Newsweek: It's like Newsweek, except smaller and worried

One of our U.S. peers/competitors prepares a bold experiment in strategic shrinkage. In a lot of cases, I think retrenchment makes good sense: while it may once have been possible to put out a bit-of-everything product that everyone in your market area would pay to read occasionally, in many cases those days are simply gone and they are really not coming back. It’s actually safer (sometimes!) to abandon most of your readers because they have already abandoned you, and fall back to a defensible niche where you can provide unique value to a smaller group that takes a more active interest in a narrower set of topics. Somewhere on the website for his very interesting consulting firm, our old friend Richard Addis makes that argument.

So, for instance, if I were running the Ottawa Citizen, I might ask myself: is it better to go micro-local, in the hopes that the good people of Barrhaven and Kanata and Old Ottawa South and Westboro will discover a common community spirit and an interest in daily newspapers that (in the first case) never really existed and (in the second) is vanishing; or would I seek to be unbeatable in a few segments of the Ottawa market where people are obsessive about what they do and desperate for solid information — like, say among others, Parliament Hill?

But the gambit Newsweek is preparing still constitutes a very scary leap for an organization with a long history and a perhaps hypertrophied sense of its own importance. The biggest dangers lie in timid execution — appearing to give the dwindling readership less instead of giving them something different — and in undervaluing reporting. Newsweek editor John Meacham has, a bit famously, a tormented relationship with The Economist, which he envies while wondering why everyone else fusses about The Economist, but I do wonder whether he has ever simply read the damned thing. Sentences like this, from the Times article, make me think he simply heard about The Economist once, in passing, from a drunk uncle at a cocktail party in the Hamptons: “Newsweek also plans to lean even more heavily on the appeal of big-name writers like Christopher Hitchens, Fareed Zakaria and George Will.”

Far be it from me to dispute the appeal of big-name writers, and I bow to nobody in my admiration for Hitchens, Zakaria and Will, or as we like to call them around the office, HZW. But when I buy The Economist it’s for information I didn’t already have about a lot of different subjects. The Economist does not lean ever more heavily on the appeal of big-name writers like Niall Ferguson, Quentin Letts and Zoë Heller. When I read that any publication plans to put a heavier emphasis on essays and photos, I wonder whether that’s because essays and photos can be wonderful, or because the publication’s editor doesn’t trust its readers. In Newsweek‘s case, I guess we’ll see.

On a not unrelated note, Charlie Rose launches a series of discussions about the future of newspapers. (And Michael Kinsley throws cold water on this idea of micropayments. It is a typical Kinsley column, which thus proves why Kinsley is atypical: because he can change your mind, not just confirm your prejudices. I thought micropayments might be a pretty good idea until I read this column; now I want to run and hide.)

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