The digital beast
Newsweek’s switch from the print medium to a digital format indicates changes in economics as well as in readership
This week, Newsweek magazine announced that it would be cancelling its print publication of nearly 80 years and switching over to digital issues. In spite of surprising and somewhat abrupt nature of the switch, Editor in Chief Tina Brown went out to state that going all-digital was “not about the quality of the brand or the journalism…” but rather the “challenging economics of print publishing and distribution.”
Whichever the reason, this is big news. Having gotten its start in 1933, Newsweek’s place in the stands among the other news magazines like Time and The New Republic has been something of an undeniable position. And albeit a number of people who followed Newsweek’s recent identity crisis saw it as print failure from a mile away, the digital-switch still raises the question of whether the failure is specific to Newsweek, or the magazine industry as a whole. More importantly, what can other publications do to avoid it?
If we go back to the so-called “challenging economics” of running a print magazine, we see that magazine ad revenue in the United States has risen 2.6 percent this year alone, according to eMarketer, a research group cited by the Associated Press. What’s more, the publication database MediaFinder reported that 181 new magazines were launched so far during this year, while only about 61 shut down in the same time. Paired with the fact that subscriptions for paid magazines went up 1.1 percent in the past year, it’s safe to conclude that the magazine industry’s been shaky, but nothing that would suggest a collective demise – yet.
So what made Newsweek one of the 61? While economics play a large part, the problem in question has deeper roots than that. Brown said that despite the new digital format, the publication remained “committed to Newsweek and to the journalism that it represents.” But what does Newsweek really represent? If the answer is a “hip” journal for political commentary, there is hardly a print audience for that anyway. As stated in Commentary Magazine, Newsweek has been “redesigned by its editor, Jon Meacham, in the model of…an opinion magazine.” But when a publication is saturated with opinions for a tech-savvy audience – a quality that, as many students can agree, was practically invented by the Internet – it’s almost counterproductive to continue printing it on paper.
This is not to say that opinions don’t have followings, but the followers today look elsewhere for it. Newsweek’s devoted readership is also a very small and uniform group, so the limited demographic does not lend itself to the practice of mass printing. In other words — it’s not that there’s no longer a place for political and social commentary pieces, but the changing market has decided that the place is no longer on paper.
Based on the comparative success of other magazine sales, it seems that the change is specific to Newsweek. But in 20 years time, or even sooner, it’s feared that the same will be said of all types of print material, even beyond political opinion. If you think about it, Newsweek’s demise was big news not because people revered it, but because it was the first one to get kidnapped in the horror movie that is the shift to all-digital media.
And as both and Internet and horror movie enthusiast, I get it. On the one hand, ideas are becoming easier, faster and more accessible. The laptop replaces the newspaper, the phone becomes a magazine, and we could stop at any point if we wanted to. The flip side — and maybe the majority opinion — is that digital media is breathing down our backs, ready to consume us the minute we turn around.
It may be a bit of an exaggeration, but in a weird sense, the latter has already started. I can’t remember the last time I physically picked up a news magazine — or even a newspaper for that matter — to read in my hands (sorry, Cavalier Daily). Conversely, however, the thought of not being able to read off paper altogether is more foreboding than I’d ever like to admit.
But in spite of the fear, it’s impossible to know the extent to which what we’re seeing is the psychological side-effect of more technology, or the beginning of a permanent shift we’ve been afraid of. When Tina Brown speaks of a “tipping point at which [Newsweek] can most efficiently and effectively reach [its] readers in all-digital format,” it could very well mean an omen to print media. What’s most important, though, is to recognize that horrifying or not, the shift is the sum of the choices we make as readers. The fall of print Newsweek is an example of knowing your demographic well and beating some “challenging economics” to reach them. So if we are, in fact, the monster we fear, then an eventual shift is not only inevitable, it’s what we’ve wanted all along.
Denise Taylor’s column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.