Print Is Dead! Or Is It?

December 2012

The news keeps getting worse — especially for newsweeklies. After eighty years in print, Newsweek has been slain by the beast.

Tina Brown, the magazine’s “celebrity editor,” has announced that, beginning early next year, Newsweek will cease publication and move to an all-digital format. The December 31, 2012, issue will be its last.

Launched in 1933, Newsweek’s circulation stood at 3.1 million in 2000. Over the course of the first decade of the new millennium, its circulation went into freefall, its debts skyrocketed, and there were grumblings that the magazine had “lost its focus,” writes Andrew Bender in Forbes (Oct. 20). In 2010, with circulation having bottomed out at 1.8 million — an alarming 42 percent decline that was accompanied by an even more alarming drop in advertising revenue — The Washington Post Company, the magazine’s owner since 1966, finally put it up on the auction block.

Enter Sidney Harman, a 92-year-old stereo-equipment mogul. Although he had zero experience in publishing, he bought Newsweek for a grand total of $1 — plus an assumption of the magazine’s $47 million debt.

Meanwhile, in 2008, after successful, if turbulent, tenures as the editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, Tina Brown helped found The Daily Beast, an online news and opinion outlet with a liberal slant. Harman saw his opportunity and negotiated a merger of his magazine with Brown’s website, creating the Newsweek/Daily Beast Company. Harman then convinced the reluctant Brown, who has been described in The New York Times as “one of the world’s most famous and accomplished editors” (Feb. 20, 2011), to breathe new life into the flagging publication, something she’d had success doing in the past. Harman gave the magazine three years to succeed.

Brown set out overhauling and redesigning News­week, but after trying with varying success to drum up interest for her newly reimagined product — controversial covers included an imaginary Princess Diana at age 50 and Obama as the “first gay president” — as of June 2012 its circulation had stagnated in the 1.5 million range and its annual deficits percolated in the $40 million range. Bemused onlookers wondered how long the experiment would last. With Harman having passed on to his eternal reward in 2011, Brown and CEO Baba Shetty announced this October that it was time to pull the plug, one year short of the old man’s deadline.

In this final chapter of accidents, Brown will preside over the demise of the magazine she was hired to revive.

Of course, Tina & Co. don’t consider this an ending but a new beginning. “We are transitioning Newsweek, not saying goodbye to it,” she announced in The Daily Beast (Oct. 18). No matter how one chooses to phrase it, the fact is that the world must bid adieu to Newsweek as it has been known for eighty years. The “new” Newsweek, in its digital incarnation, will be known as “Newsweek Global,” and will be available online and on tablet platforms by subscription only. The “transition” from paper to screen was, Brown says, inevitable: “In our judgment, we have reached a tipping point at which we can most efficiently and effectively reach our readers in an all-digital format. This was not the case just two years ago. It will increasingly be the case in the years ahead.” Why online? The Daily Beast, she notes, “now attracts more than 15 million unique visitors a month, a 70 percent increase in the past year alone.” Why tablets? By the end of 2012, she states, “tablet users in the United States alone are expected to exceed 70 million, up from 13 million just two years ago.”

With data like that at hand, Brown declares that it’s time to “embrace the all-digital future.”

Ah yes, the old “all-digital future,” that utopian vision from the early 1990s. Aren’t we still waiting for the “paperless offices” we were promised back then?

It is tempting to dismiss Brown’s rationale as the wishful spinning of a failed venture into the triumph of forward-looking visionaries. Indeed, some naysayers have spoken thus. Felix Salmon of Reuters says that “the chances that Newsweek will succeed as a digital-only subscription-based publication are exactly zero” (Oct. 18). There’s simply no demand for a pay-based news site in a market saturated with free content. And then there are the numbers Brown didn’t mention: Whereas Newsweek was losing approximately $40 million a year, The Daily Beast is losing $10 million a year. That’s not peanuts. As noted by The New York Times, “The task of taking two money-losing operations and combining them to try to become one profitable enterprise has struck many in the media business as fanciful” (Feb. 21, 2011). Yes, dumping the print edition will save production costs (and staff layoffs are, of course, expected), but it will also mean a reduction in the all-important ad revenue. Whereas the print edition of Newsweek had 1.37 million subscribers in October, the digital version had only 27,000, according to figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. That’s not even two percent of the print total. Good luck selling those figures to potential advertisers. But not to worry, says CEO Shetty. He told The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 18) that he expects Newsweek to gain “hundreds of thousands” of digital subscribers in 2013 alone. Fanciful? We’ll know a year from now.

