simply be out of time and out of place. If it gets sold, it’s hard to believe that much other than the brand will long survive, as the economics under it are badly wounded. Look for it, unfortunately, to join the hallowed ranks of Colliers, Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post.

Disclosure: NONE