Newsweek, fighting for survival, drifts toward irrelevancy

About a year ago, media critic Michael Wolff predicted that Newsweek would go out of business "sometime around the fourth quarter of next year" -- i.e., right around now. That doesn't look like it's going to come true. But nor does it look as far off the mark as Newsweek's parent, the Washington Post Co. (WPO), might hope.

Last week, the magazine laid off a dozen employees in its third round of staff downsizing in less than two years. But Newsweek is shrinking in other ways as well: Ad pages are down 29% year-over-year, while the circulation guarantee is slated to be reduced to 1.5 million in January, down more than 50% from its pre-2008 level.
The New York Times (NYT) sees "glimmers of progress" in all this, noting that the Washington Post Co.'s magazine division -- meaning Newsweek, more or less -- has managed to substantially slow the rate at which it's bleeding (although that's a far cry from becoming "slightly more profitable," as the Times's media blog erroneously puts it).

But those glimmers are faint enough. Newsweek's current strategy is to court a smaller, demographically more elite audience by offering them a product less like the newsweekly of yore and more like The Economist: heavy on opinion and analysis, light on reporting. It's also to harness the power of the blogosphere and the 24-hour cable news cycle by stirring the pot with attention-grabbing stunts, like an issue guest-edited by Stephen Colbert, and this week's cover, which features Sarah Palin in a pair of thigh-revealing running shorts.

It's far from clear, however, what Newsweek gains by trading journalistic heft for something as ephemeral as buzz. That Colbert issue didn't sell especially well on the newsstand. And while the phrase "Newsweek Sarah Palin" made an appearance in Google Trends Monday morning, the attribution of that cover photo -- originally taken for Runner's World -- only serves to underscore the magazine's lack of pull. Palin herself panned the cover, and Newsweek, in a Facebook message, calling it "sexist" and "out of context."

Time magazine's Person of the Year issue may be something of a joke, but at least it's a signature joke. (Like DailyFinance, Time is -- for now -- part of Time Warner Inc. (TWX).) Newsweek could use a similar franchise to distinguish itself. Otherwise, it risks becoming just one more voice in the media cacophony, with ever less to say, and saying it ever louder.

This story was updated on Tuesday, November 17 to include Sarah Palin's reaction to the Newsweek cover.

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