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Vivid: Print Newsweek’s closure raises questions

17-December-2012
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Vivid: Print Newsweek’s closure raises questions

The resurrection of Newsweek has been announced. At least that’s what Tina Brown, the Editor-in-Chief of both Newsweek and The Daily Beast, the online news site that was combined with the magazine last year, have us believe.

On December 31, the Newsweek will see its last in physical form, post which the magazine, which is touted to have helped define post-World War II to itself and the rest of the world, will go completely online.

Newsweek was launched on February 17, 1933, mere weeks after the Pakistan Movement was born and a little before the original version of the film version of ‘King Kong’, starring Fay Wray, premiered in New York City. The inaugural cover was a statement to the future yet to come, comprising seven photographs, the dominant one being of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi flags. Soon, Newsweek was to become a carrier of the news from the ‘American Way of Life’, sparking debates and discussions, bringing news that set the trend for rest of the US media to follow up.

Newsweek will be yanked off the newsstands less than three weeks of its 80th birthday. The online avatar, insiders say, will be rechristened Newsweek Global. As the plan goes, and as Brown has revealed to her staff, Newsweek Global will be supported by paid subscriptions, with content available for e-readers, tablets and the web, with some content also available on The Daily Beast.

Call it a resurrection or demise, Newsweek is out – albeit in the physical form – the fact that the iconic magazine is giving in to the virtual pressure cannot be missed. Brown herself said, citing an American think tank Pew Research survey, that 39 per cent of Americans get their news from an online source. And the percentage is continuously increasing, she said, as it is projected that there will be 70 million tablet users by the end of 2012, up from 13 million just two years ago.

So, does this mean that Newsweek is trying to keep alive at a time when about 300 newspapers – including the Atlanta Times, NY-based The Sun, The New York Tribune, the Boston Post and the Boston Chronicle – have already shut down or are shifting to hybrid online/ print or online-only models? Does this signal, as Paul Gillin of the Newspaper Death Watch fame states: “the tectonic shifts that are taking place in the media world, changes that will ultimately destroy 95 per cent of American major metropolitan newspapers”? Has Newsweek fallen prey to the “broken economic foundation of media scions, management neglect during the heady days of the industry and damaging scandals at a few major publications, that’s given us a newspaper industry teetering on the brink of an abyss”? Does this mean that more journalists will find themselves jobless after December 31? What does it mean for India? Will we also go down the same abyss?

Newsweek’s physical demise was neither written in a day nor over weeks, years. In fact, it has nothing to do with the global downturn, perhaps the only link being that had the world not fallen on hard times, the death could have been postponed a little more.

Newsweek’s circulation has been declining since the turn of the Millennium – from 4 million, it has gone down to 1.5 million, as the US Audit Board of Circulations reveals. According to Publishers Information Bureau data, the magazine’s print advertising fell by over 70 per cent from 2007 to 2011. Its circulation is also under 50 per cent of what it was five years ago.

Bloomberg says Newsweek, which merged with parent company IAC’s Daily Beast website last year, will lose more than $40 million this year, and $23 million in 2013, despite the merger.

The Newsweek demise was announced on October 18-19. Six days later, Barry Dillar, Chairman and Senior Executive of IAC/ InterActiveCorp IAC, while saying that the move will “dramatically” cut costs, added, “There’s real enthusiasm for Newsweek Global on all digital platforms, but we have no stars in any of our eyes.”

That needs reading between the lines. For, no print edition means a loss of advertising revenue. At the same time, there’s only been a careful, slow rise in online circulation and advertising revenue. Good news, but not good enough to recover IAC’s losses, yet.

For Newsweek has to ensure a sustainable sales and marketing model, where its site not only attracts, but also has a lock-in with the audience. It must also be understood that picking up a magazine from the newsstand or having the magazine delivered at your doorstep is one thing, while taking the time off to log in to a site is another. It’s altogether a different experience to spend an X amount to be handed over a copy for you to leaf through, as against the effort of logging in, subscribing and browsing. Which one’s easier than the other is a matter of debate, but that you have to be really well-informed to be a Netizen reading the online Newsweek is not. And, with web content mostly coming free till now, a pay-model is likely to hurt the magazine’s sales further.

There’s a theory that Newsweek is going for volume play. That would mean that the magazine’s global online entity will have to address a wider readership. The result would mean that ‘serious journalism’ that Newsweek is known for will have to give way to the sexy, dumbed-down and sensational. That in itself may be a double-edged sword for those who swore by Newsweek will be reduced to swearing at it and vice versa.

As for job cuts, Newsweek has been categorical that the all-online shift will bring in the inevitable. Internationally. Brown has said so as much, and corporates do during hard times; hear about a lot of ‘right sizing’ and ‘streamlining’ in the coming days, if you have not already heard them.

Journalists can take heart from the fact that they’ve been there and undergone the pain of suddenly finding themselves unemployed back in 2008-09, so it may not come as a shocker. Also, there’s still some hope left in sister industries such as online journalism, content writing and communication, although how much, that is yet to be ascertained. But the sense of unpredictability adds on, particularly for the Newsweek staff in the US about to lose their jobs; as it is, the nation is under tremendous pressure of unemployment.

As for the Indian media, the Newsweek news does not affect it really, as print here has shown no signs of dying down. But fear of a backlash remains.

Journalists fear that the Newsweek turning all-online is likely to send a wrong signal to print media publishers here looking for more profits. “Back in 2008-09 when the effects of the downturn had not even hit home, hundreds of journalists were made to leave in the name of the ghosts. It did not matter whether you were good at your job or not. It was downsizing time; you didn’t have to be good or bad, you were just made unemployed. It’s not about the move’s merit; it's about the lack of transparency. “In 2009, when Jet Airways wanted to cut 2,000 jobs, the media made sure Naresh Goyal (owner of Jet) was not able to do that, even as it quietly retrenched journalists. Not one of them was told the real reason, they were asked to go on some pretext or another. Not even a handful of journalists wrote about it and there was no fraternal sympathy or remorse as was seen in the media job cuts in the West,” says a senior journalist.

Now, what if the Newsweek’s shift makes the publishers divert their complete attention online, what if Newsweek becomes just another ruse for job cuts in the name of the newfound online calibrations, the journalist wonders.

All one can say for the Indian journalists, don’t expect any sympathy from within, if it happens.

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