Newsweek makes London the centre of its world

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Among the myriad ways the internet has impacted on the practice of journalism, one of the most profound has been on the requirement for a reporter to be present – or not present – at the events he or she is writing about.

The reading public might once have expected their correspondent to have been an eye-witness to the newsworthy occasion they were describing, or at least to have hurried to the scene to ascertain what had occurred. But in a world of over 2 billion smartphones, it’s possible to glean the facts from afar, even from another continent, and report them sooner than more proximate opposition.

The big English-language news brands now compete in a global marketplace, addressing audiences that are spread across different time zones and have cultural differences as well as common ground. Finding the right tone of voice is critical. But geography, and the location of a newsroom, is also strangely important even in the super-connected era of the world wide web.

This need for a global voice helps explain how the great American title Newsweek is reinventing itself once again, by relaunching its overseas edition under the name Newsweek International. The headquarters of this global operation will not be in New York, where the one-legged former Royal Air Force flying ace Thomas JC Martyn founded it as a competitor to Time in 1933, but in the more centrally-located United Kingdom. Newsweek’s London office will have an Asian business editor, and Africa and Middle-East specialists, all covering their distant beats from their desks.

Modernising a venerable old brand

It’s a big moment for the famous news brand, which has had a turbulent recent history and is now owned by IBT Media, publishers of the digital news outlet International Business Times (IB Times). For the past three years, IBT Media has, with mixed success, developed a strategy that aims to combine the prestige of the legacy brand with the reach of IB Times, which began in 2005 and has built a global audience of 43 million (monthly uniques). But IB Times has itself had recent problems and this summer its apparently inexorable rise was interrupted by substantial cuts to its US newsroom.

The increased focus on the UK has followed the appointment of Dev Pragad as global chief executive of IBT Media. He was previously the London-based head of IBT in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) and is convinced of the commercial and editorial opportunities in the Asian market and that they can be better accessed from London.

IBT Media’s London operation now has a headcount of 138, almost as big as the 160-strong team left in New York. “London is a natural choice for us to position Newsweek International,” says Pragad, by email. “Over the past two years we’ve built up a very strong editorial, operations and commercial team in London who manage the EMEA edition of Newsweek, which, in conjunction with more practical reasons such as time, geography etc, makes London a great choice.”

IBT Media’s chief operating officer Greg Witham was last week in Tokyo meeting clients and agencies to spread the word about the new Newsweek International. In phone conversations with The Drum, he acknowledges that Newsweek (which was sold by the Washington Post Company in 2010 after half a century of ownership and then briefly stabled alongside the Daily Beast digital news site before being sold again) has had “many different iterations over the past few years”. Even the title of Newsweek International is not a new concept, having been previously used by a former owner.

But with global audiences more connected, the branding makes more sense than ever, IBT Media believes. “What attracted me to the business,” says Witham, “was the scale of IB Times linked with the brand values of Newsweek. The opportunity for us is how we make those two things work in a complementary fashion.”

The next stage of Newsweek’s commercial journey is focused on increasing IBT Media’s share of the highly competitive native advertising market, following the launch in August of a branded content studio, called IBTailored, which is also based in London. Rather ominously, it is up against a raft of similar operations from other major news organisations, including T Brand Studio (New York Times), Custom Studios (Wall Street Journal), BrandVoice (Forbes), BI Studios (Business Insider), and Guardian Labs (the Guardian).

But it aims to succeed partly by being more 'international' in tone and outlook than its competitor set. Winning new clients will also depend on raising the profile of Newsweek’s journalism, which is why it is getting more editorial resources. Among them will be a new Asian business editor, who will cover the Far Eastern markets from a desk in the IBT Media offices on the 32nd floor of the Citi tower in London’s Canary Wharf.

Newsweek seemed like it was finished when it was scrapped in print in 2012 after 80 years. IBT Media relaunched the physical magazine in 2014 but the project faltered, with the loss of most of the editorial team who, under the former Daily Express editor Richard Addis, had been producing a distinct edition serving the EMEA markets.

