Skip to Content View Previous Reports

Content Analysis

Content Analysis

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The story of news magazine content in 2004 is a story of shifting and positioning, and of new players filling what many consider a void left by the big two, Time and Newsweek.
The trend toward a softer, broader content mix at Time and Newsweek (noted in last year’s report), continued in 2004, even with a war and a hard-fought presidential election campaign. U.S. News and World Report, meanwhile, continued to position itself as the more conventional “hard-news” alternative inside the traditional news weekly format. As we will see in the section on economics, though, the success of that approach is uncertain.

What stood out in 2004 was that other players in the news magazine sector, not normally viewed as news weeklies, took a more significant role in breaking news, in identifying trends, in doing major investigative work and in fulfilling the role that Time and Newsweek have historically played in American political culture. It is a role that those two may, to a degree, have given up.

Magazines that until recently were not looked to for hard news – the New Yorker, the Atlantic and even GQ – have done two things to alter the news magazine market and readers’ expectations. They have suggested that news doesn’t belong to the news weeklies alone, and they have shown that news doesn’t have to be covered in the way the traditional news weeklies do it.

On its face, the shifts within the news genre can be seen in things like Seymour Hersh’s topical investigative pieces on Iraq in the New Yorker, in the rapid growth in the U.S. of The Economist and in the political columns of Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair’s editor, Graydon Carter, also personally waded into politics in 2004 with his book “What We’ve Lost,” a sharp critique of the Bush administration.

To get a more complete sense of how the content of some of these magazines has changed, we decided to examine more closely two of the most successful non-traditional magazines, judging from circulation numbers: The New Yorker and The Economist.
There are large differences between the two, of course. The New Yorker, with a literary bent – short stories and poetry appear in its pages – and heavy cultural content, serves as a kind of supplement to traditional news coverage. The Economist, based in London, is closer to a traditional survey of the week’s news, though with an emphasis on business and financial news. But over the last 15 years, both have reworked their content in different ways to recast themselves more along the lines of American news magazines. The New Yorker has become more topical. The Economist has become more American in focus.

At the same time, the two magazines share some characteristics. Pictures appear, but are not central to coverage. A premium is placed on writing, though the Economist has a uniform authorial voice and no bylines, while The New Yorker allows each writer his or her own style and has bylines even on its Talk of the Town shorts. And while the main issue or story of the week is discussed in both (for The New Yorker often in the Talk of the Town section) both also reach beyond the hot topic of the day to give a broader look at the news. The Economist does this by running many stories on many different issues around the world. The New Yorker delves deeply into one or two subjects in lengthy stories that are often off the dominant news topic of the week.

The two magazines also fly in the face of the current media trend of coalescing around one or two issues or stories. While both are topical, they do not let others set their news agenda for them. They are more concerned with setting their own priorities for coverage – working off their own ideas of what’s important – than they are with joining someone else’s conversation. As we will show in the audience section, the combination of new approaches with a traditional feel also seems to be yielding readers, or at least subscriptions.

The New Yorker

There is no question within the magazine industry that the content of The New Yorker has changed in the last 15 years.

The conventional wisdom about the magazine is that Editor Tina Brown upon her arrival in 1992 revitalized it by broadening the topics it covered into areas it once shunned. It was early in Brown’s reign that the magazine published its treatise on Hillary Rodham Clinton and Malcolm Gladwell did his well-regarded soft-social-science-trend reportage, his “Tipping Point” piece being a prime example. But over time some felt that Brown trivialized the content of a once great magazine by focusing too much on celebrity. Often cited by critics are the “women’s issue,” which Roseanne Barr was brought in to “guest edit,” and an increase in celebrity profiles (Sharon Stone, John Travolta). Brown’s tenure also featured the magazine’s heavy coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, including “An Incendiary Defense,” the Jeffrey Toobin article that disclosed the Simpson defense’s strategy of arguing that the L.A. Police Department had framed the former football star. The article made news, but critics thought it did so at the expense of the magazine’s being used by the defense team.

