3Qs: Newsweek parts with print

Declining advertising sales, changing technologies and millions in debt led Newsweek to announce earlier this month that the 80-year-old magazine will cease print production and adopt an all-digital format starting in 2013. We asked Jeff Howe, assistant professor of journalism in the College of Arts, Media and Design, to comment on the changing landscape of media consumption and the pros and cons of discontinuing print editions.

Newsweek says that this shift is necessary in order to counteract the challenges of print advertising. What other reasons would a print publication have for shifting to digital news production?

Print carries with it a range of overhead costs that make it far more expensive than digital news production. Advertising revenue has to cover not only overhead costs, but also paper, ink and press time — all of which are considerable expenses that led to the company’s $47 million debt. As readers continue to migrate to screens, these costs become unjustifiable.

Print also operates on a completely different rhythm editorially, as the whole staff disappears in its magic workshop to produce a polished gem every week. Digital news is more like an open kitchen restaurant, where readers can see you working and something hot is always being served.

What does a magazine risk by abandoning print for an all-digital format?

Print revenues, for one thing. No one’s keeping its print version for the sake of nostalgia. Online advertising doesn’t make anywhere close to the amount of money print did in its heyday. So Newsweek can cut expenses by discontinuing print, but that will also cut revenue.

It’s important, however, not to read too much of a “print vs. digital” parable here. For those of us in the business, we’ve been expecting this for years. The economics of the weekly magazine have been terrible since the middle of the last decade. US News and World Report shuttered its weekly operation in 2008. TIME has survived largely because it’s backed by the resources of TIME Inc., the country’s largest magazine publisher. Many magazines — Wired, the New Yorker, the Economist — have managed to thrive in the digital era. They, too, will discontinue their print editions at some point, but unlike Newsweek, it will be after they’ve already made a successful transition to digital. Newsweek has tried to do this, but the brand just isn’t as powerful online.

Forty-four percent of U.S. adults now own a smartphone. In what ways has mobile technology created new opportunities and challenges for magazine publishers?

Smartphones are important. Tablets are important. The computer is, as an information delivery platform, important but perhaps in decline. Other, even more intuitive mechanisms for nonfiction storytelling will evolve in coming years. Mobile offers not only new opportunities for the “news experience,” but also has been a platform for a more interactive relationship with readers. Now they can quickly contribute to the coverage of events, as we first saw in the London train bombings, and we’ve seen again with every major natural or manmade calamity since. But all of these platforms also present serious business challenges; it’s not at all clear what the business model for delivering information over them will be, once they’re no longer subsidized by print revenues.