Making a weekly newsmagazine has always been a tough racket. It takes a big staff working on punishing deadlines to aggregate the flurry of news, put some learned topspin on it and package it for readers. But that job now belongs to the Web and takes place in real time, not a week later.
Tina Brown may have understood the digital insurgency that was disrupting the publishing business, but that didn’t stop her from stepping into the maw at the end of 2010, after Sidney Harman bought Newsweek. She married her Web site, The Daily Beast, with Newsweek in an attempt to put the paddles to a franchise gone cold, but Mr. Harman is now gone and his family has withdrawn its financial support. With losses continuing to pile up, that leaves IAC/InterActiveCorp, which also owns The Daily Beast, holding the bag.
As the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, Ms. Brown was an odd choice to be Newsweek’s savior. Even in its diminished state — Mr. Harman bought it for a dollar in addition to assuming some $40 million in liabilities — the magazine is aimed at a mass audience in the kind of Middle America places where Ms. Brown, a hothouse flower of Manhattan media, rarely visits. Still, she has been able to maneuver The Daily Beast into the middle of the conversation and she has never lost her touch for getting people talking. But a newsweekly is a brutal, perhaps unwinnable, challenge.
Because of changes to the informational ecosystem, weeklies have been forced to leave behind the news and become magazines of ideas. Ms. Brown understood that; it’s just that some of her ideas weren’t always very good. Sometimes she tried too hard — Barack Obama was depicted as the first gay president — and sometimes not hard enough, as with last week’s cover about fancy dining around the world.
People who predicted that her effort would come to tears might be tempted to do an end zone dance now. But that would be dumb. The problem is not Tina Brown or her conceptual obsessions, or even the calcified formula of the weekly magazine.
The problem is more existential than that: magazines, all kinds of them, don’t work very well in the marketplace anymore.
Like newspapers, magazines have been in a steady slide, but now, like newspapers, they seem to have reached the edge of the cliff. Last week, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported that newsstand circulation in the first half of the year was down almost 10 percent. When 10 percent of your retail buyers depart over the course of a year, something fundamental is at work.
I talked to an executive at one of the big Manhattan publishers about the recent collapse at the newsstand and he said, “When the airplane suddenly drops 10,000 feet and it doesn’t crash, you still end up with your heart in your stomach. Those are very, very bad numbers.”
Historically, certain categories of magazine will encounter turbulence, but this time all categories were punished in the pileup. People was down 18.6 percent, and The New Yorker had a similar drop, declining by 17.4 percent. Vogue and Cosmopolitan were down in the midteens, and Time fell 31 percent. When Cat Fancy is down 23 percent at the newsstand, it seems that there’s little place to hide. Newsweek, it should be mentioned, was off only 9.7 percent at the newsstand, but that’s cold comfort.
Ms. Brown has been criticized over tarting up Newsweek’s cover — last week the disembodied lips of a woman were awaiting a dangling piece of asparagus — but she does stuff like that because in the fight for the American consumer, magazines are losing. Yes, it was a cheesy grab for attention — akin to Time’s cover gambit of having a 4-year-old hanging off his mother’s breast — but magazines are nothing if not desperate these days.
(Still, it would be hard to come up with a more tin-eared summer feature than “101 Best Places to Eat in the World” at a time of great economic uncertainty. “People should lighten up,” Ms. Brown said in a phone call. “Not every Newsweek cover should be about the dreary economy.”)
It’s not just consumers who are playing hard to get: advertising is down 8.8 percent year to date over the same miserable period a year ago, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. With readership in such steep decline and advertising refusing to come back, magazines are in a downward spiral that not even their new digital initiatives can halt.
It is true that Ms. Brown did not change the fortunes of Newsweek, but it is also true that the magazine was pretty much dead by the time she got her hands on it. Ms. Brown remains convinced that after her very public move away from magazines, her decision to grab Newsweek was a good one.
“I know as well as anyone that the shift to digital has reached a tipping point,” she said. “Everyone is facing the same set of challenges we are — I think we’ve actually done very well by comparison — but with The Beast and Newsweek, we continue to have brands that resonate in very different ways. We just need to decide where to take that in the current environment.”
That decision now lies with Barry Diller, the chairman of IAC/InterActiveCorp and the sole patron of Newsweek. Mr. Diller was anything but reassuring in an earnings call on July 25.
“The transition to online from hard print will take place,” Mr. Diller said. “We’re examining all our options.” He added: “I’m not saying it will happen totally.”
In a phone call over the weekend, Mr. Diller said he was speaking in general terms about the industry and not signaling the imminent end of the print artifact, but he did emphasize that the losses at the magazine were not sustainable — “advertising went away at precisely the wrong time after the deal closed.”
Even though the Harmans are no longer sharing the costs, Mr. Diller said: “I like the challenge. Every bit of research tells us this is a solid, global brand.” He said that he and Ms. Brown would have a plan for the brand/magazine/franchise, whatever it is, by January.
Mr. Diller clearly appreciates Ms. Brown as both a confidante and a friend, but he is hardly a softy when it comes to business matters and bears no special affection for print.
For people like Mr. Diller — or, more grandly, the folks over at Time Warner — who run public companies, continued investment in magazines is going to be a little tough to explain. The best case story involves investing a lot right now in the hope that someday, years from now, the businesses will stabilize. That doesn’t sound like a very attractive place to store capital.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you put on the cover of your magazine if no one will look at you. A few weeks ago, I was in a busy doctor’s office with a dozen others, absently paging through the magazines on the table. The table in front of us was stacked with the pride of American publishing, all manner of topics and fancy covers yelling for attention. Ever the intrepid media reporter, I looked up from scanning Bon Appétit to see what other people were interested in. A mother and a daughter were locked in conversation, but everyone else was busy reading — their phones.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 14, 2012
The Media Equation column on Monday, about the declining fortunes of magazines, described incorrectly at one point some circulation figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. As the column correctly noted elsewhere, the audit bureau reported last week a drop of almost 10 percent in magazines’ newsstand sales — not in their overall circulation.