For generations, Time and Newsweek fought to define the national news agenda every Monday on the newsstand. Before the Internet, before cable news, before People magazine, what the newsweeklies put on their covers mattered.
As the American conversation has become harder to sum up in a single cover, that era seems to be ending. The Washington Post Company announced Wednesday that it would sell Newsweek, raising questions about the future of the newsweekly, first published 77 years ago.
Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive of the Washington Post Company, said in an interview that the decision was purely economic.
“I did not want to do this, but it is a business,” he said. The magazine would lose money in 2010, he said, and “we don’t see a sustained path to profitability for Newsweek.”
The move comes as companies have been sloughing off and revamping other mass magazines. TV Guide was sold for $1 to a private equity firm; Businessweek was sold for $5 million in cash to Bloomberg L.P.; and Reader’s Digest was given an editorial overhaul as it slashed circulation.
The circulations of Time and Newsweek now stand about where they were in 1966, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
“Those magazines had much more stature in those days,” said Edward Kosner, who began at Newsweek in 1963 and was its editor in the late 1970s. “It was really important what was on the cover of Newsweek and what was on the cover of Time because it was what passed for the national press. They helped set the agenda; they helped make reputations.”
“The era of mass is over, in some respect,” said Charles Whitaker, research chairman in magazine journalism at the Northwestern University school of journalism. “The newsweeklies, for so long, have tried to be all things to all people, and that’s just not going to cut it in this highly niche, politically polarized, media-stratified environment that we live in today.”
Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s editor since 2006, said the announcement was not a surprise. “In the sense that we are all in an existential crisis, it is not what I would call a stunning decision,” he said in an interview. “You would have to have been hopelessly Pollyanna-ish not to have suspected that there were fundamental shifts ahead.”
But, he said, “I decline to accept that Newsweek in some form does not have a role to play going forward.”
Potential bidders were unclear. Bloomberg L.P., which just bought Businessweek, was not exploring a purchase, said a spokeswoman, Judith Czelusniak. Mr. Meacham said that he was considering putting together investors to buy the magazine, and that he had received voicemail messages from two billionaires after the sale was announced.
Newsweek had operating losses of $28.1 million in 2009, 82.5 percent higher than the previous year’s loss of $15.4 million. Its revenue declined 27.2 percent, to $165.5 million in 2009, from $227.4 million in 2008, hurt by diminished advertising and subscription revenue.
Started in 1933, Newsweek was acquired by The Washington Post in 1961 after Benjamin C. Bradlee, then a Newsweek editor and later executive editor of The Post, pitched the Post president Philip L. Graham on it.
Newsweek under The Post became a political counterweight to the Republicanism of Time under Henry Luce. While Time took a conservative stance on the Vietnam War and American culture, Newsweek ran more youth oriented covers on the war, civil rights and pop culture stars like the Beatles (though “musically they are a near disaster,” the magazine said).
Mr. Kosner, the former editor, recalled weekly bouts of “controlled anxiety” over what Time would put on its cover.
“On Monday mornings, on the advertising page of The Times, Time and Newsweek took out sort of quarter-page ads that showed the cover and everyone turned to that page on Monday mornings to see what each of them had done,” Mr. Kosner said.
Slowly, though, cable news programs grew in number and popularity, and the instant news of the Internet rendered weekly summaries stale almost by definition. And the notion of a cultural common ground that Americans could all share was changing.
Newsweek’s circulation was 3.14 million in the first half of 2000. By the second half of 2009, that dropped to 1.97 million. Time’s circulation declined from 4.07 million to 3.33 million in the same period. U.S. News & World Report, the also-ran newsweekly, abandoned its weekly publication schedule in 2008 to become monthly.
Meanwhile, The Economist, which offered British-accented reports on business and economic news, and The Week, an unabashedly middle-brow summary of the weekly news that began publishing in the United States in 2001, were on the rise.
Both Time and Newsweek were aggressively redesigned. Time, in 2007, changed its publication date from Monday to Friday and added more analysis. Newsweek, in 2009, more or less ceased original reporting about the week’s events, and instead ran essays from columnists like Fareed Zakaria and opinionated analyses.
Mr. Whitaker of Northwestern said that editorially, the magazines’ reinventions had not worked well. “I don’t think Time and Newsweek, in this transformation, had enough of a distinct voice to capture the fancy of anyone in this incredibly polarized political environment,” he said.
Richard Stengel, the managing editor of Time, took issue with Mr. Whitaker’s characterization.
“Our audience is bigger than the cable audiences,” he said. “What we have embraced is point-of-view journalism.”
Mr. Stengel said that Time was “very profitable last year, and we will be even more profitable this year.”
Both magazines increased their prices: Newsweek now sells for $5.95 on the newsstand, and Time for $4.95. However, subscribers pay only about 50 cents a copy for either magazine.
Both also lowered the circulation guaranteed to advertisers: Time guarantees a 3.25 million circulation, and Newsweek just 1.5 million.
In 2009, as the advertising slump hit magazines, Newsweek’s ad pages fell 25.9 percent, about average for the industry, while Time’s fared better, dropping 17.4 percent.
“The big factor is just the eroding advertising base — the loss of automotive, financial, technology advertising,” said George Janson, managing partner for the media-buying unit GroupM Print. “It’s not going to go back to where it was anytime soon.” And, he said, many advertisers prefer to run ads in niche publications, not broad ones.
“There are increasing challenges to being a single magazine company, particularly one that is targeted toward a general-interest area,” said Jonathan A. Knee, who oversaw the sale of Businessweek as senior managing director at Evercore Partners.
But Mr. Meacham said that national coherence was still a worthwhile goal.
“I would argue the fragmentation in media makes a place like Newsweek even more important,” Mr. Meacham said. “There are not that many common denominators left.”