It is also tempting to pin the blame on Newsweek itself for its demise. It often labored in the shadow of Time magazine, which it never managed to surpass in respectability or readership, even when newsweeklies set the national agenda and drove national conversations. Yet Time too has been struggling, and both it and Newsweek have long since succumbed to what we termed the “infotainment trend” in news journalism (“How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Internet,” New Oxford Note, June 2011). As of 2012 both were virtually indistinguishable from People and Us magazines — all flash and fluff, concerned more with highlighting outrageous personalities than important events. People, it is instructive to note, has managed to buck industry trends: Its circulation is holding strong and steady in the 3 million range. How we love our celebrity gossip!

And yet, People’s enduring allure notwithstanding, those troubling industry trends can’t be ignored. There are true believers in the inevitability of the “all-digital future.” Andrew Sullivan, a “married” homosexual and self-described Catholic who blogs for The Daily Beast — and who penned Newsweek’s “First Gay President” cover story — said that he has “come to see physical magazines and newspapers as, at this point, absurd” (Forbes, Oct. 20). They’re “like Wile E Coyote suspended three feet over a cliff for a few seconds. They’re still there; but there’s nothing underneath; and the plunge is fast and steep.”

Sullivan, who began blogging way back in 2000, says he advised Newsweek to go digital years ago. As much as we’d like to laugh his comments off as the triumphal told-ya-so of a new-media mandarin, he echoes the sentiments of what we consider saner, more reasonable minds.

For instance, in October of last year, when announcing Ignatius Press’s decision to cease publishing its two magazines, Catholic World Report and Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Fr. Joseph Fessio stated, “It doesn’t take any prophetic gifts to see what is happening to print magazines. The rapid growth of electronic sources of news and opinion has led to the demise of many magazines, and this is clearly a trend that is going to continue.” Those two magazines are now online-only entities.

Even more ominously, Roger McCaffrey, president of Roman Catholic Books and founder and former publisher of The Latin Mass magazine, has predicted that most Catholic publications will fold over the next few years, as production costs increase and readership declines.

In an editorial lamenting the loss of Catholic World Report and Homiletic & Pastoral Review (“Deaths in the Family,” Dec. 2011), we wondered which Catholic publication would be the next to “get vaporized.” We learned the answer a few months later. The victim: 30 Days, which “suspended” publication in mid-2012. An Italian magazine published in six languages, including English, that reported and offered commentary on Vatican and ecclesiastical news, its full title was 30 Days in the Church and the World. It was the next but it won’t be the last.

It’s undeniable that the magazine industry, from one end to the other, is teetering on the brink — and no one is safe, no matter how great or small, except maybe People. And that includes the small “Catholic” niche, the even smaller “orthodox Catholic” niche, and the minute “orthodox Catholic journal of ideas” niche, where the NOR resides.

Seventeen years ago, in a November 1995 editorial, we looked back at how improbably far we’d come since 1977, when we launched what was, at the time, the only orthodox Catholic journal of ideas out there. “If the NOR has one legacy,” we wrote, “it is this: At a critical time, it proved that a general-interest journal of ideas which supports the Pope and Catholic orthodoxy could exist.” That itself was a triumph. But not only did the NOR prove its own worth, it essentially discovered and defined a new category of publication, thus paving the way for a whole host of similarly inspired magazines. “Today [in November 1995], we are happy to report, there are many such journals. In addition to the NOR there is Caelum et Terra, Catholic Dossier, The Catholic World Report, Crisis, First Things, and 30 Days…. As we approach entry into our 20th year of publication, we’re grateful to find ourselves part of a gathering force of orthodox Catholic journals of ideas.”

Today, in December 2012, as we complete our 35th year of publication, only two of those seven magazines are still in print: First Things and the NOR. That “gathering force” has been disbanded, dispersed, greatly diminished. How long will it be until we’re writing the concluding lines of the NOR’s legacy?

That depends on whether a “general-interest journal of ideas which supports the Pope and Catholic orthodoxy” can still exist in today’s media environment. And that depends, ultimately, on you.

We’re going to make a fighting effort to prove the NOR’s enduring worth — as a print publication. We don’t buy the line that the future is “all digital,” that publishers are faced with an either/or proposition: Go digital or die. So far, it hasn’t been proven that owning a tablet and enjoying a print subscription are mutually exclusive. Rather, we believe that a magazine can develop digital components that can support its print publication, not necessarily undermine it. That’s why we’re eager to make the NOR available on tablets and e-readers. And we don’t believe that we have to tap into the tablet market at the expense of our print audience. In fact, if Tina Brown’s projections about the growth of the tablet market are accurate, then it stands to reason that this move will bolster, rather than torpedo, our apostolate, by making orthodox Catholic journalism accessible to more people in more ways. Our apostolate would then stand upon three pillars: print, web, and tablet.

