Newsweek editor Tina Brown announced Thursday she would embrace a fully digital future as she revealed that the magazine's final print edition would be published at the end of the year.
Her announcement was a bow to gravity, as her unique blend of buzz and brio proved incapable of counteracting Newsweek's plummeting circulation and advertising amid an accelerating news cycle. Brown said there would be an unspecified number of layoffs as well.
Instead, a new digital publication called "Newsweek Global" would emerge that would be "really focused on a highly mobile, opinion leading and worldwide audience," said Baba Shetty, the new CEO of Newsweek and its sister website, the Daily Beast.
He said those elite readers in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Mumbai, India; or San Francisco have more in common than a broad subscriber base in the U.S.
But the digital-only play will require significant layoffs from the magazine that's already leaner than it once was. It's also not yet clear how Newsweek Global will retool to draw in paying digital subscribers to support it.
Once A Pillar Of The Press
In the 1980s and 1990s, Brown reinvigorated Vanity Fair and then the New Yorker to a significant degree of acclaim. More recently, the late billionaire inventor Sidney Harman brought her in to do the same after he bought Newsweek for a dollar from the Washington Post Co. After Harman's death, it was taken over by his partner, IAC's Barry Diller, who founded the Daily Beast with Brown. Unlike Harman, Diller has signaled he will not tolerate endless losses.
"We're in a very difficult reality for printed products — no doubt. The expenses for manufacturing are just remarkable," said Josh Tyrangiel, editor of Bloomberg Businessweek. "Any process that begins with — 'Go up a mountain and find a tree' — is not a particularly efficient process."
Efficiency didn't matter until recent years. Newsweek lagged behind Time magazine, but both flourished as pillars of the establishment press.
"I think it's hard for people who are entering journalism now to recognize a) how influential these magazines were and b) how flush with cash they were, just by virtue of being who they were," said Matthew Cooper, a former Newsweek deputy Washington bureau chief who is now editor of National Journal Daily. "I think people really waited on Sunday and Monday to see what would be on the cover of Newsweek and Time."
Each had millions of readers in living rooms, corporate boardrooms and, of course, dentists' waiting rooms, helping to reflect and shape the nation's political developments and cultural sensibilities.
Cooper said Bruce Springsteen was, in part, propelled to stardom the week in 1975 when both magazines ran cover stories on his album Born to Run.
Newsweek Under Tina Brown
Newsweek always had a slyness, an Avis to Time magazine's Hertz. But Cooper — and others — argue that Brown's particular brand of brio failed the title.
"It's a fine line between playful and seriousness," Cooper said. "I think the older Newsweek balanced that pretty well. I don't think the current rendition did."
One cover called President Obama the first gay president. Another one, trumpeting an article by the conservative scholar Niall Ferguson, shouted: "Hit the Road, Barack." A third was titled "Muslim Rage," suggesting an entire religion's hostility to the West and especially the U.S. That one prompted widespread derision on Twitter and a sense that Newsweek under Brown had not figured out a core mission other than the creation of controversy.
Tyrangiel said he admires Brown and doesn't envy her challenge. He left his old job as deputy editor at Time magazine to lead Businessweek, which was itself bought for a dollar (and the assumption of significant debt) by another billionaire-led company, Bloomberg LLP. But after deep staff cuts, Tyrangiel has led a much-heralded reinvention and a greater emphasis on digital contribution to Bloomberg News.
"The people who are still printing and still printing successfully have found a way to own a corner of the information market. It's a real challenge to be a general interest publication in this day and age," Tyrangiel said. "Your readers are willing to pay for indispensible information. You have to own some piece of the market. The broader you go, the harder the challenge."
And if global sophisticates are the intended subscribers, the question is why pay for a tablet edition of Newsweek — and not instead say the Economist or the New Yorker or the Wall Street Journal or consume any of a thousand blogs or news sites that do not charge?
Shetty, the Newsweek/Daily Beast's CEO, says the company is not simply shedding costs of publishing, producing and distributing a weekly magazine. The move, he says, does not represent a retreat, but an advance into a new news age demanded by its readers.
"We felt that this was a time to make a commitment," Shetty said Thursday. "The Newsweek brand is something that we fundamentally believe in — but the form factor that we believe in it is digital — not a printed, paper-based magazine."