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Editorial Repositioning and Redesign Gone Awry

Posted on Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at 2:50 PM

Mistakes in the process caused Newsweek to plunge itself into failure.

By William Dunkerley

When a publication repositions and redesigns, you'd expect its fortunes to change for the better, right? But, that's not what happened at Newsweek. After a much-ballyhooed process of "reinventing" itself, things came to a screeching halt this past May when parent company Washington Post Company announced, "We do not see a path to continuing profitability under our management." Since then, the newsweekly has been up for sale.

What Went Wrong?

We don't know any of the inside secrets about what they did. But Newsweek did talk a lot about their repositioning and redesign. Based on those utterances, there are a number of things they seem to have done wrong.

First, it is important to understand why they were repositioning editorially. It wasn't that they wanted to gain favorability with their existing readers. Indeed, they voluntarily cut their circulation, dropped their rate base from 2.6 million to a target of 1.5 million. That would allow them to cut costs, and perhaps offer advertisers better rates. On the readership side, they wanted to keep readers who are most interested in news, have higher levels of education, and are of greater affluence. Basically, that's a sound strategy. Any advertising-driven publication, if it's going to be successful, has to do a good job of amassing a readership that will be responsive to the advertisers.

But in deciding how to reinvent themselves, Newsweek says it asked its readers. They reported in Newsweek, "Some of these changes spring from what we learned from all of you during extensive market research."

Simply put, they asked the wrong audience! As editors, we're pretty accustomed to asking our readers how our magazine is doing and what else they'd like to see. But, if a magazine is out to find a different audience, it is the opinions of that audience that should matter. It seems that Newsweek should have surveyed the prospective customers of the advertisers. That's the audience they apparently wanted to attract. That's the group for whom the editorial should have been repositioned.

What Else?

What's more, Newsweek reported, "Some of [the changes] reflect our own editorial goals and financial needs." Doesn't that sound like they were making changes to please themselves? Overall, the new editorial strategy was to include more "well argued essays." Also, it would bring more from regular columnists on "some of the most pressing issues of our time." The intent of the new editorial strategy is apparently "to be provocative, but not partisan." Outside observers characterized the move as a shift to opinion journalism. Is this what Newsweek's new target audience wanted? Or, is it just what the staff wanted?

The Result?

How did the readership market respond to the new Newsweek? A plot of Newsweek website activity shows a bump up around the time of the changes. Afterwards, things settled into a steep downward trajectory.

Aside from these apparent editorial-related missteps, there were others on the business side. I described them in an article entitled "Why Newsweek Magazine Failed." It appears in the July issue of our sister publication, STRAT (www.stratnewsletter.com).

Keep in Mind...

At any publication, a redesign can be a powerful aesthetic move. But it likely will never be anything more than skin-deep when fundamental strategic problems are ignored. Repositioning a publication is sometimes the choice to tackle those deeper issues. But efficacy may elude you if the process doesn't link advertisers with responsive buyers and isn't based on sound readership research. Newsweek seems to have failed to make its intended new audience the target of its research. Indeed, staffers may have pushed their own preferences to the forefront. That's rarely a good path to marketplace success. In the end at Newsweek, what might have been a brand-reviving move for the magazine became the death knell of the magazine as we've known it.

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

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