The past two decades have not been kind to legacy media outlets, but they’ve been especially brutal for news weeklies — magazines that were specifically designed to summarize each week’s news in an easily digestible format.
Time, which was recently purchased by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff for $190 million, perfectly exemplifies the decline for this genre of magazine. In 1997, Time boasted a print circulation of over 4 million copies; these days its circulation hovers around 2 million. Over that same period, it went from generating $100 million in profits to just $33 million now. It’s projected to generate $36 million in digital revenue this year, which may sound impressive until you consider that Huffington Post was pulling in around the same amount all the way back in 2011 when AOL bought it.
In some ways, Time has been the most fortunate of the news weeklies. Newsweek, which was founded by an early Time editor and was its chief competitor for several decades, is a shell of its former self. After being offloaded by The Washington Post Co. for $1 in 2010, it continued to hemorrhage subscribers until, in 2012, it finally ceased print distribution. It resumed printing new issues after getting acquired by IBT Media, only for it to later become enmeshed in its new parent company’s shady business practices. US News & World Report, another news weekly that once boasted millions of subscribers, shut down all its bureaus, went through several rounds of layoffs, and ceased printing new issues, all by 2010.
Why are news weeklies facing such tough times? Because the very thing that made them so successful — their ability to overcome geographical boundaries and publish a concise aggregation of national news — was completely supplanted after the widespread adoption of the internet. In fact, many of the accusations lodged against today’s news aggregators — that they profit off the cheap redistribution of expensive news gathering — were once directed at Time itself.
The initial insight of Henry Luce and Briton Hadden, who grew close while writing for The Yale Daily News, was that newspapers in the early 20th century, because of the geographical limits of print distribution, were heavily geared toward local news and poorly equipped to keep readers informed of the national landscape. “People in America are, for the most part, poorly informed,” stated an early prospectus for what would eventually become Time. A person living in Seattle didn’t have access to the important stories reported in, say, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and vice versa. Time would solve this problem by rounding up the biggest news events and delivering them in 200-word snippets. Each issue could be absorbed in under an hour.
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In fact, to create the earliest issues of Time, its editors would literally cut articles out of newspapers and lay them out on the floor in the order they would appear in the magazine. “We were groping toward . . . the practice,” Luce was reported as saying, “by actually chopping up The New York Times, and reorganizing [it] on a weekly basis, and then trying to put these stories together.” Time’s reporters, in roles that call to mind the job descriptions of future Huffington Post and Gawker staff writers, were charged with summarizing these newspaper articles in pithy, easily digestible paragraphs.
Time, as its early promotions made clear, was named after the precious commodity the magazine would save. As documented in Alan Brinkley’s wonderful biography of Luce, this idea was communicated in a promotional postcard mailed to potential subscribers:
It featured a character named “Busy Man” sitting disconsolately in his living room surrounded by discarded newspapers. “I bought this mass of printed matter to find out what is going on in the world,” he complains, “but it’s no use! I am not abreast of the news in anything outside of my business.” His wife, “Busy Woman,” agrees. A knock on the door signals the arrival of a third character, “TIME,” who presents to them “a new idea in journalism. In my twenty-six pages is every fact of significance in all those newspapers and periodicals on your floor.”
Luce and Hadden had hit on a genuine consumer need, and the subsequent blockbuster success of Time led to the creation of one of the world’s first massive media conglomerates. Luce, after taking sole ownership of Time Inc in the wake of Hadden’s early death, would become one of the most powerful men in the world, befriended by heads of state and other influential newsmakers.
But not everyone was happy with Time’s approach to curation. Former Harvard president Charles W. Eliot described the approach of aggregating the news as “disgusting and disgraceful.” Newspaper publishers complained that Time was simply taking the expensive reporting conducted by their own writers and repackaging it. Others pointed out that, by reducing stories to 200-word snippets, the magazine was doing little to add depth of knowledge on otherwise complicated subjects. “Often Luce’s journalism offered little but the illusion of information,” as one modern-day critic put it.
Flash forward to today, and you see many of the same complaints launched at modern aggregators of news and information. The internet, by offering a mode of free distribution, sprouted millions of news curators, virtually eliminating the news weekly’s core purpose. Publications like Newsweek and Time became anachronisms, leftover remnants of a media ecosystem that was able to generate huge profit margins because of a scarcity of information and geographical barriers. We no longer need summaries of the most important Richmond Times Dispatch stories; we can simply click on a Twitter link and read the source material.
Ironically, it’s US News & World Report, which placed a distant third to Newsweek and Time during the pre-internet era, that’s adapted best to the new economics of the web (disclosure: I once worked as an assistant managing editor at US News). After closing down its print operations, it eventually pivoted to a data services business model. Building on its influential college rankings, it launched new annual rankings for law schools, hospitals, doctors, diets, and travel destinations. It now has diversified revenue streams that include licensing, conferences, sponsorships, and affiliate marketing. Its newsroom is now tiny — it recently shut down its opinion section and laid off its staff — but it’s since returned to what I’ve been told is healthy profitability.
So is there any chance that Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff will pull a Jeff Bezos and turn Time’s fortunes around, much in the same way that Bezos did for The Washington Post? We can only wait and see. But if he does, he won’t do it by continuing Luce’s practice of summarizing “every magazine and newspaper of note in the world.” The era of insanely profitable news aggregation is over. He may have to open up his wallet and actually pay for some original content.
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As a longtime journalist who’s written for national publications including US News & World Report, The Atlantic…