Wither the Newsmags?

As newspapers and magazines stumble along the rocky road from print to digital, two recent signposts seem to point the way forward: Time Warner’s decision to spin off Time Inc., its magazine division, and Newsweek’s termination of its print edition after 80 years of continuous publication.

The third general newsmagazine. U.S. News and World Report, went digital earlier and now is known mostly for its rankings of colleges and hospitals and the like.

What would Henry Luce think ?

His baby, Time, and its sister magazines, including People, Sports Illustrated and In-Style and others, will continue to appear in print, at least for the foreseeable. And why not? Together, they generate $3.1 billion in revenues, nearly half of the total of the nation’s 10 top-grossing magazines.

But that is apparently not enough for Time Warner, which is cutting them loose, along with some $500 million to $1 billion in debt, so the parent company can concentrate on its more profitable film and cable businesses.

In the fourth quarter of last year, circulation and advertising at Time Inc. were down sharply and revenues were off seven per cent, which is probably what prompted Time Warner to try to sell the magazine division and, failing that, cast it adrift.

Looking on the bright side, Time Inc. insiders say they will now at least be able to pour their revenues into their own magazines and websites, rather than Time Warner’s deep pockets. And this week, they were celebrating the success of their recent cover, “Bitter Pill,” Stephen Brill’s remarkable, 24,000-word takedown of the hospital industry, which was their best-selling issue in two years. It was proof, again, that people will seek out important reporting when it comes along.

But the trend lines for newsmagazines are hard to ignore. Even in these harsh economic times, I find it hard to believe that the news weeklies are not the vital magazines that I have known over the years.

During the eight years I spent abroad as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times in the Middle East and Far East, Time and Newsweek were essential reading. In those pre-internet years, they pulled the week’s news and trends together and kept me in touch with the world beyond my own bailiwick. Their correspondents were among my best and best-paid competitors. They roamed the world, usually traveling first class. Richard Clurman, Time’s longtime Chief of Correspondents, was famous for booking two first-class seats: one for himself and one for his briefcase.

But the harsh fact today is that both the editorial and economic models of newsmagazines are broken.

Newsweek was sold for a dollar and a mountain of debt to the late Sydney Harmon. He merged it with the Daily Beast and still could not support it costly print edition. The brand continues with a vibrant website and has announced plans for a paid digital version targeted to a global audience. But it remains to be seen whether that will thrive.

Worse yet, the news weekly editorial model no longer works. With the internet, I no longer need weekly summaries and analysis of news that I get — indeed, can’t escape — 24/7 electronically. Realizing this, both Time and Newsweek switched to signed essay and long-form formats that are frequently well-written and well-edited. Witness the Brill piece.

But are they viable in the long run? That is uncertain at best.