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. Wired.com’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.