The current editor, David Remnick, took the reins in 1998. He has since married the hipper coverage with the more traditional tone of the magazine, and has put his own stamp on the periodical. Along with its traditional focus on culture and the arts, The New Yorker has become more political under Remnick. It has adopted some of the outlook of the left-leaning opinion journals, but with the heavy reportage and analytical seriousness the “old” New Yorker was known for. Particularly during the presidency of George W. Bush the magazine has adopted a more liberal tone (including a regular quiz on embarrassing and contradictory statements by Bush Administration officials). It has also broken news. In the past year, pieces on the continuing saga in Iraq by the author and former New York Times correspondent Seymour Hersh have become must reads for political and foreign affairs writers in Washington. Hersh’s pursuit of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse story pushed CBS to run a story that the network had been sitting on, and his story about the presence of Israeli intelligence in Northern Iraq was groundbreaking.

During the 2004 election the magazine got particularly involved. It did an entire issue on the election and the apparatus sounding it – from polling to advertising. It did a piece on how ABC’s daily Internet political roundup The Note had changed American political coverage. And, perhaps most telling, for the first time in the magazine’s history it endorsed a candidate for president (Senator John Kerry) in a lengthy, five-page Talk of the Town piece signed by “The Editors.”

Since the days of editor Wallace Shawn, there have also been more obvious changes such as the inclusion of photos and contributors notes about the writers in each issue.
Beyond our anecdotal look at those changes, we wanted to examine systematically how much the magazine has shifted over the years. We chose four issues (the last issues of January, April, July and October) from four years (1989, 1994, 1999 and 2004). We examined the topics covered, the timeliness, and whether subjects were linked to current events and news or simply features with no real “news peg.” We defined current-events topics as those featuring topics in the mainstream news or profiles of people in the mainstream news. We counted all Talk of the Town pieces in the front of the magazine and all non-fiction features. Listings were not counted in the tally, nor were reviews.
We found a decline in fiction stories but an increase in the number of pieces over all. Stories are generally less esoteric than they once were. One still finds pieces with no particular news peg, just “good reads.” Yet by and large we found a magazine that is more focused on the topical.

Topicality of New Yorker Stories 1989 – 2004
Select Issues and years
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Research
*Data from 16 issues, four from each year selected (last issues in January, April, July and October).

In 1989, only seven of the 26 stories (not counting fiction, poetry or reviews) in the issues we examined were pegged to current events. Two of these pieces were Letters from Washington by Elizabeth Drew about the goings-on within the first Bush administration. One was a profile of Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, who was running for a fifth term. Other “current” pieces ran in the Talk of the Town section and were either national affairs or something we labeled “New Yorkia” – stories about the primary character of the New Yorker, the city itself.1

Just as interesting was the limited number of topics represented. The pieces fell roughly into one of four categories: national affairs, international, New Yorkia and United States (stories about events or issues in cities or regions outside New York).

By 1994, two years into Brown’s editorship, the number of articles pegged to current events in the issues we examined climbed to 18 out of a total of 29. And the topics those stories addressed were much broader. Four concerned national affairs, but three were focused on international issues, two were United States stories, three were New Yorkia, two were law stories, two were arts stories, one was a media piece and one was about business.2

Incidentally, one of those law stories, Toobin’s “Incendiary Defense,” was also significant in another way. It put The New Yorker squarely in the same corner – on that topic anyway – as the news weeklies. It was not the usual thoughtful, somewhat detached New Yorker approach. It was dealing directly with the primary issue in the media spotlight and national dialogue and talking to the principals in the story as it was unfolding.

The issues in 1999, a year into Remnick’s reign, show a magazine that has absorbed some of the priorities of Brown’s New Yorker in terms of being topical, but in other ways a shift back toward some of the magazine’s older priorities.

The number of topical stories grew to 21, out of 48, or close to half. National affairs stories led the pack with eight of the 21 topical stories.3 The rest of the “current” list varied: international, New Yorkia, media, entertainment, business. And the total list of story topics in the issues we examined grew to 12. Media in general made up a larger component of the magazine’s coverage (four stories), and stories about literature and the book industry began to appear.4

Entertainment coverage was actually more prevalent in the issues of the 1999 New Yorker than in 1994, but the frame of those stories was less about individual celebrity than about a larger point concerning the entertainment world. The pieces were used not as celebrity vehicles but as windows into the entertainment business. A piece in the July issue on the recording artist Macy Gray was less about Gray than about the efforts of the music industry to turn her into a star, and the differences between being a star and a mere talent.

