The future of the newsweekly (is bleak)

Michael Hirschorn has written an interesting piece for the Atlantic called The Newsweekly’s Last Stand. As I’ve said here many times, while “the magazine format” is alive and well, certain magazine “business models” and certain genres of magazines are greatly endangered. The general newsweekly is tops on that list. Newsweek is trying valiantly to survive and I have become a fan of its editor (and fellow Tennessean) Jon Meacham (primarily through my enjoyment of his non-fiction books). But, as Hirschorn points out, it is going to be tough for the newsweeklies (and we’re talking just Time and Newsweek) to redefine what they are. Newsweek, as is obvious from those who are receiving its newly re-formated, re-designed and re-positioned iteration, is attempting to be something like the Economist, NewYorker and the old Newsweek. Time, on the other hand, keeps getting curiouser and curiouser — it contains, I’m sorry, a continuous stream of mis-directed and poorly informed articles.

Hirschorn’s piece, rather than being about Time or Newsweek is, rather, a love-letter to The Economist.

However, the reason I wanted to point to his essay is found in the last paragraph of the piece — which I doubt few readers other than his closest friends and kin have made it to. It contains the key to successful magazine publishing, and, frankly, the success of any media today:

“General-interest is out; niche is in. The irony, as restaurateurs and club-owners and sneaker companies and Facebook and Martha Stewart know—and as The Economist demonstrates, week in and week out—is that niche is sometimes the smartest way to take over the world.

For a reason I have often explained here (mass merchants need mass media), the business model of consumer magazines has been all about getting in front of the most eyeballs as possible. The same mis-guided theory also drives the “page view” advertising metric online.

But today, our media choices are driven by our personal and professional passions. Our purchasing decisions are informed by the content and conversations found in the niche media and communities to which we subscribe and belong. It’s not a hard concept — unless you are still trying to be a mass medium.

Passion = niche. It’s an easy formula to remember, even for media people who have never studied math.

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  • I think you are exactly right. That’s the premise on which we’re building SouthComm. Advertisers have been pitched by a generation of cable TV, radio, and alt-weekly reps to buy niches in order to be more efficient with their resources and more effective with their messages. There are very few mass market advertisers left, particularly in local markets.

  • I agree with your general premise that niche is in. But I must admit that I don’t get how some of the large-scale magazines such as The New Yorker or The Economist are aimed at a “niche.” I also don’t think the New Yorker has been holding up very well on the business side despite many great articles (like the recent health care story that was being cited by everyone from President Obama on down the line). I find The Economist often thought-provoking but just as often overly-glib or flat-out boring. Obviously I’m in the minority there.

  • Compared to general consumer audience targeted by Time and Newsweek, the New Yorker / Economist seem “niche” directed: upscale, urban, highly educated, in need of topics to discuss at cocktail parties. I’ve never understood how, with its overhead, the New Yorker could ever be profitable. However, it’s one of the few magazines I don’t even try to understand anything about the business side — I just read it.