First They Came for Newsweek: Is a Second Media Winter On the Way?

Last week, Tina Brown announced that Newsweek would cease printing a physical magazine in December. The cracks are getting harder and harder to ignore.

“We are transitioning Newsweek, not saying goodbye to it,” Ms. Brown wrote in a Daily Beast post. Transitioning … Sounds painless, doesn’t it? Like shedding one’s corporeal vessel and just floating up to the clouds …

“We remain committed to Newsweek and to the journalism that it represents,” she continued, reassuringly. “This decision is not about the quality of the brand or the journalism—that is as powerful as ever. It is about the challenging economics of print publishing and distribution.”

But had anybody really learned anything in the intervening years? Newsweek and the Daily Beast merged in 2010—a marriage of convenience that was never very convenient at all.

Newsweek struggled during the two years under Ms. Brown. There were misfires like September’s “Muslim Rage” cover, the “First Gay President” cover and the “crazy eyes Bachman cover,” and fan fiction imagining Princess Diana alive at 50. Just last week, a six-page cover article asserted that heaven is indeed real. The strategy might have gotten the magazine some publicity—indeed, mocking the Newsweek cover became something of a media sport—but it didn’t sell enough copies of a magazine that relied almost entirely on subscriptions. Meanwhile, the Daily Beast began to suffer, becoming just another good-enough aggregator that spent an awful lot of time covering the royal family. “Read This, Skip That” was the Beast’s motto. Over time, we began to skip it all.

Try as Ms. Brown did to put an upbeat spin on the news that there would be no more Newsweek, she could not avoid the unavoidable fact that there wasn’t room or money for all her employees in the exciting digital future.

“Regrettably we anticipate staff reductions and the streamlining of our editorial and business operations both here in the U.S. and internationally,” she wrote.

Now, once again, there is fear and paranoia and silence.

Hold onto your K-Cups; it’s probably just beginning.

“We are certainly going to see more of this,” said Reed Phillips, managing partner and co-founder of DeSilva & Phillips, a media banking firm. “It’s a product of the downturn and the transition to digital. But most publications will transition in a more gradual way.”

The hope, of course, is that magazines will figure out how to bring in revenues with digital before they have to kill print. But sources working on the digital side at various media companies privately express doubt that there is really a substantial commitment to apps and websites, despite the easy enthusiasm.

“Magazines can ‘survive’ by going all-digital, but, like Newsweek,will find that they can only justify a small staff, given far reduced revenues,” said Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst. “It’s a downward spiral.”

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and iPad apps don’t monetize themselves.

“Time is running out faster on the print products than magazine publishers anticipated, and their tablet products, readers and advertisers aren’t yet ready to replace that print,” Mr. Doctor added. Thanks, Doc.

Newsweek Global may well work. It probably won’t. But either way, the magazine industry should take note. Unless the Mayans were right about 2012, there probably isn’t much time.