Newsweek’s Bitcoin Cover Was Iffy Journalism. But It Was Great Marketing.

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A blog about business and economics.
March 12 2014 3:35 PM

Newsweek’s Bitcoin Cover Was Iffy Journalism. But It Was Great Marketing.

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Television journalists in front of Satoshi Nakamoto's home in Temple City, Calif., on March 7, 2014.

Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Newsweek, you might have heard, is back in print. In the first issue of its resurrected dead-tree edition, the cover story purported to unmask bitcoin’s anonymous founder, Satoshi Nakamoto. At best, the story made an intriguing—though far from conclusive—case that the cryptocurrency was the brainchild of an introverted 64-year-old engineer in California with a deep love for model trains. At worst, it fingered the wrong man and shattered his deeply cherished privacy.

So as a piece of journalism, Newsweek’s splashy investigation wasn’t entirely a success. But as marketing, it’s something of a triumph for a brand that’s been repeatedly left for dead.

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Today’s Newsweek is a strange animal. Despite its instantly recognizable, 80-year-old name and the golden-age-of-magazines trappings of its revived print edition (perfect-bound, thick paper stock, sleek design, etc.), it is for all intents and purposes a new publication with little link to its previous incarnation, as Michael Wolff has written. When Newsweek’s current owners, IBT Media, bought it in a fire sale from Barry Diller’s IAC, they only made offers to five of its previous staffers, according to the New York Times. The current newsroom count includes about 30 writers and editors, which is to say, it’s not an organization that’s heavy on institutional memory. And while during its heyday Newsweek once claimed millions of subscribers, it only lured 248,000 unique visitors to its website in January, according to Comscore. Time, by contrast, lured 12.1 million.

In short, IBT has needed to convince the world that a) Newsweek, or some reconstituted form of it, does in fact exist, and b) that it might be worth paying for, since its long-term business model relies on subscriptions. Bringing a once-proud title back to print, more or less as a provocative and good-looking advertisement for itself, isn’t a terrible way to reach those goals, especially if you limit losses. The title’s first print run only included 70,000 copies, and Editor-in-Chief Jim Impoco told the Wall Street Journal that it could still break a profit if it sells fewer than 50,000. Even if they come out at a loss, each issue sitting on shelves at your local Barnes and Noble is essentially a tiny billboard that shouts, “We’re Newsweek! We’re still here!” The Satoshi Nakamoto cover story may have gotten people talking about Newsweek for the wrong reasons. But maybe that people were talking at all is half the battle.

Jordan Weissmann is Slate's senior business and economics correspondent.

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