To make this possible, and to balance our ledgers — which, as explained in our October editorial (“Get Proactive or Perish”), went into the red over the long, hot summer — we need to raise $197,000. Amid the maelstrom of bad news that’s pummeling the publishing industry, this need has become all the more urgent. If you value the work of the NOR, let us know it by lending us a helping hand in this, our hour of need.

As mentioned in October, we have neither the ability nor the desire to “transition” to an all-digital format. We’d love to prove Andrew Sullivan wrong, that the NOR is not just an “absurdity,” a buffoonish obsolescence destined for history’s dustbin. But without your support — in the form of prayers, donations, and subscriptions — it will be Sullivan and his ilk who have the last laugh.

Plant your flag with this print publication and together we’ll prove to the world that an orthodox Catholic journal of ideas can continue to exist, and can make a difference. Please send in your donation today to: New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706. Checks and money orders may be made payable to: New Oxford Review. We also accept VISA, MasterCard, and Discover credit-card donations at our website, www.newoxfordreview.org, as well as by mail (at the above address) and by telephone (510-526-5374, ext. 0). The NOR is a nonprofit religious organization and has 501(c)(3) status with the Internal Revenue Service. Donations are, therefore, tax deductible to the extent allowed by law.

We wish you a blessed Advent and a peace-filled Christmas. Please remember our apostolate in your prayers.

DONATE TODAY!: Join the NOR Associates


"Encyclicals for Inmates" UPDATE:

In a letter in our March issue (“Encyclicals for Inmates”), Frank J. Schwindler, an inmate at Wilcox State Prison in Abbeville, Georgia, requested supplies for the launch of a Catholic library that had been approved by the prison’s Protestant chaplain, Linda Taylor. Per prison rules, it was requested that packages destined for the Wilcox Catholic library bear the NOR’s return address.

The response to Mr. Schwindler’s letter was so overwhelming that Chaplain Taylor soon contacted us saying that the limited space reserved for Catholic material had been maxed out and the overflow would be returned to our offices. In short order we were in­un­dated with package upon package intended for Wilcox but refused due to lack of space. We put a notice in our June issue thanking readers for their tremendous generosity and promising to put the materials to the use for which they were intended by distributing them to a prison that could use them.

After a bit of searching about, we made contact with Fr. George Williams, S.J., the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin State Prison in nearby Marin County. San Quentin is one of the largest prisons in the state of California, with some 6,000 inmates (roughly a quarter of whom are Catholic), and it is home to the nation’s largest death row, with about 750 men. Fr. Williams, who lives at the Jesuit residence in Berkeley, only a few miles from our offices, was appointed to the chaplaincy in January 2011. Despite the grim conditions, and the seemingly unending, wearying demands placed on him, being a full-time chaplain at San Quentin is, Fr. Williams says, his “dream job.” (He and his ministry were profiled in the July 2, 2012, issue of America magazine.)

Fr. Williams was pleased with the quality — and abundance — of the materials we had to offer and was eager to put them to good use. The Catholic inmates at San Quentin are hungry for good Catholic reading material, and the space available is ample enough to accommodate most of the books, magazines, CDs, DVDs, prayer cards, encyclicals, etc., that we received from you, our readers.

As for Mr. Schwindler, he was transferred out of Wilcox shortly after we published his letter, and was therefore unable to witness the fruits of his efforts. Such are the vagaries of prison life. You can read more about his travels and adventures in the Georgia prison system in his letter in this issue. What he and his fellow Georgia inmates wouldn’t give to have a full-time Catholic chaplain! The inmates at San Quentin have surely been blessed, both in the person of Fr. Williams and as the recipients of the generosity of NOR readers, who have exercised an exemplary charity toward the men whom Fr. Williams describes as “the most despised people in our country.”

Back to December 2012 Issue

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My kindle is hungry for this. I had to drop my subscription over a year ago when my living expenses as a barely-employed graduate student began to outpace my meager earnings, but I hope to be able to pick up my subscription again once I've put aside a little money. I'll do what I can to keep the NOR print edition alive until the day I can read it on my Kindle. Posted by: Brandon
February 26, 2013 06:41 PM EST
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