Is Stephen Colbert more like Roseanne Barr or Hilary Duff? That's an important question for Newsweek, which is hoping to publicize its recent makeover by publishing an issue about Iraq guest-edited by the Comedy Central faux-pundit.
New-look Newsweek is sleeker and punchier, with less rehashing of current events and more opinion and argument -- a mix calculated to appeal to a smaller but more elite audience. But none of the changes will matter if people don't bother to sample the new product.
Enter Colbert. In some ways, he's a perfect fit as the host of a news show, one with a distinct point of view, that's popular with the clued-in consumers Newsweek hopes to attract. On the other hand, his presence could be confusing, since Colbert is both a real person and a fictional character. Which is the guest editor? (Answer from a Newsweek spokesman: "His contributions are in character, but handing out assignments was the serious, real Colbert. It's a serious subject, treated as such.") And having handed over the reins to a comedian, however jokingly, might come back to haunt Newsweek next time its credibility gets seriously called into question, as it did when the magazine reported that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had mistreated copies of the Koran, sparking deadly riots.
But that's in the future. Right now, Newsweek needs to convince readers to take a fresh look, and the evidence suggests that a guest-editor is an effective way to accomplish that limited goal. Most other magazines that have invited a celebrity to guest-edit an issue enjoyed a temporary surge in sales. Vanity Fair's July 2007 issue, overseen by U2 singer Bono, was the title's best-performing issue of the year, selling 30 percent more copies than usual on the newsstand, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. An issue of O, The Oprah Magazine guest-edited by Sarah Jessica Parker and published the same month sold 16 percent above average. And the famous issue of The New Yorker edited by Roseanne Barr was a newsstand hit, whatever damage it may have inflicted on the magazine's reputation: It sold 90,000 copies, doubling the title's average.
But it doesn't always pay off. An October 2006 issue of Seventeen guest-edited by Hilary Duff was a fizzle, selling nine percent fewer copies than usual. And then there's the whole question of advertising. The New York Post sounded out media buyers about the Colbert stunt today, and they don't sound very enthusiastic.
Can Colbert get new Newsweek noticed?