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Online Trends

Online Trends

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The online magazine revolution, evidenced in 2006 with Web site redesigns for both Time and The Economist, played out slowly in 2007.

In October, Newsweek formally ended its seven-year distribution agreement with MSNBC to become a stand-alone Web site. The Week launched its new site, which applies it weekly aggregation model to the daily news cycle. Even the New Yorker, the venerable book dedicated to long-form journalism, re-launched its site in February, adding animated cartoons and blogs. The redesigned sites took different approaches to pay-for-content, with Newsweek and the New Yorker making everything free and The Week putting its current issues behind a pay wall.

In short, magazine owners still struggle with how to incorporate the Web into their business and content plans. To what extent does the print product refer people to the Web site for additional information? And does the Web site in turn recruit subscribers to the print version? Heading into 2008, the only thing they seem to agree on is the need to somehow incorporate the Internet, and blogs in particular, into their magazines.

How the move to the Web ultimately shakes out for news magazines is foggy. How different do their online personas have to be from their print personalities? What is the proper mix of new Web-only content and print content? And how will magazines handle the free-vs.-fee content debate?

While most of these questions still linger, a few things seem clear.

It’s taken a while, but news magazines have decided that blogs and a more casual approach have a place on their sites. This is particularly noteworthy for a medium the prides itself on strong identity.

And while the picture of how magazines fit onto the Web is still fuzzy, as of 2007 the audience numbers seem to indicate there will be a place for their content in the digital world.

What’s New for Newsmagazines

Newsweek.com: In September, the Washington Post Company, which owns Newsweek, announced that the magazine’s Web site would be breaking away from MSNBC.com. Newsweek.com would continue to share content with MSNBC.com, the Post announced, but the magazine would take more control over advertising and content. The move appeared to be in line with the Post’s larger corporate goal of investing in its Web sites to attract advertising revenue lost at its flagship newspaper and at Newsweek.1

The net result was a new Web address, www.newsweek.com, and a revamped look that greatly resembled … the redesign of Time magazine’s site in late 2006. As of late November, the dominant graphic feature is a photo box on the upper right of the page that rotates through five images and stories – like Time’s. The red banner across the top of the page mirrors Time’s as well. And, of course, there are blogs by Newsweek writers.

There is video on the upper right along with two other tabs for photos and audio, some of it from Newsweek, but most (at least early on) appears to be Associated Press video of big breaking stories. Conventional Wisdom, the Newsweek franchise featuring up and down arrows charting the week’s winners and losers, followed by pithy comments, has a prominent place on the home page – and its own page inside the site with a long list of topics.

Perhaps most significant, the content on the home page is refreshed every day, not just recycled from the magazine. This was true with Newsweek’s old site as well, but there is more of it now.

One noteworthy feature is a Recent Magazine link that takes users to a page where they can scroll through previous issues of the magazine (iPhone-style, with big cover images) and read cover stories going back many months.

Newsweek did not use its redesign as a chance to pursue a pay-for-content approach. As seems to be the trend with many news outlets, all the items on this site are free – including the week’s magazine contents.

TheWeekDaily.com: As it has done since its inception in 2001, The Week has gone in a different direction with its site redesign, judging by our inventory of it in February 2008. The overall look is sparse. The visual elements are subtle – no giant photos here. If one thing dominates the page, it is text. The lead items from the day, aggregated briefs citing other publications, are teased with a few lines of text and a small photo.

There are also two text-only business shorts teased on the front. Farther down the pages, small square photos and headlines link to Arts & Leisure items. The banner across the top of the page is also fairly minimalist — just “The Week Daily” in black and gray on a white background and a red line underneath.

There is one bigger difference here, though. Daily content is free to all who come to the site, but if you want to read the magazine online you will have to pay. Next to those lead items is a blue box with the headline “For Our Print Subscribers” that offers headlines from the week’s print magazine. “Subscribers,” the site says, “have access to all the content from the current issue, plus a full searchable archive.”

Why the difference? Unlike Time and Newsweek, The Week is having no problems getting people to purchase its hard-copy version. In fact, its subscriber base is growing and it is not eager to tamper with those numbers. The Economist, which is also seeing subscriber growth, uses the same mix of free and pay on its site.

NewYorker.com: As the world of Web 2.0 took off, it looked like the New Yorker was left in the dust. Yes, there were online archives and the editors would occasionally make old pieces available free (and even feature them) if those pieces were thought to have significance to current events. But the Web pages, with their left side for navigation and right side for ads, left little room for text. And the columns for text very much evoked an online version of the print product, not a new Web identity.

The new NewYorker.com, going by our February inventory, is much more a creature of the Web – even the butterfly that Eustace Tilley studies through his monocle is animated. Navigation has moved to the top of the home page, leaving more room to display content. And the dominant color is white, giving the pages and airy, open feel.

The site offers audio podcasts and a slate of blogs, some by staffers and some by contributors (and some simply links to contributors’ off-site blogs). The magazine also took the opportunity to animate some of its famous cartoons, with mixed results – the humor of one-panel New Yorker cartoons may not translate well to 30 seconds of animation.

While the blogs on the site (which cover everything from politics and foreign affairs to pop music and life on the West Coast) are intended to give it a fresher feel, this is still the New Yorker – where thoughtfulness counts more than speed. In other words, blog authors here are not under orders to write something fresh daily. Days can go by without an entry.

More important, the New Yorker has largely gone with the free-content option on its redesigned site. Some articles are held back, but much of the magazine is available to online users free of charge. Still, that fact that the New Yorker does not post some content is interesting in that it also is still gaining subscribers.

It seems that the Web model for magazines is if your print publication is doing well, don’t offer all of your content free online.

