The recent decision from Newsweek to shift its coverage from a focus on current event news to opinion-based content amid falling sales signals that the magazine is hitching its survival on growing its core demographic of readers, at the expense of the mass market.
“Mass for us is a business that doesn't work,” Tom Ascheim, CEO of Newsweek, told The New York Times on February 9. “[We] wish it did, but it doesn't. We did it for a long time, successfully, but we can't anymore.”
Ascheim added that the magazine will focus on its core of 1.2 million subscribers, who have higher-than-average incomes and education levels.
“We would like to build our business around these people and grow that group slightly,” Ascheim told the Times, also noting that the weekly would like to increase the current subscription fee to about $50 per year. The average subscriber now pays less than $25 per year.
Newsweek also plans to put a greater spotlight on its boldface writers, including Christopher Hitchens, Fareed Zakaria, and George Will, as well as a heavier stock paper.
The magazine's shift is a response to the reality that readers now look for news in aggregate on the Web, while also depending on trusted media brands for credible analysis and columns, according to Cheryl Cook, EVP of national media at Edelman and a former broadcast journalist.
“Newsweek has put a stake in the ground to say, ‘Content is our value proposition and we know we appeal to this type of reader,'” she explains “When you think about it, masses aren't racing to the Internet to read anything, really, it's... acquiring information in [aggregate].”
Newsweek's newsstand sales plummeted more than 13% to 2.7 million during the second half of last year, alongside struggling competitors. News magazines, in general, have had to adapt to the evolving media landscape – and do so quickly – without completely changing their brands, says Tom Goodman, president and CEO of Goodman Media International.
Andy Plesser, founder of Plesser Holland Associates, says that Newsweek must “project a clearer brand personality” to expand its readership.
“Right now, it seems to be a liberal news source or Baby Boomer publication,” he says.
Lloyd Trufelman, president of Trylon SMR, adds that Newsweek's effort to stay a middle-of-the-road publication could increase the difficulty of it wooing elite readers, many who rely on Harper's and The Economist.
“These efforts to redesign and reconceptualize the print edition... are, at best, something that will slow the decline, but not serve as a long-term solution,” he said.
Trufelman adds that Newsweek must carefully plan an online strategy to match its print-based reinvention and build a robust future reader base for the publication.
“If the objective is for print and online being seen as separate parts of [strategy], they might be selling themselves short,” he explains.
Representatives from Newsweek did not return requests for comment by press time.