Don't Read Too Much into Newsweek's Digital Retreat

Newsweek's 80th anniversary will be next February, but you won't be able to find a commemorative issue in newsstands or in your mailbox. After December 31st, the weekly magazine will cease to be anything more than bits downloaded to your iPad.

It's the end of an era for one of America's most stalwart weeklies, but don't think for a second that it heralds the end of print.

In a note to readers published (obviously) on The Daily Beast, Newsweek's digital arm, Newsweek editor Tina Brown rolled out the same lament that flailing magazines have for years:

At the same time, our business has been increasingly affected by the challenging print advertising environment, while Newsweek's online and e-reader content has built a rapidly growing audience through the Apple, Kindle, Zinio and Nook stores as well as on The Daily Beast.

But before we start crowing about how print is dead, it's worth noting that Newsweek is a particular case. It's a weekly news magazine, for one, a distinct breed of periodical that's been positioned for obsolescence since the very first aggregator. Unlike monthly magazines that take the longer view outside of the hourly news cycle, or the New Yorker, which survives on an ungodly amount of talent, Newsweek and its ilk have a limited use case. You could turn on any number of 24-hour news channels to get what Newsweek provides, and hey, you don't even have to read.

Even among weeklies, Newsweek has stood out as a particular problem child. Data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations shows exactly how steep a cliff the magazine fell off five years ago:

Don't Read Too Much into Newsweek's Digital Retreat

Advertising environments are bound to be challenging when you're in freefall. Everyone showing stable growth might beg to differ.

Newsweek retreating into the arms of iPads and Kindles isn't about a tectonic shift for the industry. It's a chance for a dying magazine to fold gracefully, to lay off huge numbers of employees while framing it as a pivot. It's an opportunity for The Daily Beast—Brown's brainchild and first love—to emerge as an internet white knight.

Will digital someday take over print? Sure, almost definitely, eventually. But this does nothing to accelerate that glacial rate of adoption. Digital magazines are still just 1.7 percent of total circulation in the US. Newsstand sales and circulation for many pubs is stable, if not on the rise. That'll change dramatically in the next 10 years, but make no mistake: Newsweek's move isn't about embracing the promises of the future. It's about running away from one fading publication's very bleak present. [Newsweek]