Is it happening again?
The bad time went by many names: the meltdown … the shakeout … the reckoning … the death of print… or sometimes, simply, “trying to freelance.”
Old-timers can still remember it—how, amid the frozen winter of 2008, the corridors of once unshakable media empires ran red with ink as the insertion orders dried up and crumbled into dust. Aeron chairs grew wet with tears. Editors were cashiered, contract writers flung overboard like chum. Soon you could see them all over Midtown: the sleek black Town Cars sitting idle on cinder blocks, rusting in the bleak unforgiving sun.
It was terrifying. The death knell—a merciless, unrelenting Twitter feed titled “The Media Is Dying”—sounded on a daily basis, sometimes hourly. Staffers watched in fear as the ghouls of HR, fingernails dabbed in scarlet, inched ever closer.
No publication was spared. The New York Times cut 100 newsroom jobs. Time Inc., cut 600 and then, unsated, came back for more. At Condé, 180 souls were lost. Issues bleached on newsstands as replacements failed to arrive. Gone were Gourmet, Cookie, Elegant Bride, Modern Bride, Radar, Vibe, Portfolio, Blender, Home, Country Home, Metropolitan Home, O at Home, Cottage Living, Southern Accents, Hallmark, Best Life, Golf for Women, Travel + Leisure Golf, Domino, Teen, Cosmo Girl, Playgirl, Quick & Simple, Men’s Vogue, PC Magazine.
Graydon Carter was reduced to waiting in line in the Condé cafeteria—Frank Gehry’s suddenly funereal Windex wonderland—an industry titan contemplating garlic-free stir-fry and make-your-own salads, trapezoidal tray in hand. Flower deliveries stopped cold. The devil could barely afford Prada.
Christmas parties were summarily canceled, dancing on graves having been deemed unseemly and expensive. Throughout the industry, a sobering sadness fell. Gone even were the days of schadenfreude; survivor’s guilt was all that remained. There was talk, endless talk, about the future of the industry and how to adapt to the changing world. There were lessons to learn.
But then, ad sales bounced back. Companies started hiring again. Mr. Carter opened Monkey Bar. Things may not have been as lavish as they’d been in the glory days, but they were better. Better was the operative word—it made it possible to forget. A collective amnesia settled in. The storm was over, and the sunshine was so very pleasant. Yes, media is a shaky industry, people would ruefully acknowledge. The future is digital, that much was obvious. iPad apps became de rigueur, but the investment was halfhearted. Websites were relaunched, then re-relaunched, then more or less ignored.
Things are fine now, people said. Let’s focus on the next deadline.
The reprieve has been sweet, but will it last? Lately there have been some uneasy rumblings, a disturbance in the Force, small but unmistakable indications that the past is catching up with us. The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s bold foray into the tablet future, laid off 50 a few months back. Condé Nast just let 60 staffers go after announcing that all its magazines needed to slash 5 percent from next year’s budget. Most had already had to cut 10 percent over the summer. Hearst is reorganizing the shelter titles, but it’s hard to take shelter anywhere when there are cracks in the foundation.
“We’ve gone through a period of treading water, but now it’s crunch time, and there will be lots more of these,” said Paul Armstrong, who writes the “The Media Is Dying” Twitter feed. Although Mr. Armstrong continued tweeting through the good times, his dispatches were mostly about innovation and other happy things. Now he is once again the angel of death.
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.