Newsweek is dead … long live Newsweek?

The end of its print run may not be all doom and gloom

As has been reported all over the place today, Newsweek/The Daily Beast editor in chief Tina Brown and CEO Baba Shetty announced that, after 79 years, the final print version of Newsweek will hit newsstands on December 31. As of the new year, the magazine will transition to a digital-only format called Newsweek Global, available via paid subscription.

To many, this signals the beginning of the end (or the end of the end?) of Newsweek, the inevitable near-conclusion to its slow but steady downfall. Reuters’s Felix Salmon (who also contributes to CJR) wonders why Diller is bothering to keep Newsweek afloat in any form, saying, “[T]he chances that Newsweek will succeed as a digital-only subscription-based publication are exactly zero.”

That’s not what at least one current member of Newsweek’s staff (who was not authorized to speak on the matter) thinks. “People have been living in a state of uncertainty for a long time now,” the staffer told CJR. “It’s kind of exciting” to move into “a new age of media.” Though there will almost definitely be layoffs on the production side of the print mag, the staffer expects writers to stay on or be “re-purposed.”

The staffer also suggested that Newsweek will find new, profitable, post-print life through a series of special issues with sponsored tie-ins. You can see hints of the shift now on Newsweek/The Daily Beast’s media site — “The Hero Project,” a “thought-leadership initiative,” which includes a “Hero Summit” with speakers such as Bono, Madeleine Albright, and Steven Spielberg; “Women in the World,” with its “three tent-pole issues” and live events; and, coming in the new year, an “Explorer Issue,” including a “historic profile of the famed Explorers Club.” The club partnered with Newsweek/The Daily Beast on the issue.

Both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal alluded to this shift in their articles about the announcement. “Newsweek plans to offer what [Shetty] calls ‘select advertising opportunities’ as part of an ‘integrated program’ that included the company’s events business,” said WSJ. “The name Newsweek, in spite of its trouble in print, still has value in terms of international licensing, as well as several conferences Ms. Brown has created,” said NYT.

Newsweek has floundered for years now—just take a look at its numbers in mid-2010 when The Washington Post Company sold the magazine to Sidney Harman for $1 and about $70 million of debt (some reports say $40 million — either way, it’s a lot of debt).

Since then, Newsweek merged with Tina Brown’s all-digital The Daily Beast, Harman’s family sold off its interest in the company following his death (leaving Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp holding the financial reins), and there were a slew of questionable covers and cover stories. In July, Diller stated during a quarterly earnings conference call that the publication would “transition” to online and that next year would be “different.” Brown responded with a memo to staffers assuring them that the transition would not happen in September, and perhaps not at all. Now it’s October, and it has.

Newsweek Global wouldn’t be the first media company to try to turn things around this way — Atlantic Media, for example, boasts several big-ticket themed conferences and events — and it’s been profitable for three years in a row. Its new digital-only business site, Quartz, is funded by four corporate sponsors through this year — with “sponsored content” meshed seamlessly with the rest of the articles.

That Newsweek Global will see the same success as Atlantic Media is not a given. It’s coming into an increasingly crowded field of advertorial content and thought conferences and is no longer held in the same intellectual esteem as its peers. As a former Newsweek staffer who left shortly after its merger with The Daily Beast noted, “Quality control is essential.” Newsweek will have to shed its publish-anything-for-clicks image if it wants to be taken seriously as a smart and reputable outlet whose events are worth paying to attend.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison. Tags: , ,