TheAtlantic.com: It did not get near the volume of press of its competitors, but the Atlantic did redesign its site.

Like the New Yorker, it moved a navigation bar to the top of the screen, under the header. The site also added a new set of (yes) blogs, with the goal of “pursuing the truth through collegial combat among bloggers who have different points of view.” And the home page features a sequence of five photos that rotate and link to stories.

With its changes, the home page of the new TheAtlantic.com (formally renamed from The Atlantic Online) looks pretty much the same as Time.com or Newsweek.com – minus much of the clutter. There is even a video link featuring original content, generally a longer-form piece of at least five minutes.

Going its own way, TheAtlantic.com has abolished its tiered-content system and offered all of its content free online (the New Yorker does not require subscription for online content, either, but not all of its print articles are available online). The Atlantic, taking advantage of the literary bounty it has amassed as the nation’s oldest news magazine, has made some of its archives free as well, offering articles from writers like Mark Twain.

The Atlantic’s goal, one that many publications are moving toward, is to establish an online identity separate from the print magazine. James Bennet, the Atlantic’s editor, told the New York Times that the magazine’s Web site “functioned for too long as just a marketing arm for the print magazine, rather than a publication in its own right.” This revamp is an attempt to redefine that identity.2

Web Economics

What the Web will mean for the news magazines’ bottom lines is not clear, but the early numbers are not promising.

Advertising Age magazine ranked the top 25 magazines in percentages of “overall digital revenue” for 2006 (the last year for which Ad Age has figures) and found only one news magazine – Newsweek – which tied for last.

On the surface that number still sounds somewhat promising — at least one magazine is in the top 25. But only 5% of Newsweek’s total revenues came from digital in 2006. Newsweek’s parent company, the Washington Post, is seeing better digital revenue numbers – about 11% — from its newspaper division’s Web site, washingpost.com.

What kinds of magazines are successfully mining the Web? First, those that target niche audiences. The leader is Entrepreneur, a magazine aimed at helping people start and grow small businesses, with 33.3% of its revenues coming from digital. Magazines that feature pay-for-content areas also do well – Consumer Reports has the second highest portion of online revenues at 33%.

Business publications also score online revenue. Fortune, Fortune Small Business and Money all were in the top 25, each pulling in 12.5% from digital.

While it is too soon to see an impact on Newsweek’s digital bottom line — its restructuring and redesign took place only in the third quarter of 2007 — Time’s changes have been in place since early 2006. And the early results have not been good.

As part of its new focus in 2006, Time Inc., and Time magazine in particular, announced its intent to become a “multi-platform content company.” The magazine cut back its rate base (the number of print subscribers it promises advertisers) to improve audience measurement and increase visitors and advertisers. Through the first two quarters of 2006, though, online ad revenues at Time grew only 1%.

Some analysts defend the company, arguing that it is still recovering from its decision to give AOL control over its Web sites following the Time Warner-AOL merger in 2001

Time Warner’s new chief executive, Jeffrey Bewkes, comes to the company’s top spot from AOL, where he tried to revive that company’s revenue stream after it did away with online subscriptions. His Web background suggests Time is focused on continuing its multi-platform content plan.

Some predict the company will continue to struggle. Alan Schanzer, managing partner of the digital media planning firm MEC Interaction, told Crain’s New York Business in August 2007 that “Time Inc. has yet to find a central digital strategy for itself.” 3

Online Audience

It is too early to judge how news magazines’ online focus will affect audience numbers, but the strategies bring their own challenges.

For instance, Newsweek.com will be free of MSNBC control and will be able to sell and place its own ads. But much of Newsweek’s site traffic has, in the past, come courtesy of MSNBC, which teased major Newsweek stories on its front page.

In August 2007, Newsweek.com had 7.2 million total unique monthly visitors and half of those came from MSNBC.com. Eliminate linkers from MSNBC.com, and Newsweek traffic drops to 3.6 million in August. During that same month, the Web site of Time magazine had 4.4 million unique visitors.4

At U.S. News & World Report, which has not retooled its site, the audience numbers were flat through the same period.

Critics have argued that the Web is an odd fit for magazines. Unlike television or newspapers, which both seem suited for the Web with their focus on breaking news, the magazine franchise usually involves analysis – not easy to do on the fly.

The numbers, however, offer some interesting challenges to this idea. What is less clear at this point is what that implies.

Is it that the Web represents something more than immediacy? Or does being online offer magazines a way to compete in a more fast-paced culture, and also draw in people who might not otherwise come to their more considered work? Or, alternatively, is the Web undermining that old form and making magazines faster, but also less thoughtful and more transitory?

The numbers suggest something is occurring. Time, for instance, saw a 34% bump in its unique monthly audience, comparing Nielsen Online measurements of unique audiences of November 2006 to November 2007. The number of unique visitors to its Web site climbed to 5.22 million from 3.89 million.

Newsweek also saw a smaller increase in numbers of 9% – from 5.12 million in October to 5.58 million in November, the first full month after the magazine split with MSNBC.com. Next year’s figures may tell the tale for Newsweek’s online experiment.

Unique Visitors for Select Magazine Web sites
November to November 2006 v. 2007
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen
In November 2006, Atlantic did not meet the minimum requirement for measurement

Footnotes

1. Washington Post “Investing” column, September 25, 2007.

2. Richard Pérez-Peña, “A Venerable Magazine Energizes Its Web Site,” the New York Times, January 21, 2008.

3. Matthew Flamm. “Digitally Challenged Time Inc. Past Prime?” Crain’s New York Business.com, August 18, 2007.

4. Keith Kelly. “Newsweek Gets a New Look in Print, on Web,” New York Post, October 13, 2007.