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Magazines – Intro

Intro

After a decade of speculation that technology might render the news weekly obsolete, the field heading into 2007 seems at long last on the cusp of genuine change – especially among the biggest titles.

The problems are clear enough. The Big Three traditional news weeklies were beset in 2006 by stagnant ad pages, the continuing rise of new print competitors, and trouble maintaining the circulation numbers promised to advertisers. All of that reflects the larger underlying dilemma, the challenge of producing weekly journalism in a 24-hour news culture. The only surprise may be why it has taken so long for things to give.

Time, the giant of the news weeklies, took the lead in promising change. It announced a new publication date and a new way of measuring audience that it hoped might soon combine print and online. It redesigned its Web site to de-emphasize the print magazine. It also hinted, more cryptically, at a new editorial approach, one that is more interpretive. Then it slashed more of its staff.

Newsweek, Time’s traditional rival in chief, seems to be waiting and watching, ready to zig or zag after (it hopes) learning from Time’s mistakes or successes. That, too, involves risk. Is Newsweek being smart, or is it just out of ideas? If Time is on the right path, Newsweek may be left behind. If Time is making a brash but ill-conceived bet, Newsweek may be well positioned letting others do the experimenting.

U.S. News & World Report, the smallest of the Big Three, seems content to play its own game and not focus on what the others are doing. It was the first of the big weeklies to announce a new structure focused more on the Web, doing so in 2005. Heading into 2007, however, the planned changes are not clearly evident on the site. And in recent years the magazine’s content has shifted to more policy-focused topics, part of a long-term effort to draw a distinction between itself and the other two. Still, it seems likely to follow the lead of either of its rivals that scores a big success.

The verdict may not come in the next year. But change on a more fundamental scale at the Big Three appears to be starting.

In the meantime, rivals like The Week, The Economist and the New Yorker, all with distinct approaches unlike those of Time and Newsweek, are winning readers the old fashioned way — in print.

As for the opinion magazines, like The Nation and National Review, they have a new parade to watch, one that may alter their fortunes. Their circulations can rise and fall according to which party is in power, and they are seeing a power shift in Washington and political parties in transition.