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Content Analysis

Magazines
By the Project For Excellence In Journalism
Content Analysis

While some of the plans were outlined the year before, 2009 was when American news weeklies finally started to chart distinctly different paths.

Time remained the closest thing to a mass market magazine among news weeklies, though with a more analytical and thematic redesign that it had launched a year before, complete with a host of individual voices.

Newsweek set out a vision of a more targeted niche publication that would no longer be as tied to reporting news, although critics were divided as to whether this was a full-scale reimagining or a graphic redesign.

U.S. News & World Report converted to a monthly focused on specific subjects, blending magazinelike treatment with its with famous — or notorious – consumer ratings.

The Economist, based in Britain, remained perhaps closest to the original vision of the American news weekly as a review of the week, absent bylines, with a consistent world view and sensibility driven by the editors. The Week, on the other hand, reviewed the week by aggregating the content of others, and The Atlantic and the New Yorker pursued long-form journalism that was deeply reported.

“Everybody is going in a different direction now. There isn’t any common denominator anymore,” said U.S. News editor Brian Kelly.1

Topics in Select News Magazines, 2009
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Hall’s Media Research, unpublished data. Columns do not add up to 100 because not all topics are included.

Newsweek

A Newsweek that promised to be “reinvented and rethought” was launched in May. In his explanatory note, editor Jon Meacham promised the magazine now would largely have two kinds of stories: The first would “reported narrative — a piece grounded in original observation and freshly discovered fact.” The second would be “the argued essay — a piece grounded in reason and supported by evidence that makes the case for something.”2

What would be different? “We know you know what the news is,” he wrote, adding that the thing chiefly to be displaced is “the straightforward news piece and news written with a few… new details that does not move past what we already know.”

There was a new heavier paper stock and a major graphic redesign. Structurally, the magazine was reorganized into four sections:  Scope for short-form, front-of-the-book piece such as the conventional wisdom ranking; The Take, home to columnists such as George Will and Howard Fineman; features for longer form narratives and essays; and culture.

Critics were skeptical. “The new Newsweek, judging from the first issue…bizarrely resembles the old Newsweek more than the new Newsweek Meacham describes,” Michael Kinsley wrote in the New Republic.3 “The new Newsweek maintains the same irritating practice as the old one of half-explaining, which is no use either to those who already know the story or to those who don’t.”

David Carr wrote in the New York Times, “Newsweek has responded …by doubling down on its legacy as a Beltway-driven magazine. The new Newsweek looks a bit like The Economist but reads even more like the New Republic, a magazine that has its merits but does not play much beyond the aforementioned Beltway.” 4

One sign of willingness to break from the past came when the magazine devoted an entire issue to the war in Iraq and turned over the editing duties to comedian Stephen Colbert. To the extent that it has become more of an opinion magazine, it would be much larger than the traditional journals of opinion such as The Nation or National Review.

A quantitative analysis of cover topics and the amount of interior space devoted to various types of stories revealed some of the shifts and some of what stayed the same.

Lifestyle dominated Newsweek’s covers in 2009. Fully 10 issues during the year were devoted to arts, culture and other lifestyle topics, more than any other category and up from three the year before. No. 2 was national affairs, with eight covers. The economy and international affairs tied for seven. Health and the military dominated the covers four weeks each, a big increase from 2008 when health received two and the military just one.

Newsweek, Changes in Newshole by Topic
2008 vs-2009
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Hall’s Media Research, unpublished data. Columns do not add up to 100 because not all topics are included.

Under the covers, the most space (35%) was still devoted to national affairs, according to page counts conducted by Hall’s Media Research. That was down from 39% the year before. Foreign affairs, at 16%, consumed more space in 2009 than the year before (11%)  and was exactly the same allocation as in Time. In May, then Newsweek assistant managing editor Kathleen Deveny wrote, “One thing you’ll find less of: celebrity news. Our research told us you didn’t want it, which is a relief since we were doing it only because we thought we had to.” Yet the Hall’s data reveal the amount of celebrity/entertainment news was virtually unchanged (9.5% in 2009 versus 9.1% in 2008) while slightly more space was devoted to business news.