Maybe it was just that it was an election year, but the 2004 New Yorker coverage was heavily focused on the topical – a total of 22 stories out of 40 total, the highest total of any of the years we examined.5

And in the issues we examined, the topics covered in the “current” stories showed a definite interest in the election – nine of the stories were concerned with national affairs, by far the most, four were focused on New Yorkia, two were U.S. stories, three were on the media, two on entertainment and the arts, one on international affairs and one on science. And even among stories not technically national affairs there were tenuous connections to the election, as in David Grann’s piece on ABC’s The Note on October 26 and even Susan Orlean’s piece on South Boston on July 26, which was set to coincide with the Democratic convention going on that week in Boston.

Again the most obvious signs of The New Yorker’s topical-ness in 2004 were Seymour Hersh’s coverage of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and the magazine’s political/election coverage, including the special election issue it published and the endorsement it issued. It is unlikely that either of these two topics would have surfaced in The New Yorker 15 years ago, at least not in such prominent ways.

Some skeptics will note that the percentage of topical stories bobbed up and down after 1989 – 62 % in 1994, then 44% in 1999, then 55% in 2004. But it should be noted that in each of those years the percentage of topical stories was greater than in 1989, when they made up only 27% of the total.

To some observers The New Yorker will probably never be a true “news” magazine. It doesn’t fit the traditional model. There are no glossy color photos, and the content is not as directly focused on the news of the previous week or the week ahead. But there is little doubt that over the past 15 years the magazine has shifted into space the news magazines once occupied alone. Even the cartoon covers of the magazine have shifted toward news, whether the 2004 presidential debates or the end of Bill Clinton’s eight years in the White House. The New Yorker may not be a “news weekly” per se, but it is a weekly magazine that deals directly with news and current events.

The Economist

The Economist’s approach to becoming a more serious player in the American magazine market is both more and less subtle than The New Yorker’s. The magazine has become more directly involved in American politics and culture, for example with its recently initiated series of public debates with The Nation on topics such as “America’s Role in the World.” But in its pages the changes are less about style or format and more about what it covers, namely more coverage of American topics. The changes are also more difficult to quantify, so there are no charts here to show the differences. But change can be detected in tone and even in such things as subject headings.

In some sense, the magazine is a throwback to what news magazines once were. Rather than becoming more thematic or moving toward a more general-interest approach, The Economist focuses on writing concise stories and covering a wide breadth of “hard news” topics in each issue – in a sense more a capsule of the week than either Time or Newsweek now attempts to be. The magazine is broken into specific geographic and topical sections – Asia, Europe, Britain, International along with Business, Finance, Science and Technology – with each section usually containing four or more brief stories. And while major events are covered, The Economist shares with The New Yorker a willingness to set its own news agenda and reach out for stories that most national news organizations might not cover. The “United States” section of the July 31, 1999 issue, for instance, had a lead piece on candidates looking for campaign money; a story on urban sprawl in a small town in Washington State; a piece on the popularity of video poker; and a look at how legendary Woodstock, New York was changing.

The “United States” section is a sign of The Economist’s effort to reach into the U.S. market. In 1989 there was no section specifically set aside for the United States, just a broad section called “American Survey.” While “Survey” was primarily devoted to news from the U.S., it also carried news from the entire Western Hemisphere. The creation of the “United States” section showed the magazine’s desire to cover the country in more in depth. The rest of the hemisphere was categorized as “The Americas.” In fact, the United States is the only nation that has a separate heading in the table of contents other than the magazine’s home, Great Britain. Since 1989, the magazine has also created a one-page column, called Lexington, devoted to American politics and policy.

