Newsweek arrives on the Web

Editor and General Manager Michael Rogers discusses Newsweek’s online strategy

This column appeared in the January 1999 issue of The American Journalism Review.

By J.D. Lasica

Newsweek has joined the future.

Newsweek.com arrived on the Web Oct. 4 [1998], and unlike the first wave of mainstream media news sites that reinvented themselves every five minutes, these folks don’t seem to have an identity crisis.

The streamlined site has a spare, minimalist look, featuring all the content of the print magazine alongside a handful of daily features and breaking news provided by others. With a 10-person editorial staff, the Web site has both a modest agenda and realistic goals.

In short, Newsweek.com doesn’t pretend to be all things to all Webheads.

“What we’ve seen with Web news is a rush for everyone to become a wire service,” says Michael Rogers, the site’s editor and general manager. “As the first blush of enthusiasm over immediacy begins to fade, we think people will find more value in a newsweekly that serves as a smart guide to the Web.”

Since the early ’90s, Newsweek has had a long run on Prodigy and America Online, where its staff gained experience in interacting with users and dealing with the demands of daily journalism. Why, then, was it so late in coming to the Web party? Because its parent corporation, The Washington Post Co., considered the Web to be “a more immediate threat” to the Post than to Newsweek, Rogers says. (An added inducement may have been the Matt Drudge imbroglio, which prompted Newsweek to post Michael Isikoff’s blockbuster story about Ken Starr’s expanded investigation on the Post’s Web site.)

In the meantime, Rogers had the luxury of watching other online operations evolve. “We learned from watching Time Daily’s updates that it’s hard for newsweekly writers to do breaking news,” Rogers says. Time Daily now relies on Reuters for much of its breaking news.

Like Time, Newsweek has come flat up against a tough question: What is the role of a newsweekly on the Web, a medium where info-junkies seek a minute-by-minute news fix at sites like MSNBC and CNN?

“The most important decision a Web publication faces is: What’s your frequency?” Rogers says. Newsweek.com decided on three frequencies:

• breaking news provided by the Washington Post and the wire services;

• updates five days a week to its Newsmakers, Periscope and Cyberscope columns;

• a weekly update that incorporates all the content of the print magazines but also adds hypertext, links and multimedia components. The articles, including a weekly Focus piece on health, technology or money, are evolving into standing Web guides that users may find useful at any time.

Rogers rightly recognizes the different kinds of audiences on the Web. “We see two kinds of behaviors: the surfers who swoop in at lunchtime, read 200 words, and then get out; and we see diggers, who burrow in and just keep following links.”

For those burrowers, Newsweek takes the print magazine’s articles, which can run to several thousand words, and adds hypertext and links, which give the pieces a rich context. Some link to Newsweek’s archives, while others link to a strategic partner, eblast.com, the Encyclopaedia Britannica online.

A popular feature on the site is the photo gallery, which lets users hear a sound clip of a Newsweek photographer discussing the photo or some aspect of photojournalism. Other good uses of sound files include an art critic narrating an art exhibit, and Newsweek writers and subjects discussing a newsworthy topic.

To my mind, newsweeklies can have an overedited quality that wrings the richness out of the writing. But Rogers seems to recognize the need for a different approach. “A more personal voice really seems to work well on the Web. We’ll be pushing that further and further into letting writers use first person.”

Newsweek.com gets points for integrating its print and online operations; the 10-person online staff shares the same floor as the print magazine’s offices in Manhattan. But it gets points off for its lack of interactivity. Reader forums are nowhere to be found, though Rogers says that will change once someone creates some decent bulletin board software for the Web. Similarly, readers have no way of contacting popular columnists such as Jonathan Alter, Jane Bryant Quinn or George Will. Rogers says he’ll probably let each columnist decide whether to include his or her own e-mail address.

Rogers doesn’t look to Newsweek’s print rivals — Time and U.S. News — as its main competition online. “I’m looking at CNN, MSNBC and USA Today and thinking about what they do well and poorly.”

How does Rogers view the online landscape a few years out? “I think we’ll look back at this as the golden age of the Web, not because everything was exceptionally good but because it was free. There will probably be a tremendous war of attribution in the next two to three years, because we’ve built too much premium content that we can’t support.”

Whether or not that much-predicted shakeout occurs, it’s unlikely that Newsweek.com will be one of the early casualties. Version 1.0 is a worthy start on the long road that remains ahead.

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT