Five things a new owner could do to revitalize the Newsweek brand

According to a report in Variety magazine, as well as a leaked internal memo, media mogul Barry Diller’s IAC is looking to unload its struggling Newsweek title to anyone who is willing to take it on — provided they want to absorb its substantial liabilities, of course. Diller himself acquired the magazine as part of a merger with The Daily Beast in 2010, and has since described this as a “fool’s errand.” Not exactly a shining recommendation to a would-be buyer, and there are many who believe that Newsweek‘s brand is irreparably damaged. But is it? Or could it be reinvented for a real-time web era?

Admittedly, this would be a king-size task, and may even be impossible. Newsweek was already a fairly weak player in the news-magazine game even before it was sold by its previous owner, the Washington Post, to Sidney Harman for the princely sum of $1. There were plenty of sceptics when it came to Diller’s plan to merge the title with Tina Brown’s online-only Daily Beast (which isn’t part of the current sale), and those sceptics have been proven right.

Newsweek tried to stem the bleeding by shutting down its print operations, and then embarked on a fairly predictable revenue grab by announcing a paywall, but it is still struggling. According to Variety, the magazine’s traffic has declined sharply and Diller’s media unit reported a loss in the latest quarter of $8.8 million.

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What purpose does a newsmagazine serve?

One of the biggest questions for Newsweek — and even for its more successful counterparts such as Time magazine, which is also reported to be on the block and searching in vain for potential buyers — boils down to this: What does the term “newsmagazine” even mean any more? When news moved at a slower pace and the number of mainstream outlets could be counted on the fingers of one hand, the idea of a weekly magazine that collected and interpreted the major news stories actually made some sense. But not now — not when even a daily newspaper like the Washington Post seems antiquated.

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So what any new owner of Newsweek would have to do — whether it’s Reuters, as some have suggested, or someone else such as Yahoo (s yhoo), whose CEO has been on an acquisition spree of late — is reinvent what it means to be a newsmagazine in the age of Twitter and blogs and aggregators like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post (s aol). Is that even possible? I don’t really know. But what follows are a few things any new owner might want to try if they really intend to keep the brand alive and try to make it relevant again.

Forget about the paywall for now: Newsweek doesn’t even seem to have enough content that people are willing to read for nothing, let alone pay for. Until it changes that perception, a paywall is totally the wrong strategy. By building up a reputation for smart content of all kinds — whether it’s short news items or longform analytical pieces — Newsweek could create enough demand that it might then be able to launch some kind of “Pro” content offering (as the Atlantic has hinted it may), but that takes time.

Out-aggregate the aggregators: One of the things any modern news entity has to compete with is the sheer quantity of aggregated or “curated” news, whether it’s briefs that appear on The Huffington Post or BuzzFeed, or posts that appear on Facebook (s fb) and Twitter and Google News (s goog), which may give readers as much as they want to know about a topic. That’s what the front part of a magazine like Newsweek used to do as well, and it served a purpose. There’s no reason why it couldn’t do that again for the web.

Go deep on a few topics: In the same way that mass-market, general-interest newspapers serve less of a purpose than they used to before the web came along, so do broad, mass-market newsmagazines who try to cover everything. Newsweek should choose one or two topics to double-down on — such as politics, or business, or social issues — and devote all its energies to those. It could even set up separate portals for each, as The Atlantic has done with Atlantic Cities or Quartz.

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Develop some strong voices: One of the reasons why the departure of writers like Andrew Sullivan (who quit The Daily Beast to launch Daily Dish) is such a big deal is that their passion and personal take on topics is what draws a lot of readers. In an age where all media is becoming social (whether it wants to or not), a personal voice is worth more than dozens of unsigned pieces of reportage. Newsweek needs to either develop or buy some strong personalities.

Go big on mobile: Having an iPad app isn’t enough any more, not if you want to stand out and grab new mobile users. Newsweek could make a bold move and dump its apps altogether and go native HTML instead, the way the Financial Times has, and use a smart “responsive” design like Atlantic Media’s Quartz. Or it could offer a news aggregation service designed specifically for mobile, the way Trinity Mirror is trying to do with its new Us vs. Th3m offering. At this point, anything would be an improvement.

It’s entirely possible that even if a new owner tried all of these suggestions, Newsweek might still fail. At this point, the name and brand of the magazine could be totally beyond saving. But if someone other than Barry Diller has the resources to try and revitalize it, it would be one of the biggest success stories since David Bradley took over The Atlantic and made it a poster child for how to turn around a century-old title.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / mariocigic