By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
As readers have drifted away, the content of newsweekly magazines over the years has changed as well.
The most basic shift, measured in data kept for advertisers, has been a gradual move away from traditional “front of the book” hard news toward a broader topic base.1 Editors also argue the magazines have moved more toward analysis and interpretation and away from a digest of the week past. In varying degrees, they have also turned to writers from opinion publications like the New Republic and the Washington Monthly to fill their rosters.
Until now, that process has been largely incremental, something done with an eye to not alienating existing audiences and usually without grand or far-reaching proclamations about redefining the news magazine genre. But 2007 has seen more concrete changes. U.S. News is now more akin to Consumer Reports, focusing more on “news you can use,” and Time is becoming more like The Atlantic, moving toward analysis and interpretation.
The evidence at the end of 2007 suggests we are only at the start of wherever that journey will lead.
In 2006, Time announced what sounded like a radical change. It promised to overhaul its magazine and Web site and change its delivery date from Monday to Friday.
As Time described it, the moves included contracting with more columnists and using the Web site to stay more on top of the news in the time of the 24-hour news cycle. Time’s new Web site was to be “a different Time.com,” its managing editor, Richard Stengel, wrote, “a sharp, dynamic, constantly updated news site.” 2 The redesigned magazine would have more voices and generally shorter pieces, an approach that moved away from Time’s omniscient writing approach of the past. “Henry Luce may be rolling over in his grave over this,” Stengel told the New York Times. “But it had outlasted its usefulness.” 3
After offering little in the way of response, in October 2007 Newsweek also declared it was redesigning its Web site and print magazine. The changes in the print magazine were billed as more subtle – “refinement more than a revolution,” Newsweek’s editor, Jon Meacham, wrote in an editor’s note – but the goal, in theory, according to the magazine, was longer stories. Like Time’s redesign, Newsweek’s also created more space in the print edition for reader e-mails and letters. (For more details, see Online Trends.)
U.S. News, the regular third-place finisher in the three-magazine race, watched and waited.
What have the changes brought?
It is too early to say for certain. Time’s redesigned book hit the newsstands on March 26. Newsweek’s did not make its debut until October 15.
It will take some time to see if the promises of change are realized and have any long-term impact on content. But here is what a qualitative and quantitative accounting shows.
Inside the Magazines
The most basic data on news magazine content is derived from Hall’s Media Research, which goes through magazines page by page for each issue to determine what topics are receiving coverage.
In previous years, the Hall’s data had shown two clear trends. First, Time and Newsweek over the years have broadened and lightened the range of topics they covered. There was less coverage of national government news as well as fewer high-culture book reviews or media analyses. In their place were interviews with Bill Gates and the comedian Dave Chapelle and a story on, say, Microsoft’s latest game box. In effect, they had shifted from being traditional newsweeklies to general interest magazines that cover news. U.S. News & World Report, in contrast, has retained a heavier orientation to traditional topics of national and international affairs and less focus on lifestyle or “back of the book” coverage.4
The second general finding was the extent to which Time and Newsweek covered the same topics week to week. As national affairs coverage dropped in 2005, for instance, culture news went from 11% to 15%, health and medical science and international news were up 2 percentage points, to 10% and 17% of all pages, respectively. And business pages and entertainment and celebrity both grew to 9% each.
What do the data show for 2007? Only Time made its changes early enough in the year to expect any real difference. According to the basic accounting of topics, however, the subject matter of the magazine had not changed. Through August, Time devoted virtually the identical amount of space to subjects as it did in 2006, before the redesign.
That means the slight differences in topic in Newsweek, and more substantial ones from U.S. News, also continued to hold true. Time continued to have slightly more coverage of foreign affairs than Newsweek (or U.S. News) and slightly less of national affairs. But otherwise the two publications cover roughly similar subject matter in similar degree.
|Front of Book Topics|
|News You Can Use|
|Back of Book Topics|
|Home & Garden||.3%||.2%||0%|
|Design Your Own Chart|
Source: Hall’s Media Research, unpublished data
2007 data from January-August for magazines studied by PEJ (see sidebar in Audience for details)
U.S. News & World Report continued to stand in contrast to its rivals. Just 2.8% of its newshole was devoted to celebrity/entertainment, travel and leisure, home and gardening, lifestyle.5 That compares with 17.3% at Time and 13.1% at Newsweek.
On the other hand, 57.3% of U.S. News’ coverage was devoted to national, international and business coverage, compared with 51.2% for Time and 48.9% for Newsweek.
And 18.9% of its space was devoted to consumer-oriented pieces — that is, health and personal finance — compared with 7.2% at Time and 11.2% at Newsweek.
Another indicator of the content and personality of the newsweeklies is how they sell themselves to the public: What is on their covers?
The cover pictures and text not only tell readers what is inside, but they also set a tone and evoke a personality. What is the image and message they want their audience to take away from a quick look – including on a newsstand surrounded by many other possible purchases?