Time

Time, whose redesign and refocus was executed a year earlier, changed less than others in 2009.

Time stuck to more familiar topics and treatments, although it greatly increased the number of lifestyle topics appearing on its covers. At 13 covers apiece, national affairs tied with lifestyle for first place among cover topics. The economy came in second, with 10 covers, twice as many as in 2008. International covers fell to two from five while the number of covers devoted to health jumped from four to seven (including a “health care special report” two months after “the health issue”). Three covers focused on the environment, one more than the year before.

That is not to say that Time steered entirely clear of provocative subjects. Its cover story on conservative talk show host Glenn Beck was entitled “Mad Man” and was illustrated with a close-up photo of Beck sticking his tongue out. The story sought to go beyond a traditional profile by including a history of “paranoid politics” and asking if Beck’s angry style of politics was stirring unjustified fears.

Time, too, strove to connect news events with readers in an accessible way. Among the 10 cover stories on the economy during 2009 were ones entitled “The Economy and You” and “The New Frugality.”

Changes to the magazine’s story coverage, as revealed by the Hall’s data, were also relatively small. National affairs remained the top category, at 30%, but was down from 35% the year before, a logical decline following an election year. Foreign affairs and business news gained space.

Time, Changes in Newshole by Topic
2008 vs-2009
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Hall’s Media Research, unpublished data. Columns do not add up to 100 because not all topics are included.

U.S. News & World Report

Structurally among news magazines, the biggest transformation came at U.S. News & World Report, which changed frequency and outlook and converted its weekly news magazine efforts to the Web. (read more about the magazine’s digital strategies

First, the weekly became a monthly in print. Those monthly issues were focused around one theme or subject — health, money and business, education and science — but also included stories unrelated to the main theme. Several of the issues were built around the magazine’s trademark rankings of colleges, high schools, hospitals, health care plans and more, but not all.5

U.S. News & World Report, Changes in Newshole by Topic
2008 vs-2009
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Hall’s Media Research, unpublished data. Columns do not add up to 100 because not all topics are included.

In June, for example, the magazine offered a “progress report” on President Obama, asking: “Will his bold initiatives work?” In November, the magazine trumpeted an exclusive interview with Obama as part of a special issue on leaders and leadership.

Consumerism remained a specialty. In the “solving the college crisis” issue, the long-term advantages of a college diploma were weighed against sharply rising tuition. A sidebar offered “smart ways to pay for your education.”  And a “post-recession money guide” was chock full of news-you-can-use, such as “rethinking your 401K” and “best jobs for the future.”

On its covers, business (including consumer advice) dominated in 2009, with five covers devoted to the topic. The next most frequent topic was health (three covers), then national affairs (two). The remaining two were devoted to lifestyle topics — “50 Ways to Improve Your Life in 2009” and “Surviving the College Crisis”.   

Inside, the page counts show U.S. News decreased its coverage of national and foreign affairs more than Time, Newsweek and the New Yorker. National affairs, for instance, dropped from 35% of space a year earlier to 21%.

Coverage of business grew, to 14.5% up from 7.8%. So did consumer news. So did personal health (to 13.1%, from 8.8% in 2008), personal finance (to nearly 12%, up from 8%), and jobs and career (to 7%, up from 1.7%).


Footnotes

1. Brian Kelly, PEJ interview, December 10, 2009.

2. Jon Meacham, “A New Magazine for a Changing World,” Newsweek, May 25, 2009.

3. Michael Kinsley, “Backward Runs ‘Newsweek,’ ” New Republic, May 21, 2009.

4. David Carr, “Newsweek’s Journalism of Fourth and Long,” New York Times, May 24, 2009.

5. The complete list of rankings on U.S. News’ website: high schools, colleges, graduate schools, universities, hospitals, children’s hospitals, health plans, nursing homes, cars and trucks, leaders, places to retire and places to work in the federal government.