|News magazines have had a difficult time figuring how they fit into the world of the digital media. Their long lead times and more reflective style of writing don’t jibe well with the Web’s continuous nature. And on the whole magazines have lagged behind other media in integrating the Web into their larger plans.
Some events in 2006 suggest that now may be changing, at least at some publications.
Several magazines increased their daily online output, began creating content specifically for the Web, and gave users more multi-media features.
The changes are also reflected in online finances. Ad spending on the “e-media” side of magazines was expected to grow by more than 34% in 2006 to over $400 million. That’s an impressive jump, but it still makes up only 1.7% of total ad spending on consumer magazines.1
And then there was Time, the news genre leader, and its stated goal to begin to count audience as a combination of print and Web together. The magazine announced it would be relying on its Web site to handle breaking news. It instituted a major Web redesign that de-emphasized the print publication. It put its top editor in charge of the magazine and its Web site as well — uniting the two sides of editorial. (And all of that followed a 2005 announcement by U.S. News that it would increasingly be transitioning itself to the Web.)
The question is what those moves will amount to. Some observers cite them as positive and necessary by a medium slow to the party. Yet other critics believe the talk may just be a way to dress up cuts in staff, and recent reductions may lend credence to that thinking.
But there’s also little question the publications hope to generate more clicks and dollars from the Web. The success of Time’s plans to calculate its ad base on readership (ultimately including Web readership) may dictate how the rest of the field approaches the challenge.
To assess how far news magazines have traveled on the Web entering 2007, PEJ examined some of the top newsweekly sites and did a site-by-site accounting of the features and advertising on three: time.com, economist.com and theweekmagazine.com. They were part of a larger inventory of 38 different news sites on various types from across the Web. (See Digital Journalism chapter for the full analysis along with an interactive tool to help citizens evaluate their favorite news sites and a full description of the methodology.)
We measured sites using six different criteria: The customization options the sites offered, their use of multi-media, the possibilities they offered for interactivity, the branding of the content (that is how much was from the outlets as opposed to outside sources), the depth of information available and how the site was doing economically in terms of drawing advertising. On each of these measures each site was placed into one of four categories ranging from a top group that offered a lot to the last group which offered the least amount.
The three sites were widely different in most regards — how they handled podcasts, if they had them at all, whether they charged for content and where they got that content from. In short, there is no dominant approach to news-magazine Web sites. And that may be the case indefinitely if those three titles are any indication, since they seem to be differentiating themselves increasingly in their print content. But as of now these sites, sometimes going in a few directions at once, are serving as test kitchens for their parent titles.
At the start of 2007, Time revamped and relaunched its Web site. It added new features, limited its color palette and cleaned up a site that was fairly cluttered. The new site is more organized and simpler without being sparse. It looks and feels more like the online home of a new Web outlet than it did before and less an online parking space for the magazine.
Still, some of what we found on the site in October still held true in January. For instance, the first thing a visitor is likely to notice is that Time is not alone here. Signs of its partnership with CNN — another news outlet owned by Time/Warner — appear in the header. But there is more brand differentiation now than before. In the earlier incarnation, the site offered “The Latest Headlines from CNN.” That has been replaced by “Latest Headlines,” which lists 10 news items from a variety of sources, CNN among them.
The new Time.com is also an environment more distinct than before from the print magazine. The image of the current week’s magazine cover, for instance, is pushed further down on the page, rather than appearing in the top right hand corner.
One thing the old and new sites have very much in common, however, is that everything here is still free.
Visually, the new Time.com uses a cleaner three-column format as opposed to the four-column approach it used to have. And while the old site had pictures scattered all over it, the new one features only a changing slide-show picture, with an ad on the right side and a row of three photos in the section below. The layout is modular.
The old cluttered Time.com was not without its advantages. It was one of the more customizable Web sites, finishing in the top tier in part because it offered several different RSS feeds, podcasts and a mobile version of itself. It also finished in the top tier for branding, using human editors to make decisions about layout (rather than computer programs) and using bylines on staff copy. The site also relied heavily on its staff for lead stories – more than 75% of its lead pieces carried staff bylines.
It scored lower, in the third tier, in depth. Its score was hurt by offering fewer updates than other sites (something true of most magazine sites) and not using embedded links to take readers further into a subject
Time put even less emphasis on multi media (it finished in the bottom tier). This is a text based Web site. It also earned the lowest marks for user participation. It offered users little in the way of communicating or reacting, not even the opportunity to send emails to authors.
Time also does not have a significant number of revenue streams on the site at this point. It did not have many ads – eight – and it did not charge for any content.
