Who Needs Newsweeklies?

Many industry observers applauded Time magazine’s decision to deliver newsstand copies on Fridays and subscriptions by Saturdays. The switch from Mondays, starting in January, may lift the leading international newsweekly’s ad revenue, while stemming a decline in circulation. It is bold, requiring wrenching changes in an organization whose reach parallels the State Department’s.

Let’s hear what two magazine experts say about this development. First, Martin Walker of Walker Communications in New York: “It makes good business sense. Since most sub copies of Time go to home addresses, the magazine will reach people on Friday or Saturday, which will give them more weekend time for reading.

“More reading time will help ad sales,” he said. “With competition from newspapers, TV and the Internet, Time is not a current news source in any case. So the closing and publication date really don’t impact all that much … on the content.”

Samir A. Husni, chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Mississippi – “Mr. Magazine” in media circles – offers this: “It is a great move. However, it is a few years too late. Their sister publication, People, did it some time ago, and the results in increased sales were great. So did Life when they relaunched it.

“In England and France, most of the papers now have their Sunday magazines on Friday or Saturday,” he said. “The Week takes pride that it delivers all the news you need to know before the weekend. That was [Time founding editor] Henry Luce’s original idea, and finally it is back. A great move on Time’s front, soon to be copied by Newsweek.”

That said, the issue is not when to publish, but what. Time’s content is news – a commodity more or less today. People pay for its somber analysis and questioning features (“Who Needs Harvard?” is the Aug. 21 cover). But one wonders what kind of model this is: You charge for that week’s print copy, but soon after publish all the news for free on the magazine’s Web site. Time is not alone in doing this. Why then buy the magazine? And why read it in print when the same information is online, or at least most of it is? Why advertise in it if there’s nothing unique that will keep readers returning to the issue?

That is the issue for consumer magazines today. Some publishers like Condé Nast and Hearst ensure their print magazines’ content is unique to that channel and that the companion Web sites are complementary, not cannibalizing. But their titles are not hard news-driven like Time or Newsweek or the inestimable Economist, all weeklies reporting in a business and political world changing by the minute.

Still, let’s salute new Time managing editor Richard Stengel for his first major step in making the world’s No. 1 newsweekly more relevant. It isn’t easy to change an established publication. Given his history, he must use more carrot than stick. Six years ago he penned a book called “You’re Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery.” In that he quoted British novelist Robert Smith Surtees: “More people are flattered into virtue than bullied out of vice.”

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