Newsweek: a failing business model?
Nancy Cooper wrote an email to her editorial staff on March 20 with the subject, “What is a Newsweek story?”
The email was an odd one to send to the editorial staff of an 86-year-old news magazine. At one time, Newsweek was considered one of the “big three” news magazines, alongside Time and U.S. News and World Report.
The email contained four requirements for any story published on the site. The story had to have original reporting, the story must have a unique perspective or new information, the reader must care about it, and, lastly, news must be news.
“We don’t want fewer stories or slower stories,” Cooper said in her email, “just to make every story we do better.”
With two years of near-constant editorial changes behind them, many journalists at Newsweek have found their jobs increasingly difficult to do. Their first story is supposed to be filed by 9 a.m., and before it can be written, the story must be pitched to an editor over Slack in the form of a headline. Editors sometimes suggest more viral headlines, or pitch headlines themselves using Google Trends or Chartbeat.
“The approach we were taking to headlines was something a lot of writers objected to on an ongoing basis. They were a point of tension,” says Kastalia Medrano, who wrote for Newsweek’s science desk until February 2018.
Cooper’s push for original reporting is in part about writing for Google News, which promotes original reporting higher than aggregated pieces in search results.
Also, if two reporters are covering different angles on the same topic, the two stories might comprise largely the same summary. “You’re chancing it half the time,” says a current Newsweek writer. “You’re being asked to write a story in two hours, and your editors are being asked to edit it in twenty minutes, and we’re all supposed to be experts on whatever it is the story’s about, even if we’re covering the entire world. It’s just not possible.”
“The owners see media as a profitable thing, but it’s profitable because they’ve found an exploitable workforce. There are so many young, earnest, hungry writers who will work for so little,” says Sydney Pereira, who covered climate change for Newsweek until March of last year. “We’re digging the owners out of debt at the expense of our mental health.”
“The way the bonus was presented during my job interview was as a goal. It’s called a ‘bonus,’ after all. But as soon as I started, it became very clear that it was a minimum,” Pereira added.
Last year, in response to complaints from reporters, Newsweek added group bonuses, meaning a news desk’s traffic-per-reporter was averaged and everyone could receive a small payout if certain goals were reached. Additionally, reporters at Newsweek are also ranked against one another on a shared Google spreadsheet that’s updated daily.
These factors make it hard for Newsweek writers to take Cooper’s March 20 email and subsequent changes seriously. They know that if they hit their marks on stories per day and traffic, the four tenets of responsible journalism don’t matter.
However, the owners appear unwilling to seriously invest in the magazine. The magazine’s editors eventually decided the payment delays were so unethical, they discontinued using freelance writers. As a result, the quality is suffering.
Reporters and editors are willing to do good work; the question is whether Newsweek is willing, or even able, to find a business model that allows them to do it.