The topics of Economist articles have also changed over time. A fair number still explore the curiosities of the United States, but there is also an increased focus on the plays and players in electoral politics. In the October 2, 2004 issue, for instance, featured a lead piece in the United States section led with a piece that was more than a simple overview of where the race stood; it was heavy on analysis of the shifting demographics in various states and the possible effect on the electoral vote in November. In the final issue before the 2004 vote, the magazine not only placed the presidential race on the cover, it ran 10 stories on it in the United States section. And many of the pieces were on specific topics – the South Dakota and North Carolina Senate races, initiatives in California and an initiative in Arizona. In 1992, the last election to garner such large-scale interest among the public and in the press, The Economist ran just seven pieces in its pre-election issue directly concerning the election, some quite short. And many of those were broader thematic pieces on swing states and how the young would vote. Now the U.S. has been elevated in The Economist to more than just another big player on the world stage. It has been pushed front and center.

One obvious reason for that push is that nearly half the Economist’s circulation is now American. But that oversimplifies what has occurred. The shift in content also reflects the end of the Cold War and the establishment of the U.S. as the world’s lone true superpower. When one adds in the growing cultural power and financial heft of the country, a greater focus on the U.S. also informs the magazine’s European audience in a meaningful way. Even if a magazine is devoted to being a summary of world news, as The Economist is, doing that coverage increasingly means covering the U.S. intensively.
Just as noticeable as the changes in The Economist are the things that have stayed the same. It has held firm to the more traditional content of the news magazine (but mostly without the pictures). The sheer number of stories listed in the table of contents is a flashback to what Time and Newsweek once were – a summary of news from around the country and the globe with a particular worldview. Editors at the magazine emphasize its focus on analysis; there is a definite voice. The magazine leans center-right with an inflection that is educated, skeptical and often sharp.

Consider this passage about the Democratic candidate John Kerry, born-again Christians and the religious divide in America:

“By contrast, John Kerry seems about as unappealing a candidate as you could get: a practicing Catholic who disagrees with his church on many of its most fundamental teachings, and a Massachusetts liberal who doesn’t have a clue about the born-again world (just 6% of Massachusetts voters are born-again compared with 34% of Texan voters). And don’t even get them started on Teresa.”

The Economist’s short, concise articles are full of facts and figures outlining a point of view – the magazine’s Web site says it has a “reverence for facts.” The figures and charts accompanying the October 2 piece on the shifting electorate was full of so many figures it looked more like a business story. Clever “takes” are not the point of what The Economist does, information and suasion are. Nice turns of phrase and interesting ideas are part and parcel of the magazine’s content week to week, but those things are backed by facts, and especially figures. Conventional wisdom isn’t enough to carry a piece, or normally, even an idea in a piece; citations and number-crunching are the hallmark.

The magazine has largely avoided the biggest trend of the past few decades, a push toward lighter coverage. The worlds of entertainment and celebrity simply don’t have much of a place in these pages. And the editors of The Economist are not looking for ways to link pop-culture icons to “trends” they can then write about as news. The “Books and Arts” section allows for some dabbling in light fare, but even here, The Economist does not stray too far from its news-weekly mission. Topics include things like “Artists Painting the Face of God,” “The 1999 Booker Prize Winner” and “Lebanon’s Civil War on Film.” A search of the magazine’s Web site finds Britney Spears has not appeared once as the topic of a story in the magazine.

Others

The New Yorker and The Economist aren’t the only nontraditional news magazines wading deeper into news genre. The now-defunct Talk magazine made news during the 2000 campaign when Governor George W. Bush of Texas offered some candid and embarrassing words about a death-row inmate.

The Atlantic, owned by publisher and former business consultant David Bradley, has become more relevant in its approach to news. For example, Mark Bowden’s article on “The Dark Art of Interrogation” in 2003 was a discussion of the interrogation techniques the U.S. said it used and didn’t use and was pegged to the continuing efforts to extract information from captives in the “war on terror.” But in the early spring of 2004, as Abu Ghraib broke, Bowden’s article seemed decidedly ahead of the news curve. A piece by Jim Fallows examining in detail the debate histories of both Kerry and Bush not only looked forward but established Fallows as a leading debate expert whom CBS News and others turned to for debate analysis. When the former New York Times editor Howell Raines decided to write his revenge essay, explaining his version of his departure from the Times, The Atlantic was the place it ran, again making the magazine a must read in political and journalism circles. All this even though The Atlantic’s monthly printing schedule means lead times that stretch far into the future. Indeed, one Atlantic reporter covering the political conventions in 2004 joked that when Howard Dean’s presidential campaign collapsed he had to reconsider the entire set of stories he had planned for the rest of 2004 and into 2005.

