The carnage in the print world continues. The latest big-name publication to go up for sale: 77 year-old Newsweek.

The magazine, which covers U.S. and global news on a weekly basis, has, like many print publications, seen its subscriber base erode over the years. That has made it hard to run as a sustainable business. Newsweek lost nearly $30m last year, and just over $16m in 2008.

This despite the fact that Newsweek’s owner, the Washington Post Co., tried to make changes. It cut a significant number of positions and decreased circulation to save on printing costs. It also tried to reposition Newsweek as a "thought leader" and redesigned the magazine.

According to Washington Post Co. chairman Donald Graham, "Despite heroic efforts on the part of Newsweek's management and staff, we expect it to still lose money in 2010. We are exploring all options to fix that problem." The fix, of course, is really quite simple: find someone to take Newsweek off our hands.

The big question: if the Washington Post hasn't been able to right the Newsweek ship, who can? While one might point to the new BusinessWeek, which has won some praise after being relaunched by new owner Bloomberg, Newsweek is a different type of publication and it might be one that's much harder to revitalize. It competes in a market in which content is heavily commoditized, and it's not clear how Newsweek can significantly differentiate itself without effectively becoming an entirely new publication. In this case, of course, the Newsweek brand would probably be of minimal value, and could even be a liability.

Despite the dire situation at Newsweek, however, there are some who still see potential in the publication.'s Eliot Van Buskirk thinks Newsweek has the potential to become a publication for the digital age thanks to tablet computing. He writes:

This represents a rare opportunity to purchase, on the cheap, of an iconic media property in distress, for any creative investor in the best Charles Foster Kane mold, who can afford to reboot the publication and wait it out a few years on the premise that tablets do in fact take off.

He goes on:

Newsweek has serious assets. Its writers, editors and photographers have centuries of experience among them. It still has a substantial readership, in the first quarter of this year printing 1.5 million copies of each issue. Newsweek’s traditional approach — wait a week then analyze what happened — is surprisingly relevant in today’s news cycle, in which thousands of bloggers write the first drafts of history in minutes and hours, whetting an appetite for deeper analyses as the dust settles.

In my opinion, however, betting Newsweek's future on the rise of tablet computing would be foolish. Even more foolish: betting Newsweek's future on a specific tablet -- the iPad -- and the hope that Steve Jobs might want to push the new Newsweek hard in the App Store, as Van Buskirk suggests.

Tablets, including the iPad, represent a distribution platform. Nothing more, nothing less. That's not to say that tablets won't be important to publishers, but platform is only one part of the equation and it should always follow the most important part of the equation: product.

While the two often seem to be confused, platform is not product. Successful media companies focus on developing products for which there is consumer demand. They then use the platforms that are ideally suited to distributing those products most effectively to their target markets. Companies that focus on developing product for a specific platform necessarily head down a dead-end road because we live in a multi-platform world and new platforms are emerging all the time. In other words, 'platform matters but it's still about the product, silly.'

When it comes to Newsweek's product, fewer and fewer consumers are interested in buying despite all of the assets Van Buskirk gushes about. And that, simply, is the problem for the vast majority of these struggling publications. Sure, the economics of the publishers don't work. But as we've seen, cutting costs doesn't stop the bleeding.

Unless publications like Newsweek face up to the fact that their products are no longer compelling in today's market, the fire-sales will continue. Don't expect the iPad or any other technology to fix the problems with the product. The buyers, if any, will have to do that. That's not going to be easy. As the saying goes, caveat emptor.

Photo credit: Hugo90 via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 6 May, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (4)

Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis, Head of Business Development at Harvest Digital

What about the medium is the message school of thought?

about 8 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy


As you might guess, I'm not a proponent of that school of thought. :)

If it was that easy, publishers like Newsweek would have been instantly revitalized when they went online, for instance. The fact that they've still struggled despite the fact that most publishers have extensive digital initiatives in my opinion highlights the fact that success is fundamentally dependent on the strength of your product. We're seeing this on the iPad, where consumers aren't simply gobbling up magazine apps because they're available on the iPad. Like Steve Jobs, who is apparently disappointed with the New York Times' iPad app, they're going to evaluate the product.

Finally, I also think publishers have to accept the reality that platforms aren't static. It's a multi-platform world, and new platforms are emerging all the time as technology advances and to become beholden to one or two mediums is to pigeonhole your business.

Building a sustainable business around a particular platform is a lot harder than building a quality product and focusing on how it's best distributed across the appropriate platforms.

about 8 years ago

Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis, Head of Business Development at Harvest Digital

I don't really swallow it either, good use of the medium is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. 

Good piece and philosophy.  Like you say the iPad is not the saviour of media unless they can create content that is relevant and a business model that supports it. 

At the heart of the matter is that the world has changed and a lot of companies have been unable to follow.  Media companies have been about product whilst the world is moving to services. 

about 8 years ago



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almost 8 years ago

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