"We've become a category of one,"Time magazine editor Richard Stengel crowed to the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz at the end of August. The cause for Stengel's celebration? The Washington Post Co. had unloaded Newsweek on millionaire Sidney Harman for $1 plus the assumption of $10 million in debt and other liabilities.
In his elation, Stengel avoided acknowledging that he's the king of the newsweekly mountain, but the mountain is now a molehill. Erstwhile competitor U.S. News & World Report lives primarily on the Web as a "digital magazine" of little consequence and as a guide to colleges. And while Newsweek is still kicking, the recent loss of many of its stars—Michael Isikoff, Fareed Zakaria, Evan Thomas, Mark Hosenball, Daniel Gross, Michael Hirsh, et al.—indicates that it's fading.
The twin declines of U.S. News and Newsweek have signaled to the market that the newsweekly category is of such deficient interest to readers and advertisers that it can't support more than one. We've been here before in publishing history. The large-format, general-interest magazines—the Saturday Evening Post, Look, and Life—fought a similar battle for supremacy in the 1960s. But the deaths of the Saturday Evening Post (1969) and Look (1970) didn't extend a permanent lifeline to the triumphant Life. Instead, it foretold that magazine's expiration (1972) and the end of a publishing category. If Newsweek continues its wind-down, Time could join its stablemate Life in the glue factory.
Success not only loves competition, it requires it. Hertz exists to lap Avis, Heinz lives to outpour Hunt's, Nike can't run unless it knows Adidas is chasing it, and the various TV networks define themselves in terms of their opponents. Until recently, the three newsweeklies benefited from that sort of competition. It helped them to know that their readers actively chose them instead of passively accepting whatever the newsstand dealt them. And the act of choosing made readers identify more strongly with their magazines. But if Time buries Newsweek completely, its victory will soon turn Soviet. "Ya, comrade, in People's Republic of Magazines we need only one newsweekly: Time!"
If the editor and publisher of Time were smart, they would start referring to The Week and the Economist as genuine newsweeklies and bamboozle everyone into thinking that Time remains the ne plus ultra of the genus instead of the last newsweekly standing. Of course, that will be a tough sale. Neither magazine is a true newsweekly. The Week is an aggregator of news, while the Economist is an internationalist survey of the news with a huge helping of analysis tossed in. And neither has broken 1 million in U.S. circulation, which is but one of the prices of admission into newsweeklyville.
Perhaps Time could thrive in a standalone publishing category, much as its sister publication Sports Illustrated has for all these years. But I wouldn't bet on it. Without Newsweek as a reference point, Time subscribers could no longer self-distinguish. Inside the Time newsroom, the reporters have nobody to consider their competition because the national dailies, Web sites, and TV all occupy such different news genres. Without Newsweek to beat to a story, how would Time'sreporters recognize their successes? Without Newsweek to sell ads against, how would Time's ad-sales force self-define?
Because my predictions have a stubborn tendency toward inaccuracy, I won't predict when Newsweek or Time will fold. But my instincts tell me that these two longtime foes share a life arc, and like long-married couples, the death of one will portend the death of the other.
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