Skip to Content View Previous Reports

News Investment

News Investment

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Increasingly, the traditional news weeklies are more synthesizing and disseminating organizations than news gatherers. And these changes can be measured in a variety of ways, from smaller staffs to fewer bureaus.

They have changed their missions from being weekly summaries of news from the world to being frames on the week’s events. And increasingly, particularly when it comes to things like national affairs, they focus more on offering “takes” on the week’s events rather than news. This approach, their editors argue, was necessitated in part by the rise of 24-hour news and a more competitive news environment. There simply isn’t much “new” to tell people at the end of the week.

This wasn’t the only road available to the news weeklies. It is not the one news weeklies have taken in other countries.

While it is correct that saturation coverage is a big part of the news environment today, that saturation is generally not very deep or wide. Some events get wall-to-wall repetitive coverage on 24-hour news networks and other stories fall through the cracks. This year’s presidential election coverage is a good example. In August, as the swift-boat-veterans story dominated news cycle after news cycle, coverage of the rest of the presidential campaign was relatively light. The policy and issues that reporters claim was lost in a flood of negative campaigning wasn’t really lost by the candidates as much as it was pushed out by the media outlets themselves. Every day, as any campaign reporter or campaign aide will tell you, the candidates were on the trail giving the same “what I want to do for this country” speech and finding their words lost in a blitz of topic-of-the-day reportage. In late summer and fall it was stories about the hurricanes hitting Florida. Other times it was the Scott Peterson trial or the death and funeral of former President Ronald Reagan on cable news television. Saturation coverage has given people more news at their disposal, but in some ways the traditional mission of the news weekly – a more comprehensive look at the world at large – is as relevant as ever.

The nontraditional news magazines offer a starkly different approach to the changed news environment. The New Yorker prints in-depth looks at specific issues or ignores the primary news agenda to pursue its own, while The Economist looks at the big issue or two of the week, but also offers a broad survey of the news landscape. Both magazines, it should be noted, rely on very different staff models than the Big Three. The New Yorker grants its writers enormous amounts of autonomy to find, report and write the stories they are assigned – then pays them handsomely. The Economist, with a significant staff in bureaus all around the world, also turns to stringers to fill out its pages with stories that other news organizations ignore.

The Big Three, however, have largely stuck with the reduced version of their staffing approach, even as their mission has changed. Faced with a new news environment, the Big Three have decided largely to chase the same big stories the rest of the news media pursue. The weekly titles add to those stories by layering on top of them a broader vision and tone – “the voice from the mountain” as it is sometimes called. This approach means a few things. It means that covers of the Big Three largely mesh with the national zeitgeist and the mass news media coverage of various “hot topics.” News coverage and reportage still matter, of course. But this style of coverage means having a staff made to a large extent up of generalists who can be thrown into, say, a government story one week and a crime story the next. Because everyone is chasing the same few big stories, new big facts and reportage are more difficult to come by and pieces often wind up being a collection of small “exclusive” details folded into a “smart take.”

Staffing

News Magazine Staff Size Over Time
Time and Newsweek select years 1983 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Project for Excellence in Journalism from magazine staff boxes

The trend toward sizable cuts in newsgathering most continued at news magazines in 2004.

To assess this, one of the few measures available is the information that the magazines themselves offer the public in their mastheads. We went through this exercise systematically in our inaugural report last year and found significant shifts and reductions in resources at the news magazines over time. This year, we again analyzed the magazines’ own counts of their staffing and found further notable reductions.
Time shed 14 staff members in 2004, with small cuts from several areas. The Washington bureau lost two people, as did the bureau in New York City. The magazine also shuttered its Atlanta Bureau. And three letters correspondents, those charged with receiving and responding to reader comments, disappeared from the masthead. In all, Time now lists 290 staff members devoted to putting out the weekly magazine.1

Newsweek actually had a small increase in overall staffing in 2004, adding four people, according to its own accounting in the magazine. The question is whether the number will continue to rise next year or if it is just a blip. If the number continues to climb, and comes in the right areas, it may signal that the magazine is willing to invest more in reporting again and that its managers and editors are ready to be more aggressive in seeking out stories. In all, Newsweek now lists 181 staffers devoted to putting out the weekly magazine.2

In terms of bureau staffing, however, both magazines saw small declines. Time shed four spots and Newsweek one.

