Newsweek vs. subscribers

newsweekGayMarriage.jpgEarlier this week, rumors began circulating about a major drop in circulation for Newsweek. Some were suggesting a drop from a rate base of 2.6 million to 1 million. A rate base, by the way, is the circulation you guarantee to advertisers. Well, it's not a rumor anymore. The Wall Street Journal has the details -- and it doesn't look so good for the Washington Post Co. news weekly:

Newsweek magazine is planning staff cuts as part of a major makeover that is likely to result in a slimmer publication with fewer subscribers and more photos and opinion inside its pages, according to people close to the magazine.

The Washington Post Co. business is expected to outline the cuts Thursday in two companywide meetings. They will come from an extension of voluntary buyouts offered in the spring, when Newsweek shed 111 jobs.

No certainty on how many jobs will be lost, according to the Journal. The problem is that Newsweek faces anemic ad sales. So what's the plan to save the sinking ship?

As it continues its shift away from news gathering toward a more provocative, idea-driven editorial approach, Newsweek is also considering other dramatic changes, including significantly reducing its rate base -- the number of weekly copies it promises advertisers it will deliver.

Because what mainstream publications need is more opinion pages and less reportage. I wonder what they'll change the name to or if they won't. The Journal story says that Newsweek higher ups are trying to ape publications such as the Economist:

Recently, Newsweek has emphasized commentary on hot-button issues, such as gay marriage, by big-name journalists like editor Jon Meacham and international editor Fareed Zakaria, as well as contributions from political operatives and academics like Michael Beschloss and Sean Wilentz.

If I were the Economist, I'd be offended at the suggestion that error-ridden opinion pieces in any way mirror its pages. The Economist has always taken a more continental approach to journalism but its staff doesn't make quite so many obvious errors, logical fallacies, and juvenile name-calling incidents as Lisa Miller and Jon Meacham managed to pile up with their little Culture War attack this week.

And how are these provocative pieces on hot-button issues working out for Newsweek? Well, they're more or less the laughingstock of the journalism world right now and they've had to disable commenting functions. The Journal reports that Newsweek Chief Executive Tom Ascheim's email account was unable to handle the volume this week.

It is true that printing and postage costs are crippling magazines. It's been difficult for every single last one of them. And trimming readers and charging more for subscriptions may be a good way to respond to that. But I can't help but think that Newsweek's approach is just bound to fail. Meacham says he wants Newsweek to become a thought leader. But he's not trading journalism for opinion journalism. He's trading journalism for hackery and propaganda. There was precisely no one provoked to think in any meaningful sense by that last cover story. People were simply provoked to drop subscriptions or otherwise think less of Newsweek. It didn't engage the Scriptural arguments in favor of traditional marriage fairly or honestly. The only people who would even remotely enjoy that story or find it thoughtful are people who were already inclined to believe it. Downsizing a publication to a readership that doesn't want to be challenged seems like the worst of all worlds. And the loss of actual American-style journalism -- which, admittedly, has been shaky at Newsweek for a while now -- is a loss.

Anyway, there are more interesting details in the Journal story, such as the fact that Time has retained its profitability and is not considering a rate-base cut.

I'm wondering why the Washington Post Co. didn't come up with the idea of just not running ridiculous, laughably error-ridden cover stories that do nothing more than extend the middle finger to current or potential subscribers. Was that too simple?

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