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Ian Burrell: Who said print was dead? Newsweek is back

The media column: The relaunch of ‘Newsweek’ as a print magazine shows there’s an appetite for long-form journalism

Ian Burrell
Sunday 09 March 2014 17:28 GMT
The owners have an optimism for print which isn't always shared by defeatists in the newspaper industry
The owners have an optimism for print which isn't always shared by defeatists in the newspaper industry (Susan Wood/Getty Images)

One recent weekend Richard Addis, a former editor of the Daily Express, sat down and ploughed through 800 pages of British weekend newspapers and their accompanying supplements.

His purpose was to find pieces of reportage, and at the end of his search he had unearthed just three examples of the genre among a mountain of newsprint. “That’s symptomatic of the financial pressures on the big newspaper titles,” he complains.

That is so. It might also be a consequence of editors having subconsciously decided that the public no longer has an appetite for long reads in a world where news is a commodity so cheap that it merits no more than a cursory glance.

But I hope not. Long-form journalism deserves the chance to show that it still has its place in modern media. Beneath the dazzling artillery barrage of commercial messaging, social gossip and breaking news, there must still be an option of slipping under the wire and going on a literary journey of discovery.

Mr Addis might be able to help. He is the first editor of a European edition of the great magazine title Newsweek, which was restored to the newsstand on Friday after an absence of more than a year. Its funereal 31 December 2012 edition carried a black and white image of its iconic midtown Manhattan building and the cover line “#last print issue”, an admission that a physical product no longer felt relevant in the age of Twitter.

But, under new ownership, Newsweek is back. And with that comes the stir of activity on the 32nd floor of the Citibank building in London’s Canary Wharf, where Mr Addis is recruiting a team for a European edition which is due to emerge in a couple of months.

This is significant for several reasons. Firstly, it will be a test of the durability of established and trusted news brands in the modern media era. Newsweek was abandoned first by the Washington Post Company in 2010 and then, three years later, by media mogul Barry Diller’s IAC company, which had merged the venerable magazine with Tina Brown’s news website The Daily Beast.

Newsweek’s latest owners are IBT, publishers of International Business Times, an online publication distributed in 10 national editions. Strangely, this successful digital publisher sees the future of Newsweek in print. Yes, readers in the UK will have to fork out a hefty £4.95 for a 68-page product. The new Newsweek – a title which once boasted a circulation of four million – will have a print run of only 70,000. The figures don’t seem to add up.

But Mr Addis insists that so radical have been the changes at the magazine, which started out in 1933, that it now has a business plan that can work. The managers at IBT are young and intellectual and see a gap in the market for a title that sets its own agenda, rather than simply looking back at the week just gone by.

The lost year – which some thought signalled Newsweek’s death – has meant that it has returned so lean that it has “all the advantages of a start-up”, Mr Addis insists. Instead of incurring huge costs trying to cover everything, it will favour “quality over quantity”, looking for hits that will bring word-of-mouth recommendation.

A start-up cost base with an already established brand that “still opens doors and means you can get to see almost anyone” is a winning combination, he argues. Quality journalism will bring high-end advertisers and print subscriptions will include free digital editions. IBT’s executives have an optimism for print which isn’t always shared by defeatists in the newspaper industry, but they still realise the importance of promoting the brand through social media and a faster-paced website (which will have a permeable paywall).

I’m not totally convinced that the model can deliver. But I want it to work.

The developments at Canary Wharf don’t just offer hope to established news brands that they can be reborn with low cost bases; this is also good news for serious journalists and photographers, who can compete for commissions to produce the two or three long reads of up to 3,000 words which Newsweek will publish every Friday. Rates of 50p per word plus expenses, and the potential to report from anywhere in Europe, the Middle East and Africa are attractive.

The new Newsweek is divided into four sections. “Big Shots” is the opening photographic sequence of arresting images. “Page One” is newsy, “New World” deals with the latest scientific and technological changes, and “Downtime” covers leisure, arts and sport. In between are the long-read features.

The question is whether we still have the talent here to do the work. Mr Addis concedes that the Americans are “experts in long-form journalism”, where vestiges remain of a more patient culture that employs additional tiers of editors and fact-checkers. Some of the skills of reportage have been lost because writers “don’t have time” in British journalism.

Today’s media graduates have been encouraged by blogging to be opinionated and discouraged, by the financial woes of news organisations, from being ambitious in their reporting. They are drawn to the instant gratification of Buzzfeed or, if they do have a hunger for reportage, they see it as a visual skill exemplified by VICE News in its excellent documentaries.

Mr Addis, who is on the lookout for young talent, has been already been approached by several video journalists. If he is to get his long stories told in words, then he might turn to an emerging crop of non-fiction authors. He is asking literary editors and publishers for recommendations and is promoting the idea that a well-researched 3,000 words of reportage can readily be turned into a 10,000-word Kindle Single book. Now that’s real long-form.

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