Why keep Newsweek on life support?

By Felix Salmon
October 18, 2012
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It’s hard to make money in journalism, and even harder to make money in print journalism. But here’s what I don’t understand: invariably, every time a print publication fails, it announces that it’s not going to die, it’s just going to “transition to an all-digital format”. Newsweek, of course, is no exception. But this is supposed to be the clear-eyed, hard-hearted world of Barry Diller:

If doesn’t work out? Move on! “Sell it, write it off, go on to the next thing,” he says.

Once upon a time, Newsweek was a license to print money; from here on in, it will be a drain and a distraction. Merging it into the Daily Beast never made a huge amount of sense, and now it’s being de-merged: instead, its journalism “will be supported by paid subscription and will be available through e-readers for both tablet and the Web”. Some of it, I guess, will be syndicated to the Daily Beast.

The chances that Newsweek will succeed as a digital-only subscription-based publication are exactly zero. If you had a team of first-rate technologists and start from scratch trying to create such a beast, you’d end up with something pretty much like Huffington — which lasted exactly five issues before bowing to the inevitable and going free. There’s no demand for a digital Newsweek, and there’s no reason, either, to carve off some chunk of the NewsBeast newsroom, call it “Newsweek”, and put its journalism onto a platform where almost nobody is going to read it.

What you’re seeing here is, basically, path-dependency. If Barry Diller were given the Newsweek brand on a plate, he would never invest in turning it into some kind of subscription-based digital-only operation. The opportunity costs alone are too big: the same money, invested in the Daily Beast or in some other property with a chance of succeeding in an increasingly social world, would surely have a much higher probability of generating positive returns.

Instead, Newsweek is hitching its fortunes to a motley group of e-readers (Zinio!), all of which are based on pretty clunky old publishing technology, and none of which have any ability to take advantage of the social web. Magazines are dying, and millions of people are buying tablets and e-readers: that much is true. But I simply don’t believe that Barry Diller and Tina Brown really think, in their heart of hearts, that they have the unique ability to build the world’s first successful subscription-based tablet-first publication where so many before them have failed. Especially not when that publication is forced to bear the legacy “Newsweek” name.

Brown, remember, killed off Newsweek.com as soon as she took control of the magazine: she decided that while the brand had some kind of meaning in print, the digital future belonged to the Daily Beast. With today’s announcement, she seems to be attempting some kind of freemium strategy: give away the Beast for free, and then charge for the, er, premium content in Newsweek. The problem being, of course, that the whole point of merging Newsweek with the Daily Beast was that in an online world where nothing is more than a click away, Newsweek content isn’t more valuable than anything else. That’s certainly not going to change after today’s layoffs.

All of which is to say that today’s announcement (the “all-digital” bit, that is, not the killing-off-print bit, which was simply inevitable) is basically an exercise in face-saving. When it comes to the optics, it’s always more respectable, more techno-visionary, to do something new and digital than it is to simply close down and write off a failed acquisition. Newsweek’s journalists have already been incorporated into the Daily Beast newsroom: shutting down the printing presses and moving on would simply be recognizing the reality of a world where neither Sidney Harmon nor his family wants to subsidize the magazine any more.

Instead, Newsweek is going to have to suffer a painful and lingering death. There’s no way that first-rate journalists are going to have any particular desire to write for this doomed and little-read publication, especially if their work is stuck behind a paywall. At the margin, it will certainly be better to work for the Beast than for Newsweek: the supposedly “premium” arm will in reality be the bit which smells like old age and irrelevance. It’s not going to work. So, really. Why even bother?

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