Newsweek and the Gray Lady: Your Future Awaits

Ever since the news hit that Newsweek‘s new owner is combining the publication with Tina Brown’s web-based media outlet The Daily Beast, there has been a frenzy of criticism over the decision to kill Newsweek‘s website and redirect readers to The Daily Beast site instead. Felix Salmon of Reuters, for example, called it “bizarre,” and staffers quickly set up a Tumblr blog to complain about the move, which they said was a result of senior managers who “deep down, don’t understand the web.” But is killing such a bad idea? Not necessarily.

In many ways, Newsweek is facing the same kinds of wrenching decisions that other traditional media entities are — such as the New York Times, which is reorganizing its newsroom even as it prepares to launch a paywall in an attempt to produce digital revenues and/or shore up its print circulation (lacklustre numbers from News Corp.’s recently launched paywall notwithstanding). The key question is: How much emphasis will be placed on the web as opposed to print? The Washington Post, which also recently merged its newsrooms, has been criticized by some because “the print side won.” Will the print side dominate at the NYT as well? At least Newsweek‘s decision shows the web has a fighting chance of driving the agenda at the merged entity.

The main reason most critics have given for keeping the Newsweek site (apart from the fact that lots of talented people have worked hard to build it, as the Tumblr blog argues) is that it gets a lot more visitors than The Daily Beast does. According to Quantcast, Newsweek’s site gets about 7 million unique visitors a month compared with about 4 million for The Daily Beast. However, as noted in a piece at Ad Age, the visitors to Tina Brown’s site return more frequently and stay longer when they are there. Those are important metrics when it comes to reaching (and keeping) advertisers, and that’s expertise that the new Newsweek desperately needs.

On a more personal note, while I’ve only visited The Daily Beast a couple of dozen times since it launched, that is still about 25 more visits than I have ever made to — nor am I ever likely to go there. I realize that I’m not the typical online media consumer (and I’m sure the work being done by the Newsweek web staff is excellent), but there is an argument to be made that when it comes to an online audience, the Newsweek brand name may actually have a negative connotation rather than a positive one. The site won’t be disappearing entirely: Tina Brown says it will live on under its own banner, and links will obviously be redirected so that past content doesn’t disappear.

The reality is that Newsweek is a failing brand, with a failing business model — otherwise it wouldn’t have had to put itself on the block and be sold for the equivalent of $1 U.S. (plus the assumption of $40-million in debt). So why keep a website shackled to that fading name? Nostalgia? It’s true that the Daily Beast website is smaller, and that the startup is also said to be losing money. But at least its audience has been growing rather than shrinking, and regardless of Tina Brown’s print-based past, the Beast has a reputation as a smart web operator, not unlike the Huffington Post. Better to ride that pony than try to breathe life into another faded old-media brand.

The New York Times is a lot better off than Newsweek, obviously, but it has to make a similar choice: embrace the web, and all that entails, or allow the declining print side of the business to remain at the forefront and control the decision-making process? The fact that the newspaper is still considering a paywall (albeit one with openings to allow for social media, apparently) seems more like a defensive move than anything else. At least Newsweek‘s new owner is thinking differently.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Font Shop and Zarko Drincic