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What death of Newsweek print means for Economist and Time

The foretold closing down of the iconic Newsweek weekly news magazine after 80 years, the last two years under the ownership of digital upstart The Daily Beast, holds warning signals and lessons for the future of many Indian magazines and newspapers struggling to survive or just pretending to have a jolly good life with all the scams and original and duplicate Kejriwalas swirling round.

The winding up of Newsweek print, (by 31 December) which even ten years back was seen as a great asset and impregnable fortress of journalism, shows how suddenly things can change. So will Time magazine and Economist be next?

Time magazine is also not in a good shape. The reason, as a senior editor of Time magazine told this reporter three months back, is that since the genre (news and current affairs as weekly print editions) is being over-run by digital, which advertiser would love to put money into that genre in print? That is where the danger lies. No advertiser in the US for instance will be looking to put his product on a news weekly print genre. It is not a magazine which died with Newsweek. It is that unique thing called the capsuling of news founded and perfected by Time magazine founder Henry Luce and the Reader’s Digest founder, Dewitt Wallace which is finished.

 What death of Newsweek print means for Economist and Time

With an intended pun on the famous American weekly, the message is clear: Time to change.

So it makes Times survival also in doubt. Time magazine’s role in the last few years has been to try to make the average American readers aware of two things: China and Islam. Covers on Islam and China are the norms now and the US as a land of opportunities set, the staple diet of many magazines is no longer a subject. So in terms of content both Time and Newsweek have been struggling to find a niche. Newsweek’s coverage of Afghanistan has been creditable with some sources in the Taliban too giving them stories of operations. But then there is a limit of how much excitement the bombing of Helmand province can cause in Seattle or how many on New York’s fashion streets will sit down to see pictures of Gadaffi’s last moments on a printed page.

With this Tina Brown, the darling of print journalism in the West has closed down two big print ventures, Talk which she founded and now Newsweek. The new anti-editors are the big thing. Success in the print world now is calculated on how many mags you close down. When you join as editor you are told to keep the circulation down. The rest is digital.

In Britain, tradition is holding out against technology. How long no one can say. The Guardian too as recent figures show is in trouble.

Certain drastic and unimagined things have happened over the last five years, taking print journalism to the brink.

The high value, on-the–move reader , the target audience of many news magazines, is now getting used to global content. Thanks of course to technology and the increasing number of on-the-move imbibers of news, the print format makes little sense. He prefers the digital. Tina Brown who did what was expected of her by turning Newsweek into full digital format, said that she was surprised to see how many people worldwide read The Daily Beast, which she also edits, in India and other corners of the world. The Daily Beast, like Huffington Post has been growing by leaps and bounds and there are 70 million unique visitors to the DB site, up from 13 million just two years ago. That is the reader which now Tina Brown in targeting. The American reader of print will have to fend for himself. Welcome the global audience. Globalise the local story.

For Time as for Newsweek, it does not make sense anymore to run a print operation. Both have segued into the digital world and their ipad apps are as good and value added, 38 percent of people in the US access content digitally. Newsweek according to Tina Brown spent 43 million dollars a year in print production and distribution. That will be a huge cost cutting for Brown. Time will also now follow suit in a year or too, since it doesn’t make sense for them to be in print any more after the exit of Newsweek into a future which is a bit dicey but can be handled.

In India it takes about 10 minutes to download the Time magazine to the ipad. It is free for those who are print subscribers like this writer. So even though I will get the print edition on Tuesday I can download the global or Asian edition on Sunday or Monday for free (not counting internet charges which are minimal.) which is what I did in the case of the Mammohan Singh issue and the Aamir Khan cover. You can also then figure out what the US edition has on the cover and take that instead.

Apps have embedded videos, audio interviews, back issues and special issues all of which a print edition cannot match. Also the app now replicates the turning of a page, all pages appear at thumbnails on the bottom which you can scroll, the swish sound can be heard as you turn pages fast, and there are audio of live events. A print mag which a TV station can embed clips into, with every story.

No print magazine in India has grown substantially to make print a viable option anymore. Most of the biggies have pulled out of ABC so that circulation drop is not detected and so they survive on lies and half truths to get advertising. The back cover and double spread ads no longer excite the producer of high end products for whom television offers huge and cheaper opportunities. The Newspaper jacket is the only big advertising gimmick which the printed world now has to offer. The rest is all passé. Just a replaying of habit.

Distribution cost in India is about 40 percent and is a logistic nightmare for many magazine salespeople. All this is solved by going digital. The readership you lose in India is gained elsewhere. Though various magazines have digital versions, they are not pushed for fear of print version collapsing. Also various cheap editions for one rupee and five rupees can be put on various platforms and even low end phones. Magzter, the one-stop magazine vendor on the ipad has various Indian magazines already up for sale.

In the near future, India Today, Outlook and Week, will have no option but to scale down print circulation. The problem here in India is that there is substantially less advertising available now for digital versions with a lot of educating still left to do. The revenue of the internet version of a newspaper gets in one year, might in some cases equal the advertising that the print edition gets in two or three days. That though, maybe changing fast with more online version running focused ad teams.

In India though newspaper owners, like the owners of any industry on the decline have a habit of covering their head in the sand, blissfully unaware or defiantly pretending ostrich-like, till it is too late. How many of the 25 daily English newspapers available in Delhi make even marginal profit and how many will survive?

With an intended pun on the famous American weekly, the message is clear: Time to change.

Binoo K John was VP for digital acquisition for e-reader company.

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Updated Date: Oct 19, 2012 13:47:29 IST