Sunday, May 04, 2008

Why The Week is gaining on Time and Newsweek

Why The Week is gaining on Time and Newsweek
By Jon Friedman, MarketWatch

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Watch your back, Time and Newsweek.
The Week is here to stay.

This upstart magazine publishes a compilation of the week's biggest news events, culled from media outlets all over the world. Like many mainstream media people, I wasn't bowled over when it was launched in April 2001. It looked busier than a Bloomberg TV screen and seemed to be filled with mostly quick-hitting headlines.

But gradually, The Week grew on me, as it has caught on with the public. Its circulation is now a robust 500,000. Business travelers, a conspicuous segment of the busy and affluent readers targeted by The Week, appreciate the compact way that it presents the news. Watch related video.

These days, The Week, headed by its chairman, Felix Dennis, is also looking strong partly because of troubles at the headquarters of its primary rivals.

When I perused Time's latest issue, I wondered whether the 56-page edition was the smallest one in its modern history. (Time also had the chutzpah to carry a cover blurb for Joe Klein's column proclaiming: "The Incredible Shrinking Democrats.")

Speaking of Newsweek, its employees' hot parlor game is asking one another, "Did you take the buyout?" Enough said on the state of morale at the Washington Post Co.'s

The Week is gaining on its established rivals by subscribing to the most basic tenet in business: Give people what they want.

"The Week is written by a method," said General Manager Steven Kotok. "In 2001, we sat down and asked ourselves, 'What does a busy person want to read?'"

That planning is paying off. The magazine has built a strong readership "during a time when the category showed a net circulation decline," said Kotok. On the ad front, "The Week has grown and is barely down [in the first quarter], while nearly all competitors are down double-digits or worse."

What's the tipping point?
"It's about utility, not achieving an apotheosis of beautiful journalism," he said. "If you write for the reader, you'll always have a job."

That faint sound you hear right now is a thousand establishment journalists reaching for their Maalox. What Kotok brags about is exactly what unnerves many pundits about The Week. They see it as something journalistically unholy because, they conclude, it dumbs down the news to fit a business model.

If this seems familiar to you, merely substitute the words "USA Today" for "The Week." Since its founding in 1982, Gannett Co.'s USA Today has been criticized for making news more palatable to a mass audience who wants the publication to do its thinking for it.
Plus, the naysayers fret, The Week utterly disdains traditional tenets of the craft such as . . . original reporting.

The Week's Kotok, an affable fellow who seems to have a keen appreciation for great writing, makes no apologies. When he and I talked over lunch, he mentioned my recent series on the Economist. Read the column.

"I would cry if the Economist closed," Kotok said. "But The Week performs a different function. The Economist hears everything and gives you one perspective. The Week gives you all perspectives."

Kotok subsequently sent me an email that further points to The Week's DNA:
"My feeling is that The Week starts with what a busy, sophisticated person needs to be well-informed -- which we believe is multiple perspectives on today's current events. And we keep it to just that, and no more, because people today are busy. And because of our reader focus, our readers read every issue. The Economist and New Yorker put in all the content they think is important; in other words, they don't start with the reader's needs."

Easy entry
"We're a populist magazine," he explained. "We really are about the reader. The New Yorker is great to read and rightfully proud of great journalism -- but for its own sake."
The Week has a populist bent throughout its structure, too. "When I was 20, I had 50 people working for me," Kotok, 37, said of his entrepreneurial roots. In St. Paul, Minn., he started by managing a falafel shop and built it up to be a Midwest regional wholesale food business.

"After that, nothing seems hard," he said. "If I get a resume from a college dropout who has an achievement record, he or she definitely will get an interview. I want to hire someone who is hungry, has raw talent and business sense."

To understand where Time and Newsweek appear to have gone wrong with their audiences, you can find an answer in the April 25 issue of The Week itself.

On page 21, it quotes esteemed journalist Herbert Bayard Swope, writing in the Naples (Fla.) Daily News: "I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure -- which is: 'Try to please everybody.'"

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