Looking at content through this approach – 46 magazine covers between January and the end of November – Time and Newsweek were selling slightly different content. Time leaned somewhat more heavily toward national, military and foreign affairs than Newsweek, and somewhat less toward health and lifestyle than U.S. News.
At Time, 20 of those 46 covers (or 43%) were about national affairs, compared with 15 at Newsweek (33%) and 10 at U.S. News (22%). Four covers (9%) were about military or international affairs (compared to three at Newsweek and two at U.S. News).
U.S. News, with 34%, was most likely to feature topics specific to lifestyle or health on its cover; Newsweek and Time followed at 15% and 11%, respectively.
|Design Your Own Chart|
Source: PEJ Research
.But reading the magazines, rather than just looking at the covers, we sense a more subtle difference. By our reckoning, following its redesign, the new Time magazine tended to be more conceptual in its approach, using issues in the news to get at concepts, while Newsweek seemed more simply topical.
Consider, for instance, the way both magazines approached global warming coverage in 2007. Each devoted two covers to the issue.
The two feature articles in Newsweek looked at two facets of the global warming debate. “The Green Giant” was a celebrity political piece about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s effect on the climate change debate both substantively in what he has done as California governor as well as to change the image of environmentalism.6 The second article, “Global Warming Is Hoax,*” is a straightforward description of how the various groups that say that global warming is not scientifically proven fact have organized and managed to influence the debate around the issue.7
Time ran two covers that featured global warming as an issue, as well. One was a “news you can use” cover, “The Global Warming Survival Guide.” Featured with this cover were two other articles on global warming that looked at the various ways to try and fix the problem.8 The other cover featured a story entitled “Fight for the Top of the World.” This article tried to connect global warming to a larger subject rather than focusing on a single aspect. It put global warming in the complex context of international affairs and a looming battle for resources, using the Arctic as a case study.
“But now that global warming has rendered the Arctic more accessible than ever – and yet at the same time more fragile – a new frenzy has broken out for control of the trade routes at the top of the world and the riches that nations hope and believe may lie beneath the ice. Just as 150 years ago, when Russia and Britain fought for control of central Asia, it is tempting to think that – not on the steppe or dusty mountains but in the icy wastes of the frozen north – a new Great Game is afoot.” 9
This conceptual approach could be seen in other pieces during the year as well. Time took several stories that were not really in the nation’s headlines – things like national service for youth and the Democratic Party’s handling of religion – and turned them into national affairs cover stories. The national service cover, moreover, was championing an issue, not just talking about it.
By year’s end, it was less certain whether Newsweek’s changes were a new approach or amounted more to a redesign and response to Time. “It was stealth redesign,” editor Meacham told the New York Post.10
What is clear is that Time is making a point of announcing that it is trying something dramatic. That involves raising expectations, but it also implies that the editors have a bold vision. Newsweek has downplayed its moves, which may give it more room to maneuver but also risks suggesting that there is less of a plan.
The New Yorker
Hall’s data also track one of what might be considered an alternative to the newsweeklies, the New Yorker. As we have seen in past years, the New Yorker’s topic range varies in different years. During election years, coverage of national affairs grows
In the non-election year of 2007, despite substantial coverage of the campaign in the media generally, the pattern held. National affairs made up 7.2% of the space in the magazine, down slightly from 12.2% of the magazine’s pages in 2006.
|Design Your Own Chart|
Source: Hall’s Media Research, unpublished data
Topic areas defined by Halls Media Research
This might be somewhat surprising. A new Congress should have given the magazine a lot of opportunities to deal in its stock and trade – the personality profile. Through the election and all of 2007, however, a piece on new Speaker Nancy Pelosi had not been done. The magazine had already profiled new Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2005. Much of the coverage of the new Congress was up front in the magazine’s shorter “News and Comment” column. The prominently placed column by Rick Hertzberg, offering analysis of current events, is a seen by many as a signature product of the New Yorker.
Where did the space go? Some of it went to business coverage, which rose from 2.3% to 3.9%. The magazine’s culture coverage, a staple of the New Yorker, also grew from 22.6% to 25.5%
1. PEJ annual State of the News Media reports, 2004-2007.
2. Richard Stengel, “A Changing TIME,” Time, January 6, 2007.
3. Katharine Q. Seelye. “With Redesign of Time, Sentences Run Forward,” the New York Times, March 12, 2007: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/ 12/business/media/12time.html.
4. Hall’s Report, January 2007-December 2007
5. This figure includes fashion/food/beauty
6. Karen Breslau. “The Green Giant,” Newsweek, April 16, 2007.
7. Sharon Begley. “The Truth About Denial,” Newsweek, April 16, 2007.
8. Mark Hertsgaard. “The Global Warming Survival Guide” and “On the Front Lines of Climate Change,” Time Magazine, April 9, 2007.
9. Jeff Graff. “Fight for the Top of the World,” Time Magazine, October 1, 2007.
10. Keith J. Kelly. “Newsweek Gets a New Look in Print, on Web,” the New York Post, October 13, 2007.