As long as words and images have shaped information and entertainment, their impact has been measured in two ways: the quality of content and the effectiveness of distribution. In the viral Internet age, a third element has become increasingly important: buzz, the ineffable ingredient that can give a semblance of success when content and distribution alone cannot.
Some venerable word enterprises have ingrained, or retro, buzz (The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, the Economist, Paris Review, Foreign Affairs), which used to be called prestige. For most other publications—and in the past decade, Web sites as well—the cultivation of buzz is a major preoccupation. Portfolio, the Condé Nast business magazine that closed last week, never got it, for all the professional skill and money that went into the startup. The Week, a smart compendium of other publications’ work, which arrived in the United States from the United Kingdom in 2001, is thought of as cool, even though it’s a decidedly old-fashioned concept. When the distinguished, staid Atlantic wanted to jazz up its image, it hired the publisher of The Week, apparently with a mandate to generate buzz in parties, public debates, and private tête-à-têtes with notables.
The revamped Newsweek, whatever else it will be, is not meant to recap what everybody already knows or thinks.
Ironically, the rise of The Week (and the circulation growth of the Economist) has come as the great American newsweeklies—Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report—have faced a collective existential challenge. U.S. News and World Report is now mainly a brand for consumer reporting and ranking higher education institutions. Time, which a year ago still said it was profitable, is almost certainly not any longer, and makes its greatest impact with special features such as “ The Time 100: The World’s Most Influential People,” in the current issue.
Now we are about to see the reinvention of Newsweek. Later in May, after a one-week hiatus, the magazine will reappear with a dramatically different look and feel (the paper stock will be heavier) focused on longer reported pieces, edgy commentary, and more photographic essays. I have been close to Newsweek editors and correspondents in various ways since the 1960s, when the magazine was, in the parlance before buzz, a “hot book” because of its superb reporting on civil rights, Washington politics, the Vietnam War, and culture. As a publisher, I have collaborated with Newsweek many times on book excerpts and joint book projects. I am decidedly not objective in wanting Newsweek to succeed in this reincarnation.
Newsweek’s top editors are demonstrably brilliant and multi-faceted. Jon Meacham has just won a Pulitzer for his biography of Andrew Jackson and is highly visible on television talk shows. The international editor, Fareed Zakaria, also writes important books, hosts a weekly CNN show, and is on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations. Their combined energies and ambitions are formidable. The magazine gradually has jettisoned the layers of writers and bureaus that were signatures of the traditional newsweekly to concentrate on a small group of in-house stars, some younger contributors with cachet and connections, and outsiders such as Christopher Hitchens, who seems to write for most magazines with aspirations for literary merit. The combination of all this intelligence and savvy is intended to attract an audience of readers much like the people who are creating the revamped publication that, whatever else it will be, is not meant to recap what everybody already knows or thinks.
The business plan includes sharply reducing the circulation and advertising rate base to about 1.5 million by January 2010 and raising the cover and subscription prices to premium levels. “Mass for us is a business that doesn’t work,” Tom Ascheim, Newsweek’s chief executive told The New York Times—“we did it for a long time, successfully, but we can’t anymore.” Significantly, the model seems to envision that continued advertising in the print publication will sustain Newsweek and other up-market magazines. The idea that the Web will be the financial mainstay seems to have gone cold lately, as advertising revenue on the Internet has slowed and everything online is still free.
This brings us back to the matter of buzz. What the editorial leaders of Newsweek do with their new format is bound to be somewhere on a spectrum from very good to terrific and the tailored business strategy will, to a large extent, depend on a broader economic revival in the country and what happens next in the frenetic pace of how information is delivered and paid for. Ultimately, the test Newsweek faces is whether a respected 76-year-old magazine can at full gallop revive itself with content and distribution updated to our times; and can that magazine capture the fascination and accompanying chatter that is so much a determinant in whether readers and advertisers will choose it when, let’s face it, there’s an awful lot of other choices around. Buzz cannot be bought (see Portfolio). It has to be conjured from some sensibility at the intersection of timing, talent, instinct, and design. Good luck, Newsweek.
Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation. Osnos is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs Books. He is vice chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House, and was a correspondent and editor at the Washington Post.