Bite-sized weekly news

Somewhere along the line, utility became a bad word at news magazines.

And that’s where The Week saw an opening.

While magazines like Time and Newsweek published heavy essays, distinguished guest columnists and artful photo spreads, The Week embraced magazine journalism at its most functional and stripped down.

Small photos. Graphics with no bells and whistles. One-hundred-word news bites in unadorned prose and synopses of opinion columns, all culled from what was written the week before by other news organizations around the world.

The Week’s formula has worked, and it is testing the tenets of what many editors have come to believe their readers wanted.

The Week is both profitable and growing steadily, something few news magazines can claim today.

As American newsweeklies remake themselves – Newsweek, the latest example, arrived on newsstands recently with a completely re-configured look and feel under the leadership of Tina Brown – The Week’s tale is instructive.

The Week earned a profit for the first time last year – $4 million – and is on track to make $6.3 million this year.

It just increased its rate base to 510,000, and its total circulation has grown by more than fivefold since it began publishing in 2001, to 520,000 last year.

Traffic to its website has averaged around 1 million monthly visitors in the final months of 2010, according to comScore, which tracks Web popularity.

That The Week has thrived doing exactly what most weekly news magazines say they think consumers no longer want – giving them a perspective on last week’s news – is surprising enough. But its formula for success may be just as surprising.

Felix Dennis, the brain behind Maxim, was an early supporter of The Week and a major investor who later purchased the magazine and established an American version.

The founders, Jolyon Connell and Jeremy O’Grady, two British journalists, borrowed the idea from an unlikely source: the original Time.

When Henry Luce and Briton Hadden published Time’s first issue on 3 March 1923, their magazine summarized the news with the stated goal of keeping “busy men” informed. Their template called for 100 articles in each week’s issue, none longer than 400 words.

“People don’t want to believe that it can be so easy,” said Isaiah Wilner, author of “The Man Time Forgot,” a book on Hadden’s unsung role in creating Time.

“By saying less, The Week actually got more into people’s minds, and I think that’s the idea,” he said.

A profit of $4 million is indeed modest. But in an environment where in just the last six months Newsweek sold for $1 and U.S. News and World Report ceased publishing as a printed news magazine altogether, there are plenty of publishers who would happily take that $4 million. (Despite declining circulation and advertising, Time remains profitable.)

The Week does borrow content liberally. And it piggybacks on the expensive reporting that larger news organizations carry out. But editors at The Week are unashamed about what they are, and their confidence lends a certain verve to their work.

“This is not a coffee table magazine,” said William Falk, the editor-in-chief, who likened the role of The Week’s writer-aggregators to off-stage producers. (Only the weekly editor’s note carries a byline.) “It’s not one that piles up next to the bed with its beautifully written articles that go on and on forever.”

Falk said that while The Week relies heavily on the “fair use” doctrine by summarizing copyrighted articles, the magazine is a paying member of The Associated Press and the news services of The New York Times, The Washington Post/Bloomberg and McClatchy/Tribune. (The Huffington Post, too, pays for AP content.)

The magazine identifies hot topics from the week before and publishes excerpts from a variety of news articles and opinion columns on each topic. It also excerpts film and book reviews and obituaries.

Editors and writers spend their days combing the Internet.

A researcher uses LexisNexis to prepare dossiers on the big news stories of the week; it is not uncommon for one to contain 100 articles.

Falk said some 200 news sources are cited in each issue.

“We’re not a legacy magazine that’s trying to adapt to a new era,” Falk said. “We were born in a new era.”

The Week began publishing in the United States in 2001 after its owner, Dennis, found success with a version of the magazine in Britain. At the time, few in the media world thought the idea would work. “Is Felix Dennis mad?” The Wall Street Journal asked.

A spokeswoman for The Week said Dennis was unavailable for an interview because he was busy composing poetry at his estate on the Caribbean island of Mustique. But in response to an interview request, Dennis faxed a two-page, single-spaced statement that said, in part: “It’s the old tortoise and the hare story, and by golly I’m glad I own the tortoise and not The Daily Beast, however exciting the merger of The Daily Beast and Newsweek must be for all those concerned.” He added: “In the end, The Week will inherit the earth!”

The business model relies on subscribers for all but a tiny sliver of circulation revenue.

In a typical week it sells only 2,000 copies on the newsstand, or less than 1 per cent of its total circulation.

Its average annual subscription price is about $37, a few dollars more than Time ($31) and Newsweek ($34).

And the magazine relies heavily on gift subscriptions with promotions for two subscriptions for $90.

It creates demand in the advertising market by limiting the number of ad pages it sells most weeks to about 20, eliminating the need to expand or reduce editorial content based on how well the sales staff did in a given week.

“If we sell a bunch of ads, we don’t say, ‘Hey, Bill, go scribble some more of that word stuff,”’ the magazine’s president, Steven Kotok, said. “And if we don’t sell ads, we don’t start ripping pages out. That’s our contract with readers.” Advertising revenue and circulation revenue are split 50-50, he said.

The Week boasts of its popularity among educated and wealthier readers – the so-called influencer category that advertisers covet.

Figures from the Mendelsohn Affluent Survey, a measure of media consumption habits, show that readers have a median household income of $145,000. )

Considering the scale that Newsweek and Time once had – and to some extent still have with circulations of 1.5 million and 3.3 million, respectively – The Week’s success seems modest.

A question it faces in the years ahead is whether its $4 million profit ever becomes $40 million.

“This is not a multimillion-circulation publication, and that’s where you’re going to hit the profits,” said Mark Edmiston, a former Newsweek president who founded Nomad Editions, a new digital magazine company. “I happen to read it and like it. But it’s not for everyone. And it doesn’t have a mass market appeal, nor do I ever think it will. It’s very difficult to generate a $30 million, $40 million profit when you’re that small.”