The new Time.com seems to place less emphasis on allowing users to customize it — it certainly highlights customization less—and is more focused on presenting users with a clean, uncluttered first view of the page. It still has multiple RSS feeds and podcasts, and a link to get a mobile version of the site, but those links are at the bottom.
On the other hand, blogs have multiplied. Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish is still here (though Sullivan announced that his blog was moving to Atlantic.com), and it has been augmented with blogs about Washington (Swampland), The Middle East and entertainment (Tuned In). The site also added a column called “The Ag,” which stands for aggregator, which talks about what’s news in other media.
Interestingly, the redesign actually left the site with fewer ads. There were a total of four in September, placing it in the bottom 10 of the sites we looked at. But there were only two in January and they were coordinated for the same product — Bentley College. That approach, also taken by Economist.com, makes the ads feel more like an integrated part of the page and less noisy.
The strength of Time.com is its willingness to reach beyond its own pages for content. There is a lot here. The 10 stories in the “Latest Headlines” box are usually wire copy, but they do at least offer users a link to major breaking news. And such fare as Andrew Sullivan’s blog not only brings more outside content to the page, its teaser text can definitely bring a different flavor, as it did on December 9, 2006: “If the Democrats have the balls to restore our constitutional order I may have to stop being an independent for awhile.” Not exactly journalism in the tradition of Henry Luce.
Perhaps most interesting, the new Time.com does not make a point of offering content from the magazine. The daily stories from Time’s staff, on the page’s top left, are often shorter than magazine stories and feature either a different tone or some exclusive tidbit, and Time.com clearly differentiates between them and the stories on the rest of the site. And articles from the actual magazine are hidden down the page under the image of that week’s cover. Users have to click the image to get to those pieces.
It all amounts to a step toward a Web environment that is more than the magazine, with plenty of short items and Web-only content. That is what Time promised in the summer of 2006 when it said it was going to turn to the Web more and more, particularly on breaking news.
The Economist (www.economist.com)
The brand. The brand. The brand. If there is one thing that Economist.com accomplishes, it is clearly and successfully pushing the Economist brand online. Lest anyone wonder, the site is anchored in the top left corner by the signature white lettering in a red box — in this case spelling Economist.com — with a picture of the current magazine’s cover prominently beneath.
Like the magazine, the site is clean, well-organized and text-heavy. It is also, like its print sibling not heavy with pictures or graphics (there were six on a representative homepage, and four of them were quite small). Even the site’s ads, (often for petroleum companies or large blue-chip corporations) are designed without a lot of colors or jumpy graphics.2
There is a lot of free content here, but most of the stories from the print edition are accessible only to subscribers — those who get the magazine delivered or pay a fee to access premium online content.
At the time we did an accounting of Economist.com it was in the second tier in terms of customization, receiving points for having a multiple-component search and several RSS feeds. It was also in the second tier on multi-media, due to the photos on the page several and podcast options.
Its weakest scores came in interactivity and depth, where it was in the bottom tier. A user-based blog (one where the Web editor picks a topic of the day and users are invited to sound off on it) was essentially the only way for users to participate on the site, hurting its interactivity score. And the site’s twice daily updating – as a magazine site it seems less interested in being up-to-the-minute – cost it points in out depth raking.
The site was in the top tier for the number of revenue streams it tapped. It was boosted by a significant number of advertising combined with the content available for a fee helped its economic score.
But it was brand that stood out. The content here all comes from the staff of the magazine. This is not a place to go to keep up with what’s on the wire. Nor is there content from other publications in The Economist Group, which includes Roll Call and European Voice.
Nonetheless, Economist.com does keep a steady flow of content coming by magazine standards. The top story is new every day, as are the items in Today’s Views — which includes a staff column and a Correspondents Diary (both unbylined) and Debate, a blog devoted to an interesting topic elsewhere on the Web. That is the closest economist.com gets to outside sources for news. The online pieces are short — in most cases, it appears, a bit shorter than the tightly written pieces that appear in the magazine — but they attempt the same kind of news blended with analysis for which the magazine is known.
One of the best features may be the staggering amount of data accessible here. Beyond the news and analysis pieces there are entire separate sections like the site’s Cities Guide, with information about happenings in 27 cities around the world, from Atlanta to Zurich. And there are the country briefings, which look at economic and political news from countries around the world. They include recent stories from the magazine on each country and an economic forecast, a fact sheet and information on the political structure of each.
For The Economist, which prides itself on giving readers data and raw facts along with its analysis, it is yet another way to extend the brand.
The Week (www.theweekmagazine.com)
The online home for The Week, www.theweekmagazine.com, can best be described as exactly that — a place for the online versions of the content that appears in the print title. It is a sparse environment, and appears by and large to be an afterthought.