Vanity Fair, owned by Condé Nast, still lives predominantly off upscale celebrity coverage, but it too has increased the political and media coverage in its pages in the last decade. The addition of the political columnist Christopher Hitchens, who got his start at The Nation, and the media writer James Wolcott, who has written for The New York Review of Books and others, has led the magazine into heavier topics. And while there are still stories about the particular tastes of Hollywood’s film elite, there are also exposés in Vanity Fair, such as Gail Sheehy’s negative looks at the Bush presidency.

Even men’s magazines have wandered more into news coverage and become more eclectic. In October of 2004 GQ ran stories looking at the potential first ladies, a Q & A with Jon Stewart of The Daily Show about the election, a satirical letter to Vice President Dick Cheney, a consideration of the impact (or lack thereof) of celebrity endorsements and ideas from comics on last-ditch efforts to swing the electorate. GQ also did a Q&A with John Kerry in the previous month’s issue.

It’s interesting to note that many of these moves into news are somewhat similar in style and outlook. They tend to lean left and follow more of The New Yorker model – the pieces are by individuals with definite and distinct voices. None of them lean toward the Economist’s approach of presenting unbylined, short, fact-and-figure-based pieces. But the new news entrants also vary somewhat in approach. Some magazines are trying to reach readers with quick pieces full of attitude and humor (many of GQ’s entries fall into this category), while others are looking for longer, more heavily reported stories (The Atlantic and The New Yorker), and others still are looking for the well-written, well-reasoned opinion pieces a la Vanity Fair.

Regardless of tone or type, all these changes are moves toward news. These publications have found room to delve more deeply into the topical in the current magazine environment. And their moves may be considered a corollary to what has been happening in the pages of the dominant news magazines.

Time, Newsweek and U.S. News

For 20 years, at least two of the Big Three news weeklies have been moving toward broader, lighter, less hard-news oriented content (see 2004 Magazine Content Analysis), and both seemed content in 2004 to stay on that path.

The shift continues to be seen in the amount of space devoted to different topics, as catalogued by Hall’s Magazine Reports. Hall’s, a magazine research firm in Stamford, Connecticut, tracks how many pages in Time, Newsweek and U.S. News are devoted to different topics, and can track those trends back decades. The pages devoted to various news topics changed little between 2003 and 2004. The only noticeable drop, and it was a small one, was in foreign affairs coverage where, despite the “war on terror” and continuing troubles in Iraq, there was a 2% drop through the first half of 2004. National affairs coverage was up through the first half of 2004, but not even back to where it was in 2000 or 2001, and considering it was a presidential election year some small increase was to be expected. Other big topics – business, health, entertainment – stayed relatively flat. It seems that for the moment anyway, the Big Three have settled into a fairly stable content mix.

News Magazine Pages by Topic, 1980 – 2004
Select years
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Halls Media Research unpublished data
*2004 data from January – June

As noted last year, there is a separation within the three traditional news weeklies. While the contents of Time and Newsweek look largely similar, within fractions of a percentage point in some topic categories, U.S. News & World Report looks quite different. It features heavier coverage of national affairs issues by a sizable percentage.6 Its celebrity and lifestyle coverage is a fraction of that of Time and Newsweek, but it outstrips them in cultural coverage. Without U.S. News’s national affairs coverage to bring up the average, the amount of that coverage in the news weeklies would be closer to 25 percent rather than 30.

Newsweekly Topics, 2004
By percentage of pages
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Hall’s Media Research unpublished data
*January – June

U.S. News is also a much thinner magazine than its competitors. Between January and June of 2004, it contained roughly 300 fewer pages than Time and about 200 fewer pages than Newsweek. So even though national affairs may make up a much larger portion of the total pages, in effect it had only 20 more pages of such coverage than Time and actually 10 pages less than Newsweek.7

U.S. News might be seen as playing an interesting game. With fewer pages to work with, it has decided that a different, more sober, content mix is the right option to differentiate itself from the competition. Not that long ago, the magazine featured more brief summaries and more news-you-can-use about Washington and national affairs, and was written in a less stylized manner. Now its distinctiveness stems as much from the amount of national affairs it covers as from the way it covers it. So far anyway, the strategy has not yielded significant economic results. According to available data, U.S. News still finds itself struggling in terms of ad pages and dollars.

