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Will old-school thinking save Newsweek?

I remember when my bespectacled and pedantic college English professor launched a tirade against the quality of modern publications, with their tissue paper pages and budget bindings:

“You guys don’t know what it’s like to read a real book, to feel the thick vellum pages beneath your fingertips and understand the tactile communion between publication and reader.”

Will old-school thinking save Newsweek?

Will old-school thinking save Newsweek?

We were all too frightened to tell her about Kindle. She’s probably thrilled by how Newsweek now finds itself grasping at an old set of straws to remain viable. As advertising dollars from its primary clients have dried up, the magazine has been forced to rethink its previous profit strategy of delivering as many readers as possible to its advertisers – no matter how many $10 yearlong subscriptions it had to peddle.

On May 1, Newsweek began focusing on delivering content to readers who appreciate the finer things in life. Like vellum. The magazine’s thin, unremarkable pages have been replaced by weightier, more appealing stock, rife with cultural commentary and opinion columns. This redesign is not a capitulation to the nostalgia of baby boomers like my English professor; it is a business decision aimed at restructuring perceptions of the newsweekly.

Newsweek wants to be valued by its readers, and is adopting a business model cast off by most of its industry after WWII – one driven by subscription revenue rather than advertising dollars. The magazine hopes its changes will increase the average price of a yearly subscription from less than $25 to $50.

Samir Husni, University of Mississippi Journalism Department chair, is known as “Mr. Magazine.” He told inVocus that for Newsweek to survive, it needs to evolve into “a monthly magazine that is given out weekly.” The magazine’s retro-fit is moving it in that direction, said Husni. “But,” he adds, “I feel as though that train left that station some time ago.”

According to a recent Financial Times article, Newsweek saw its ad revenue drop by 27.1 percent in 2008. The WSJ reports that the company also offered buyouts to well over 100 staffers throughout the course of the year, leaving the magazine miles and miles of track to make up in 2009.

Husni cites Newsweek’s habit of posting its magazine content on the Web free of charge as the main reason for the brand’s financial difficulties. “If Macy’s opened up its doors and let its customers come in and take everything they wanted, then they would probably go bankrupt.” He notes Newsweek’s magazine and Web site should complement each other instead of featuring duplicated content, with the site offering the graphics, movement and breaking news that print cannot.

MediaWeek reported May 3 that Newsweek plans to overhaul its Web site content on May 15, moving in the direction Husni recommends. But the magazine has not discussed whether it will begin charging for Web content.

To date, the magazine has slashed its circulation, pledging to focus on its core 1.2 million, full-price paying subscribers, defined as more highly-educated and affluent than the average American. To that end, the magazine is eliminating the chaff of free and highly-discounted subscriptions. Circulation will be cut to 1.5 million by January, down from the current 2.6 million.

The new Newsweek is organized into four sections: short takes, commentary, columnists and longer reporting pieces. Instead of weekly news recaps, content highlights opinions and cultural commentary. For those still seeking news bytes, the magazine’s last page is called the “The Bluffer,” a cocktail party cheat-sheet to fake one’s way through current event discussions.

“Newsweek (Hopes) To Become The Economist” is how the wags at the media blog Gawker headline the changes. “They’re mashing up The Economist and The Atlantic with a little dash of that trademark Newsweek bull for people who only read for five minutes.” But Gawker also observes that this overhaul may be the only way for Newsweek and its kind to survive.

Outside the newsweekly genre, many other panicked publications are undoubtedly monitoring the Newsweek experiment. If the publication’s changes raise revenue from subscriptions and lure new advertisers, expect other struggling magazines to follow with their cuts in circulation and investments in the quality of their content. Tom Ascheim, Newsweek’s chief executive, summarized his industry’s predicament in a February New York Times interview: “If you can’t get people to pay for what they love, we’re all out of business.”

Will the value of Newsweek’s content be as tangible as its new thick vellum pages? For Newsweek, the answer may soon be found in the weight of its words.

–Marissa Maybee

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