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In the depressed advertising climate after Sept. 11, U.S. News & World Report took some extraordinary cost-cutting measures: In addition to a limited round of layoffs, it imposed 10 percent salary cuts on staffers making more than $50,000 and doubled the number of “dark” weeks, in which the magazine goes unpublished. Editor Brian Duffy sold the actions as a means of buoying morale and sidestepping wholesale layoffs at the struggling D.C.-based weekly.
“It’s been a tough year for everyone,” says Duffy.
Yet the strategy of going dark threatens the company’s morale in a more powerful way: What happens if you don’t publish your magazine and nobody notices?
“Am I missing one?” asks Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll when informed that the newsweekly did not publish an issue on the week of Aug. 26, one of four dark weeks this year. Coll reports that he usually receives a “rush” copy of the magazine that “shows up with an urgent envelope.” “I hadn’t noticed that it hadn’t come.”
Coll, of course, is a member of the media elite, bombarded with every title on the newsstand. So he can be forgiven for missing the omission. He’s not the mag’s target demographic.
That distinction belongs to the waiting rooms of dentist and doctor offices nationwide. Tradition makes these venues the lair of the stodgy newsweekly: Just as dental patients expect pain in the chair, they expect a clumsy U.S. News take on today’s zeitgeist in the anteroom. Failing that, they’ll take a timeless story from deep in the rack. “Retirement Reality Check,” a U.S. News cover from June, should be edifying waiting-room readers for years to come.
To measure U.S. News’ staying power with this key audience, the Washington City Paper contacted more than 150 medical and dental offices from Bangor, Maine, to Eugene, Ore. The question was straightforward: Have you noticed that U.S. News didn’t publish this week?
The results (with accompanying interpretation):
* Don’t subscribe: 64
Skinny: No surprise here. In the post-Sept. 11 world, periodical budgets at medical offices have shrunk.
* Subscribe but didn’t notice missing issue: 11
Skinny: On the minus side, the figure hints at irrelevance. On the plus side, the figure hints that you can pull off another dark week without anyone’s noticing.
* Not sure if they subscribe and didn’t notice missing issue: 9
Skinny: To appeal to this crowd, dumb down all editorial coverage.
* Claimed to have received new issue this week: 1
Skinny: Dream demographic for U.S. News: Don’t publish and still please your subscribers!
(The remainder of respondents refused to discuss their waiting-room-magazine policies or simply hung up.)
As U.S. News would have packaged the study: “Exclusive Survey: Is Low-Impact Journalism Dead?”
The unscientific poll’s results jibe with anecdotage gathered by the magazine itself. Duffy himself reports “fewer than two dozen” letters complaining about the dark week from the magazine’s 2 million subscribers; he responds to all such letters personally. “You never know about the ones who never write and say they’re not happy about this,” he says.
Duffy declines to specify just how much money U.S. News saves when it suspends publication but does say that the costs of putting out an issue are in the “seven figures.”
The gambit is a particularly smart move when your publication is scrambling for advertisers. Newsweeklies earn the lion’s share of their revenue from advertising, which outpaces subscription payments and newsstand sales. According to Publishers Information Bureau, U.S. News through July of this year has sold 751 ad pages, as opposed to 1,195 for Time and 1,002 for Newsweek; likewise, the magazine’s ad revenues, $103 million through July, lag behind Time’s $291 million and Newsweek’s $200 million.
One way the magazine could snare more advertisers is to catch trends a bit earlier. Newsweekly editors often complain about the difficulty of breaking news on a seven-day cycle, but that’s no excuse for being months or years late with stories. In May, U.S. News clocked in with a cover titled “Faith in America,” which concluded that “It’s as important as ever…” A piece on American fast-food dependence landed in August—more than a year and a half after the publication of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and some seven years after the first evidence of the upswing in childhood obesity. And it printed a piece on the old-news yoga boom in May.
Even given that U.S. News markets to a crusty audience, it sometimes appears to be courting irrelevance. This summer, it hit readers with a mortal one-two punch on its cover: first, a July 1 feature on how new fossil discoveries are “changing our view of dinosaurs,” followed by a double issue heralding “America’s Music: From Yankee Doodle to Hip-Hop.”
Not all of the magazine’s stories are fluff, though. A crusader for investigative projects, Duffy in recent months has produced insightful pieces on corporate profiteering from the war on terrorism as well as a report on Americans who have joined the jihad. To generate more buzz for such coverage, U.S. News recently signed on Goodman Media International, a New York-based PR firm. “We brought them in to help out,” says U.S. News Director of Media Relations Richard Folkers. “We have to let as many people as possible know about our journalism.”
Duffy says that projected ad pages for coming weeks far exceed the company’s targets. “September really is looking gangbusters,” he says. If the recovery continues, he says, the magazine may reverse the pay cuts to staffers. “We’re hopeful of doing it,” says the editor, who is very popular among newsroom staff, “but we’re careful not to promise a given date.”
And despite the troubling news from waiting rooms, Duffy needn’t worry that his publication has completely lost its punch. None other than New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was flustered when the magazine went dark one week in July. “She thought she hadn’t paid her bill or that there was a problem with delivery,” reports Julie Bosman, Dowd’s assistant. —Erik Wemple