A magazine and its web site

Daily Beast, merging with Newsweek, was ready to kill Newsweek.com, according to Adweek.

Tina Brown denied the story on Twitter, and it may have been no more than rumor. Of course rumor is the stock and trade of the Daily Beast, and some of have climbed on to say go ahead and kill it.

But that does not seem smart. Why buy any business today, and throw away its web site?  Maybe “Daily” trumps “Week” when everyone on the web is looking for “Minute” and “Second.” But how does “Beast” trump “News”?

It’s not a simple decision. While Steven Colvin, Tina Brown’s sharp CEO, may have thought about it in his usual impetuous way, there was a lot to consider here.  First Beastweek had to figure how much of Mr. Harmon’s money could be spent on the web, and if it made any sense to support two money-losing news site. If not, which one do you kill? The Newsweek site never seemed to catch its breath after it was freed the smothering embrace of MSNBC.

Having worked on Newsweek’s design off and on for 20 years, including a couple of calls to design the web site, I remember well the first Newsweek.com, a stillborn re-telling of the weekly magazine. Not what people on the web needed.

By 1999 the Newsweek.com had hooked up with MSNBC, where they stayed for a decade. The idea is that the Newsweek part would provide the analysis and perspective, and the MSN-NBC part would provide the spot news. This worked better for them than it did for Newsweek.

The last time I was at the magazine it was to pitch yet another design—one that would be cross platform The publisher Tom Ascheim asked what should they do if they were starting a new magazine called, Newsweek. “Well,” I said, “it would have to be about news, and it would have to come out every week.”

“Wrong answer,” he said.

Maybe. Maybe not. The result of Ascheim’s rethinking was not good—not for readers who were mystified by the change, not for the Washington Post Co. which lost its Phil Graham’s trophy magazine after 40 mostly great years, not for Tom Ascheim who is dusting off his resumé, and not for the brilliant editor, Jon Meacham who has fled to the book publishing world.

Newsweek.com fell on the top news site list, down to number 67 according to Alexa, right after the Atlanta Constitution. It may be that this patient, so long on life-support, should just be unplugged. Or maybe the site could be born again, after a decent interval.

Few magazines have done well with their web sites. The problem is that most still just want to “put the magazine on the web.” This impulse was repeated with the first magazine iPad apps, notwithstanding the background noise from critics we’ve been hearing since at least 1996 that “repurposing” is a bad idea.

While great Newsweek bloggers like Fareed Zakaria scores well for Newsweek, the site could never carry the cost of the editorial operation.The the revenue model for magazines is cooked. I call it the CPM model, since it was all about keeping the ad prices down and driving audience numbers to increase revenue, with the result that magazine publishing turned into an advertising business instead of a product for reading. The decline in advertising generally (for a good dozen reasons, not just the new online ad positions) meant many print magazines weren’t supporting themselves. Enter billionaire Sidney Harman.

Harman spends his dollar (actually 40 million of them, to cover the subscription liability) for a great content brand. While it may have started as a weekly update for people who weren’t tracking the news every day (maybe because they had a bad local paper), for 50 years Newsweek has been a brand for original reporting, in-depth analysis and opinion. They invented the “lifestyle” category in the media, years before Time or NBC or The New York Times thought popular culture was news. And, they put bylines first, and pushed for good writing. (And of course, after 1985, it was beautifully designed, until recently).

This brand has not literally been news-plus-week since Oz Elliott was the editor and Ben Bradley a foreign correspondent.  But what would you do with it? “If you’re starting from a paper product and simply transporting it to a new device, I don’t understand what the meaningfulness is,” John Skipper, the content king of ESPN said on Marketwatch recently.

At its best, what you get is Time’s iPad app, a strange digitized version of the magazine with various “interactive” elements bolted on. (If you don’t like that, just turn it 90 degrees.)

Kill the web site? Probably not. Instead, try to move the brand into the 21st century by making it truly multi-platform. That involves putting everyone central location (virtual or real) where they can move text, pictures, audio and video to the appropriate platform as needed. This requires an alert staff and an ambidextrous CMS. so that the workflow is not print-to-web or web-to-print, but . . . multi-platform. Define products (weekly print, web site, newsletters, topical-micro sites, blogs, podcasts, iPad and mobile and so forth.) Assign editors, visual content directors, and product managers to each target.

Some you support with advertising, some you put behind paywalls. Stop the ones that don’t work. Promote the ones that do.

And then when you are all done, on each platform, you’ve connected reporters and readers in an effective way. Call it, “Newsweek.”

(David Carr’s take on the Beastweek merger: “a very unusual animal, one that has the head of a goat and the backside of a cow.”)

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