While Newsweek now has a new owner, most observers are still leaving the magazine for dead. Even the new owner, 91-year-old Sidney Harman, pretty much conceded to the Washington Post that he doesn’t have any grand turnaround plan. But Newsweek may have a window of opportunity to save itself, albeit a small one.
The simplest way for a weekly news magazine to survive these days is the Bloomberg BusinessWeek route. In that case, after several quarters of losing money for McGraw-Hill (NYSE: MHP), the company sold it to Bloomberg LLP in October for $10.5 million. Bloomberg’s main financial-terminals business can easily support a money-losing magazine, especially if it can make its burgeoning multimedia business more valuable in the long run. (A side note: Bloomberg BW had a pretty solid Q2, as the Publishers Information Bureau figures show that ad pages rose 10 percent over the previous year. Newsweek’s ad pages were up a mere 2.9 percent, while rival Time gained 3.5 percent.)
Newsweek won’t have that option. Harman is treating his new property as a philanthropic venture. Essentially, he sees his “primary responsibility” as building a succession plan for Newsweek, which involves leaving it either to his heirs or to an outside owner after he passes away. Even if the Harman heirs — there are four children and three grandchildren — were media geniuses, they would have a tough time figuring out how to reverse the magazine’s fortunes. In contrast to what many magazine titles had seen as the ad recovery in Q4 gained strength in Q1, Newsweek only got weaker: Q4 revenues plunged 30 percent in Q4, and then in Q1, they fell another 36 percent. It’s easy to see Newsweek as an anachronism — with its earnest centrism, its nuanced civility, its over-arching tone of authority in a media landscape that’s more glib, snarky, pointed, informal and above all else, fast.
Still, it may be a little early to get out the coffin for Newsweek. The magazine has been working diligently on building up its website, and even its most fervent detractors have praised its Tumblr presence, though the person who started it, Mark Coatney, left the magazine for post at… Tumblr. In an interview Coatney gave to the NY Observer before he left, he said that Twitter and Facebook were driving “hundreds of thousands of referrals every month,” while Tumblr was contributing 30,000 or so per month. That kind of “engagement,” as publishers are fond of saying, suggests that Newsweek isn’t just a pile of dead trees.
Over the summer, the magazine’s site has also been making a real effort to better utilize its online archives. In conjunction with its major site redesign last May, Newsweek.com began using the CQ5 publishing system from Day Software, which enabled the site