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Going digital: End of an era?

Publication Date : 22-10-2012


The decision by the management behind Newsweek magazine to go all-digital by next year has been hailed or mourned—depending on which side of the digital divide the observer is shouting from or looking at—as the end of an era. For readers of a certain age, who got their fill of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal or tantalising reports on the Marcos dictatorship from the magazine, it certainly felt that way.

For several decades, especially when it was published by the Washington Post, Newsweek competed with Time magazine to define the news or political or cultural agenda in the United States and in other parts of the world every single week.

After the print edition bows out with the Dec 31, 2012, issue, it is anybody’s guess what will happen to what Newsweek alumnus Jonathan Alter calls, with justifiable pride, “one of the few media brands that is truly global,” “an important part of the American and global conversation for 80 years.”

The current editor in chief, the celebrated Tina Brown, sees the magazine in almost the same terms. Speaking of her sometimes sensationally controversial cover stories, she told the New York Times it was all about connecting. “I have always felt that the covers are about a conversation. The covers become a conversation starter.”

In truth, however, the conversations both Newsweek and Time used to start were of a different order altogether; once upon a time, they were the face of the mass media that defined the public agenda. Today, they are merely among the many conversation starters in a fragmented media scene.

Brown’s announcement was decidedly modest; no end-of-era rhetoric for her. The headline was both print-specific and everyday: “A Turn of the Page for Newsweek.” (A mere page, not even a chapter.) The note itself, which ran in The Daily Beast, the upstart website that is Newsweek’s digital partner, was brightly written, saving the worst news, of coming “staff reductions”, for the second-but-last paragraph.

A vital passage describes the plan, going forward: “It is important that we underscore what this digital transition means and, as importantly, what it does not. We are transitioning Newsweek, not saying goodbye to it….This decision is not about the quality of the brand or the journalism—that is as powerful as ever. It is about the challenging economics of print publishing and distribution.”

“‘Challenging’ is a euphemism for impossible,” wrote an excitable Andrew Sullivan—one of the world’s most influential bloggers, and a true prophet of digital journalism. (He thinks Newsweek should have gone all-digital years ago.)

But in fact the economics of print publishing and distribution today is not impossible; it is important to point out that, in the magazine industry, some magazines continue to do brisk business, in both print and digital formats.

Three famous publications that compete with Newsweek in more or less the same space, for instance, took different paths to the digital phase: the New Yorker, founded in 1925, was among the first to digitise its archives but came rather late to the Web; the Atlantic, founded in Boston in 1857, is perhaps the most nimble online and in social media; the Economist, founded in London in 1843, follows what it nicely calls a lean-forward, lean-back strategy that allows it to differentiate between quick bites (website) and long reads (both print and tablet). But each one is thriving in print too.

At least Brown knows what the real problem is. “You cannot actually change an era of enormous disruptive innovation,” she said in her Times interview. Indeed. Media organisations around the world, even the million-copy newspapers with growing circulations in India and China, are going through a truly disruptive age.

The management guru who famously described the so-called Innovator’s Dilemma and fashioned disruption theory, Clayton Christensen, has co-written an article that attempts to make sense of the disruptions now wracking journalism.

“Breaking News” is an important read, not only because it reminds us that magazines like Time were disruptors when they started out but also because a new Newsweek, perhaps if it junks the dominant demography-based analysis of readership and applies Christensen’s concept of “job-to-be-done”—a reader maybe has 10 minutes’ spare time waiting for a ride; what can she read in that time, at that moment?—may be a disruptor once again, in a new era.


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