Bureau costs obviously extend beyond staffing, however. And the number of offices each publication maintains worldwide is an equally critical measure of news-gathering potential: living in a community full-time offers brings understanding, context and the ability to witness the twists and turns of slow, evolving stories and not just fast-breaking ones.

Time also scaled back on the number of bureaus it operates, going from 24 to 23, closing offices in Atlanta and Nairobi, but adding one in Johannesburg.3 Newsweek bucked that trend and added a bureau in Baghdad to cover the reconstruction of Iraq, bringing its total to 21.4 But it didn’t add a correspondent for the new bureau, instead reassigning its “correspondent at large” to occupy its office in the Iraqi capital.

Number of Correspondents in Bureaus Over Time
Time and Newsweek select years 1983 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Project for Excellence in Journalism from magazine staff boxes
News Magazine Bureaus Over Time
Time and Newsweek select years 1983 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Project for Excellence in Journalism from magazine staff boxes

The numbers suggest that the magazines are at a relatively stable time in staff and reporting investment. They are also at relative parity. As international events have become more important to the nation and more a part of the news cycle, both Time and Newsweek have been cautious about opening new news-gathering offices abroad.


Contributors

As the news magazines have reduced staff rolls in recent years, they have tended to add to the list of people they call contributors, a more nebulous category of staff. The contributors list can offer a way to save costs, scaling back full-time staff members in favor of part-timers for special writing needs. It’s also a way to hold onto staff people who are interested in pursuing other options.

The number of contributors stayed mostly unchanged in 2004, with names going on the list and coming off – Time added one and Newsweek subtracting one – though one of the names on Time’s list is notable. Margaret Carlson, a former senior writer, moved onto the contributor list.5

Number of Contributors in Staff Boxes Over Time
Time and Newsweek select years 1983 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Project for Excellence in Journalism from magazine staff boxes

As we mentioned last year, the contributor list is interesting not only because of the way it has grown in the past 20 years, but also because of who is on it. Time’s list, which is full of well-known writers and personalities, stands in contrast to Newsweek’s, which is home to many former magazine staff members.6

Conclusion

In the end, without either a complete restructuring in how they staff themselves (turning more to stringers) or a change in what they see as their central mission, it’s hard to see how the Big Three magazines will reclaim their role as original newsgathering entities rather than interpretive ones. With their smaller staffs it is increasingly difficult for their correspondents to go out and get different non-prominent stories while running down the hot stories of the week on an expanded playing field – not just news, but entertainment, business, lifestyle, science and technology. In short, because of economic choices they have made, the news magazines are now built to follow the big stories of the week, rather than focus on enterprise, to be reactive rather than proactive.

The nontraditionals, which view their mission as essentially different from that of the traditional news weeklies, rely on markedly different staffing approaches, both from the traditionals and from each other. The New Yorker’s staff is a small group of writers and primarily editors on the 20th floor at 4 Times Square who edit copy that comes mostly from a set group of contracted writers around the globe. The Economist hews more closely to the traditional form of news magazine staffing, with offices in cities around the world that focus on their geographic home bases. But the two magazines share one trait, the welcoming of contributions from stringers and freelancers. That allows them to avoid some of the overhead associated with big worldwide staffs, and leaves writers more in charge, in a way that pushes them to find stories that other media outlets might miss.

Footnotes

1. Time staff box, May 24, 2004

2. Newsweek staff box, July 26, 2004

3. Time staff box, May 24, 2004

4. Newsweek staff box, July 26, 2004

5. Time staff box, May 24, 2004

6. Newsweek staff box, July 26, 2004