Its narrow, three-column format is evocative of a magazine page and fills only about half the screen. Only the wider middle column holds real content, which is labeled “In the Magazine…” and features a large photo. The narrow left column is saved for navigation. The current week’s cover image is displayed prominently in the narrow right-hand column (it links to a page where users can subscribe to the print version) and is followed down the page by ads. Users coming to the site are greeted by only three images and three story links on their first screen.
All told, there are 24 links directly to stories on the page, an extremely low number among the sites we examined.
There is no place for breaking news and no attempt at posting daily staff-written content.
In fairness, The Week’s format, which involves giving a weekly summary of news accounts from around the nation and world, may not really be suited to the Web. First, publishing more often online goes against The Week’s raison d’etre: the premise that people are overloaded with information and need a simple, short synopsis of events that they can carry with them. Second, if one wants a quick look at what’s going on in the world from several sources while online, online aggregators already offer many such services.
But that limited approach is ending. The magazine has announced it will soon launch a new Web site that will do on a daily basis what the title does every week — condense news from around the nation and world.
Looking at the rankings in our site inventory, The Week was not a big winner in much of anything. It scored well in one category, branding, where it was in the top tier because editors choose what content goes on the page and all of it is generated in-house – though it must be noted the content consists of summarize stories from other outlets.
In all other categories, the site was in the bottom tier. There were, in essence, no opportunities for customization.3 The page’s only multi-media only components were the photos it ran. There were none of the participation options (user blogs, author email addresses, live chats) we looked for on the site. The site was not updated during the day (in fact only once a week, at the time of our inventory) which hurt its depth score. And the site had few ads – only six – and no fee content which placed it near the bottom in revenue streams.
While many people look at The Week as the print version of a Web aggregator, its Web presence pays little or no heed to the capabilities of the Internet or the on-line world’s 24-hour news cycle. It is the new-media home of a very old-media approach.
Newsweek — Like Time.com, its well-known competitor, Newsweek.com shares its Web space with another news organization — MSNBC — and like Time the site gives its partner high billing. Alongside the red “Daily Edition Newsweek” banner running over the page sits a smaller, blue MSNBC box on the left. The site itself is clean, dominated by a white background and black text with red highlights, which helps make its four-column format seem less crowded.
There is a link for users to get a mobile version of the site, multiple RSS feeds and a podcast of Newsweek on Air, the radio show long produced by the magazine. And there are two ads that, as on Time.com, are for the same product.
But unlike Time.com’s variety, there is only Newsweek content here, and the magazine seems to be churning it out at a pretty good clip. The top story, which sits on the upper left of the page with a large photo, is generally a Web-only piece written for that day. And while there is some material from the actual magazine here, most of the pieces are written specially for the Web and marked with “Web only” on the top. The site also does the magazine’s well-known up-and-down-arrow Conventional Wisdom watch feature every day, abbreviated here as The Daily CW.
One possibly surprising thing about the site is how blogs, a favorite Web addition lately, are hidden well down the page and subtly displayed. Instead, the magazine’s current cover is emphasized, as are a lot of offers to subscribe running up and down the site. Over all, the site looks and feels like something of a bridge between the online and print world.
U.S. News & World Report — The word that comes to mind when one looks at site for U.S. News is sparse. Unlike the sites of Time and Newsweek, it has no pronounced online affiliation with another news organization and, perhaps for that reason, appears somewhat thin. Visually, the left 2/5 of the screen is empty and the only daily updated material sits in a box on the right side at the top of the page.
While the site offers a mobile version, its RSS feed is weekly, and there are no podcasts. There is one ad on the page along with many promotional messages to entice users to subscribe.
Of the three big news weeklies, U.S. News in some ways had the most to gain from a move to the Web. Its news-you-can-use franchise translates well to the online world, where data is storable and sortable. And on USNews.com the many special issues and lists that the magazine creates — Best Colleges, Best Graduate Schools, Beat Health Plans, etc. — are given special treatment on the upper left of the screen, where most sites put their navigational elements. There is limited access to these features, but to get any of them users have to “Go Premium” for $14.95.
The site’s daily content comes in the form of “Today’s Briefing” on the page’s top, which features a daily Campus News Roundup (updated through the day) and the Political Bulletin (posted every morning). Brevity is the thing in both of those areas, with items of a paragraph of two. There is also a “Day in Photos” link here with pictures from around the country and world. Far down the page is “Latest AP Headlines.”
If this is the magazine’s attempt to move itself online, it would appear that in the long term U.S. News will be less about magazine pieces or even heavy reporting and more about quick hits and news you can use.