One reason may be that it is playing a niche strategy while still competing, for all intents and purposes, as a mass circulation publication. It has never fully moved over to pursuing a niche economic strategy, with a higher subscription price and bigger advertising charges because of more desirable demographics – the approach of The Economist. Nor has it adopted the practice of giving writers their own voices in the manner of The New Yorker or The Atlantic.

In short, by changing less than Time and Newsweek, by looking still more like a news weekly than a niche publication, U.S. News is straddling two approaches, more narrow and targeted in content, but more standard in terms of economic model.

Time and Newsweek Covers

In their selection of cover stories, Time and Newsweek tend to mirror each other when big news breaks – sometimes down to the choice of art, as in June 2004 when they chose an identical picture of Ronald Reagan for their covers after the former president’s death. They ran relatively equal numbers of national affairs cover stories (18 for Time and 21 for Newsweek.)
But there are also some differences. Newsweek is more drawn to celebrity/entertainment covers, with six cover stories on such topics in 2004 to Time’s one. (Both also did religion covers ostensibly about the death of Jesus Christ pegged to the release of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.”

Time Cover Topics, 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Research
*First 50 issues of year
Newsweek Cover Topics, 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Research
*First 50 issues of year

Time did more covers on National Affairs (21 versus 18 at Newsweek), and was more likely to venture beyond entertainment and the nation. It did two covers on sports, two on history and one on the environment. Newsweek steered clear of those topics entirely on its cover.8

Trend and Off-News Covers

Another way of examining news weeklies’ content is by looking at the “trend” cover stories they run. Such pieces, normally not connected to any particular news event, are occasional attempts by the magazines to set their own news agenda. The covers are generally focused on hot topics that they hope will bring large audiences – particularly newsstand buyers who might not subscribe to the magazine.

Off-news covers are particularly interesting because they go to the heart of the news weeklies’ content changes. When events do not force them to put news on the cover, Time and particularly Newsweek, which had more off-news covers last year, often opt for something else. It is one of the most telling signs of how these magazines are increasingly becoming general-interest titles with less and less of a tether to the news.

It isn’t simply the issues these pieces examine that are different, it is the way the pieces are reported and written. As the paradigm of the mainstream, they apparently fear straying too close to the edge. In identifying trends, they seem less interested in charting new ground than in stalking the reliable and familiar – diets, sex, celebrity, or kids. The pieces are sometimes less social science (even soft social science) than crowd-pleasing page-turners. And occasionally the new wrinkles they explore prove fairly illusory.

A case in point might be Time’s July 26 cover story “It’s Vegas, Baby!” which was described in the table of contents thus: “In a return to its Rat Pack roots, Vegas booms with a profitable mix of sin and sensation. An inside look at how the party got so hot.” Far from new, the Vegas phenomenon had been celebrated in films, books and even that ultimate resting place of unedgy topics, network TV (“Las Vegas,” “Dr. Vegas” and “CSI”). Even the city’s tourism slogan, “What happens here stays here,” predated the Time piece by more than a year.

Other cover stories that might strike some as old or perhaps faux trends would be “Living to 100,” “Low Carb Nation” and “The Case for Staying Home.” Fully 11 of the off-news cover pieces fell into the category of science and health (“Secrets of the Teen Brain,” “Living to 100,” “Low Carb Nation”) and lifestyle (“It’s Vegas, Baby!” “The Case for Staying Home”).

Not all of Time’s non-news covers were faux trends. Others included “The Struggle Within Islam” in September, the “Radical Mind of Thomas Jefferson” (July 5) and “Saving the Big Cats” (the tiger and lion variety) in August.

