Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Magazine grows against the odds

The Week provides news, dry wit and (surprise!) few ads

By Seth Sutel
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Starting a weekly magazine can be one of the fastest ways to lose money in publishing. Now imagine launching a news-weekly with a bare-bones staff, very little money to spend on advertising and limited space for ads in your own pages.

Despite this unlikely formula for success, The Week magazine is growing.

Unlike Time and Newsweek, which employ large reporting staffs, The Week has no reporters, just 18 editors who cull hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles from around the world and boil them down to brief, pithy articles.

It's presented in a relatively small magazine of about 40 pages that carries very little advertising, making it even more of a breeze to get through. The aim, general manager Justin Smith says, is to capture the "high end of the newsweekly marketplace," or people who are busy, smart and rich.

The magazine uses some unusual tactics to position itself as a must-read. It hosts panel discussions on current affairs and puts on talks by actors and filmmakers about their favorite films. It also publishes quotes from famous people on the cover who gush about how much they like the magazine.

The quotes have come from chef Daniel Boulud and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, among others. Luciano Pavarotti called The Week "as artful as an opera," and Woody Allen said it was "for movers and shakers, and I can't stop shaking."

To get the quotes, the magazine sends out free copies to celebrities, then asks them if they'd like to submit a "blurb" for the cover. Dozens have done so already.

So far, the strategy seems to be working. The magazine is about to announce that its circulation has doubled to 200,000 from the level when it launched in April 2001. The Week gets many new readers by word-of-mouth, a rarity in the magazine world, where holding on to the readers you already have is a struggle.

Steven Kotok, who oversees circulation, says The Week has received an impressive 25,000 new paid subscribers over the past 18 months from a program in which readers sign up friends and family to receive trial subscriptions. He says the pace of new signups is increasing.

The Week isn't all serious, as can be seen from the wry slogan on the cover: "All You Need to Know About Everything That Matters." It presents news from all over the world, but with a knowing smile, in sections like "Only in America" and "Boring but important."

"We are very serious about distilling topics and news, but at the same time we are somewhat amused by the human condition," editor William Falk says. "Humor is a little oil that lubricates the engine and keeps it from overheating."

The idea of combating media saturation with a weekly news digest is hardly new. The Week's format bears a resemblance to early editions of Time, which was launched in 1923 with the principle of condensing news for busy people.

Smith says the fierce loyalty that readers have for The Week is key to its success, just as it was for the British version of the magazine, started in 1995. He says readers are renewing their subscriptions at a rate of 71 percent, a figure that would rival industry leaders like the New Yorker.

Despite its growth, The Week doesn't have ambitions to become a mass magazine like Time or Newsweek. Even if it reaches its goal of 500,000 circulation, it would be tiny compared to Time's 4.1 million or Newsweek's 3.2 million.

Its business plan is closer to that of the Economist, Smith says, which attracts a smart, well-to-do audience and charges premium prices for advertising and subscriptions.

To keep the magazine easier to read, The Week restricts the amount of ads it prints. Only 30 percent of its pages can be sold as ads compared to an industry average of 55 percent. To compensate, it charges $75 for full-price subscriptions, compared with $41.08 for Newsweek and $72.24 for Time.

The ads that do appear there tend to stand out. "It's quite a powerful advertising vehicle," says Robin Kent, the chairman of Universal McCann, a firm that buys advertising space for major companies.

The Week was created by Jolyon Connell, a British newspaper writer and editor who worked in Washington. It was quickly bought by Felix Dennis, a British magazine entrepreneur best known for publishing the bawdy men's magazine Maxim, its spin-off Stuff and a music magazine called Blender.

Dennis brought Maxim to the United States from Britain with huge success in 1997, and The Week followed in 2001.

But Dennis almost pulled the plug on The Week soon after its U.S. launch, as costs for acquiring subscribers soared to a level Dennis called "appalling."

"I remember sitting around at a very gloomy meeting telling them, 'I love The Week, but I love my company more,' " Dennis said.

Thus began what Dennis called a "rather odd" marketing campaign. Now with a growing number of reader referrals and less money spent on traditional marketing tools such as telemarketing, the average cost for acquiring subscribers has been cut in half.

The magazine has won fans among media insiders. Brooke Gladstone, co-host and managing editor of National Public Radio's On the Media program, has invited Falk on the program and calls the magazine "an appropriate response to media overload."

"I think that if it finds its audience it will fill a useful niche," Gladstone said. "This will not replace a serious reading of the week's press, but how many people do that?"

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