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The new U.S. News & World Report

Comparing and vetting colleges, even those that are thousands of miles away, has become a much easier process for today’s hopeful college students. All they need to do is search on Google for “the best colleges in the U.S.,” and one of the biggest, most popular and venerated college guides comes up on top: U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings guide. The foundation for the formerly weekly newsmagazine’s search results and subsequent page views was created before search engines even existed. Its Best Colleges guide was first published in 1983, and has been weighing heavy on students, parents and education professionals since.

As newsmagazines struggle for advertising dollars, U.S. News took a “flaunt it if you got it” approach and focused on its prime property: rankings, reports and research for the general consumer. After fiddling with its print frequencies in 2008, moving from weekly to biweekly, to monthly, it simply devoted its printing presses to its big seller, its special rankings issues, and made them the face of its product in December 2010.

Now an online magazine, it keeps a spot on the news racks, but only with special issues centered on U.S. News’ rankings and reports. These issues were already the bestsellers when the magazine was weekly. It was a clever move to capitalize on them, though it’s something that probably wouldn’t work for other struggling newsmagazines like Newsweek. While squeezed out of the top spots held by weekly newsmagazines Time (number one) and Newsweek (number two), reducing publication frequencies couldn’t fix U.S. News’ financial woes. With fewer pages came fewer ads, and it was no way to pump up revenue. So U.S. News did what few magazines dare to: they stopped seeing advertising as the only way to make money. “The business model based on advertising was fatally flawed. We decided that the good old days were not coming back and so we moved on,” said U.S. News editor Brian Kelly in an email interview.

In some ways, U.S. News still holds onto the newsmagazine ethos of insight beyond information. For decades, the standard weekly format bound these magazines into reflecting and expanding on news events, never trying to compete with newspapers for straight, informative reportage. With the advent of the Web, the 24-hour news cycle, and the rise of opinionated blogs, the average newsmagazine has been put into a tight bind. The new U.S. News has responded by mixing its rankings and research alongside news analysis, with editors working within distinct channels anchored by the magazine’s special research topics. Kelly sees the magazine as “a specialized niche site that’s very good at a few things. If we can tell a reader about an important development in cancer research, and find them the best cancer hospital near them, then we’re doing our job.” For U.S. News, it’s a strategy that capitalizes on its strengths, while driving traffic. “The mix is what’s important to us: we can attract [an] audience with fresh news or with deep-dive content that shows up high in the search engines,” Kelly said.

The strategy lets U.S. News grab readers in two ways: loyal readers go to the site for news and opinion, and searchers land on the site looking for the “best of” things like education, money, health, and autos. The online magazine is also going to add several more ranking products, including “Best Health Plans” and “Best Online Colleges,” both fitting in with already-established channels.

While capitalizing on its rankings issues may help U.S. News survive, it is hard to say whether the strategy is an adaptation or a whole new species. The magazine still covers top news and its opinion writers parse out politics, but the website design points visitors to its rankings and research sections. Major news, like the death of Osama bin Laden, is featured on the magazine’s homepage, but the website’s news column is smaller on the front page than its big rankings section. “We’re always reviewing our methodology and looking to improve it. The key to rankings is to make apples-to-apples comparisons so readers can make decisions,” said Kelly. “It’s all about consumer transparency. But we can only be as good as the data we’re able to get. We work with industry groups and government agencies to try and get better data.” The magazine’s development of its research methodology repositions it away from content farming, which doesn’t bother with original research and is SEO-driven.

In the magazine world, there’s an ongoing nostalgia for the days of long-form journalism and investigative reporting. But when just about anyone can start up a digital magazine, a working strategy gets the real attention. U.S. News & World Report only found its niche after facing down the changing media environment. The magazine has grown beyond college rankings and will continue to cultivate its research for its consumer reader base. While today its roots are in its history as a news magazine, it remains to be seen whether it will one day step out of the news game entirely.

–Kristina Elliott

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