Not to be outdone in the trend-that-really-isn’t-a-trend cover department, Newsweek, also in July, put “The Secret Lives of Wives” on its cover with this subhead inside: “Why they stray: With the work place and the Internet, overscheduled lives and inattentive husbands – it’s no wonder more American women are looking for comfort in the arms of another man.” The article considered women who had cheated throughout history, from Bathsheba to Carmela Soprano, who, while not real, provided a convenient pop-culture peg for the piece. The story, while notoriously short on hard data, cited as evidence polls showing a small increase in the number of women who had thought about committing adultery. But it also reported that “80 percent of Americans say infidelity is ‘always wrong,’ … up from 70 percent in 1970.” The story went on, “Popular opinion is on to something: infidelity can be devastating.” All of which, of course, raises the question, where’s the trend?

Many Newsweek off-news cover stories dealt with similarly light topics like “The Secrets of Spider-Man 2″ and Donald Trump, but by and large the titles fell into categories like health, lifestyle and technology (“The Mystery of Dreams,” “When Fat Attacks,” “The New Science of Strokes,” “Way Cool Phones”). The stories were aimed more at the news-you-can-use market than were Time’s.

A New News Weekly in the Fray?

For the last two years there has been persistent chatter that the publisher David Bradley is considering launching a new news weekly that would compete more directly with Time, Newsweek and U.S. News. Bradley, who lives in Washington and owns the policy-driven National Journal and The Atlantic Monthly, got into publishing as a second career. He bought National Journal in 1997 and The Atlantic in 1999, after many years as a business strategy consultant.

Little concrete is known about any plans Bradley may have for a new weekly, and he did not return calls from us about what he may have in mind. But some on his staff have indicated privately to others in the magazine business that he is looking closely at The Economist for inspiration -specifically at that magazine’s revenue model and how it might be applied to a U.S.-based magazine.

The biggest differences between the news weekly he is said to be considering and his past efforts are twofold. First, he apparently would be starting this title from scratch, not purchasing an old one and trying to pump life into it. Second, and perhaps more significant, after dealing in the policy/boutique magazine market, he would be moving more into mainstream. Of course, he may be planning to simply peel off some of that group, as The Economist has done, instead of competing head on for millions of subscribers.

Regardless, Bradley’s careful survey of the news magazine landscape may yield a new title in the next year or so. And that move, if successful, combined with the circulation increases of The Economist and the New Yorker, could wind up presenting the traditional news weeklies with a choice. Do they stay on their current track, or as the news magazine winds shift do they change their tack?

Summary

Already the non-traditional news magazines have pushed the genre in different directions and opened the door to more competitors. Magazines that have moved into news from larger cultural coverage have broadened the definition of what is a news magazine is, bringing in opinion and looking at the larger issues behind the particular news of the week. At the same time, The Economist has found a way to grow while sticking closer to the old-line news magazine model – short, concise stories – and simply increasing its American flavor.

Any of these models could yield another new news magazine, and some publishers may be looking to apply those models to a new title. But considering the changes in recent years it may be just as likely that someone uses the opening left by the traditional weeklies to add a completely new style and approach to the mix of current titles. As we will see in the Audience section, youth has yet to be served in this genre. And as the concept of Red and Blue America takes hold one also has to wonder if a news weekly of a more crimson hue is overdue.

Deep, lasting change will probably not come overnight. The long steady changes that have been occurring here probably aren’t going to give way to a cataclysmic event – a mass extinction. The mass audiences of the traditional news magazines are being chipped away, not falling off by large chunks. And the traditional titles, particularly Time and Newsweek, are doing everything they can in terms of changing content to hold those audiences together. But over the long term changes seem almost inevitable among the news magazines. As mass audiences everywhere, across all media, seem to be disappearing, the traditional news weekly content designed to played to a mass audience – lighter and less news-focused – may find it has a smaller and smaller constituency.

Footnotes

1. Project for Excellence in Journalism research

2. Ibid

3. Ibid

4. It should be noted that among the four issues we examined for 1999, two were double issues, which explains why the number of stories was so great.

5. Project for Excellence in Journalism research.

6. Hall’s Reports research. Unpublished data. www.hallsreports.com

7. Ibid

8. Ibid

9. Project for Excellence in Journalism research

10. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Polls Face Growing Resistance, But Still Representative, End of survey ask all ideological question. Respondents called themselves “liberal” 14 percent of the time and “very liberal” 7 percent of the time.