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Lessons from Newsweek's Failures

Posted on Monday, October 29, 2012 at 7:18 PM

Newsweek magazine seems not to have learned from its mistakes. But now you can...

By William Dunkerley

The three-strikes-you're-out notion isn't stopping Newsweek. In January 2013, the venerable news magazine will move on to Plan D, leaving three unsuccessful resuscitation attempts in its wake.

Is that a smart move? It's hard to know for sure. But there doesn't seem to be a lot of wisdom that suggests that Plan D will succeed. It may be just another sorry attempt in a string of failures.

Plan A

The first resuscitation try was aimed at stemming financial losses. They were considerable. We presented a detailed analysis of this failed plan in the July 2010 issue of STRAT. Here's what did that plan in:

First, the management team targeted the wrong audience. They went after the kind of readers the editors wanted to have instead of the ones advertisers wanted. That's some strategy for a magazine suffering from declining ad revenues, isn't it?

Second, they revamped the magazine visually and editorially, but they used an untested theory when choosing their direction. In the end, they got a magazine that the editors liked better, but that was not a good choice for attracting an audience that would satisfy the advertisers.

Third, they failed to properly analyze why their ad sales were dropping. So, in the end, they really failed to do anything about the key problem. In the meantime, they wasted a lot of time and money on strategically frivolous activities.

When Newsweek's then owner, The Washington Post Company, finally appreciated the depth of Newsweek management's failure, they decided to stop the nonsense. They sold the publication to consumer electronics businessman Sidney Harman for $1.

Plan B

Harman said he wanted to transition the magazine into "a thriving operation in print, mobile, and digital worlds." But according to reports, after six months searching, he couldn't find a senior editor willing to share his vision and take on the challenge. So Harman abandoned his quest to make Newsweek a solo success and signed a deal to merge with the Daily Beast.

Plan C

Daily Beast editor Tina Brown was to chart the direction of the magazine. Apparently, she too sought to implement untested strategies for reshaping Newsweek's content. Did she repeat the same mistakes that were made by the Plan A crowd? It could be. Her resuscitation effort went bust, too. She said the main problem was that it cost too much to print and distribute the magazine. To her, the obvious move was to cut those expenses and move forward digitally. There's nary a model for success in trying that with an advertising-driven magazine. Maybe she'll be a trendsetter. Or maybe just another failure. Time will tell.

3 Lessons from This All

Lesson 1: Don't revamp a magazine according to your own tastes and interests. Design it to suit the tastes and interests of the readers you need to attract. If you need ad revenue to succeed, you've got to have an editorial product that will aggregate audiences that will be good buyers for the advertisers.

Lesson 2: Don't write off print. There are many success stories showing magazines having great success in print. Advertising Age magazine reported on the success of HGTV magazine: "After two test issues last fall and solid performance in the winter -- the first issue went back to print when demand surpassed projections -- Hearst made HGTV magazine an 'official' launch with the June/July issue. It now guarantees advertisers an average paid circulation of 450,000 copies but is handily overdelivering, with a subscription file already above 600,000. It plans to increase its rate base to 700,000 next January and to 800,000 next July, putting its circulation in striking distance of some long established titles." So much for the print is dead theories.

Lesson 3: Find out what it is you could provide readers for which print is uniquely suited. Don't try to use the historical magazine model. These days a print magazine may not be most successful when trying to be the be-all of the readers' experience. HGTV magazine pairs print with a cable TV channel. Perhaps you can pair your print magazine with some sort of online offering. But use print so that the printed product contributes something to the readers' experience that it is uniquely suited for. Each component of the readers' experience should play upon its strong points in delivering something that readers will truly value.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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