But IBT didn’t give up on the global plan and last year brought in Matt McAllester, a distinguished foreign correspondent and former Europe editor of Time, as editor of Newsweek Europe. The operation is already enjoying something of a revival: Newsweek’s global web traffic is at 13.94 million users, with 2.9 million of those generated by the London-based EMEA site.

Witham cites a number of reasons for the marked rise in audience since the start of the year, including the hiring of more writers and improved use of social media to distribute content. Significantly, he acknowledges that the site pulled down its “data collection barrier” during the summer and the removal of that hurdle “has helped grow the traffic”.

"It's amazing what reporters can do from a desk"

Credit must also go to McAllester, a British journalist who has spent his career on American titles, for revitalising the London newsroom. While some of his reporters are “very young”, they are also “extremely talented”, he says. He makes no apology for allowing them to cover far-flung patches from the office, much as it might irk grizzled foreign correspondents of the kind he worked alongside when covering conflicts in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. McAllester was part of Newsday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning staff in 1997.

“It’s kind of amazing what reporters can do from a desk. I was a foreign correspondent and it’s great to go out into the dusty lands and get shot at but you don’t have to do that to do transcendent work,” he argues.

“It sounds counter-intuitive because the absolute instinct is that if you are going to cover a foreign place you should be there. In a different era of budgets that is probably true but I have been slightly humbled by these young reporters’ abilities to cover regions from their desk just as well as a tech reporter can cover tech from their desk.”

For print pieces he will often pair a young London-based staffer with an experienced on-the-ground stringer. The Asia business coverage will be beefed up by specialists being hired in cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore in the new year.

Newsweek’s print magazine has a modest but steady circulation of 74,992, roughly split between paid-for sales and targeted free distribution.

It remains an important statement within the wider business.

Suitably for a magazine targeting luxury advertising clients, its production values have been enhanced. It publishes on high-quality 70 GSM (grams per square metre) paper stock, with a hefty cover of 150 GSM, in a bid to lengthen the life of each edition in the home or office. “It’s got to be pleasurable, it can’t just be homework,” says McAllester of the Newsweek reader experience. “You go and see a movie not because it’s good for you but because you want to have a good time and journalism needs to have that pleasure pay-off as well. Part of that with the magazine is just the sheer loveliness of the product.”

Print principles meet startup mentality

The print magazine sells for £4.95 ($7.99 in the US) and its 12,000-word cover stories and smart headlines can lead to it being held aloft on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, a helpful marketing benefit. But McAllester says that Newsweek’s long reads are also popular online, despite claims that digital readers only want brevity.

“What absolutely is true is that the digital economy is increasingly rewarding quality. I think there was a misperception at one stage that the internet was stupid,” he says. His site’s most popular reads tend to run to more than 3,000 words.

McAllester claims that Newsweek’s ownership “by a startup” gives it advantages over some of its venerable rivals. “It’s very entrepreneurial and very creative…taking one word, Newsweek, and turning it into something that’s hopefully bigger than it’s ever been.”

Making London the epicentre of its international output will give it an extra leg up, he anticipates. “We are five hours ahead and 3,000 miles further east and London is up against the news, whether it’s the refugee crisis, Brexit, the war in Syria, Russia… it’s all here on our doorstep so why wouldn't you have Newsweek International here?” he asks. “I’m excited about Asia because I want that head start, and once we have people there they can be doing early stuff for us and then you have this 24-hour news operation and it becomes very aggressive and very comprehensive.”

For Witham there are more commercial imperatives to the changes. Licensed editions of Newsweek in Japanese and other Asian languages have helped keep it relevant and respected. “The brand means a lot here [in Japan],” he says. Newsweek is more “international in feel” than its American-based competitors, he argues.

Even so, for a company with little history in branded content, the challenge is considerable. Witham insists that native advertising “remains on a growth curve” and that the Newsweek and IB Times tag team represents a “compelling platform offering”.

Newsweek is also moving into the live events space, debuting with a session called Artificial Intelligence & Data Science in Capital Markets, taking place at London's Barbican in February.

Having once sold 3.3m copies of its magazine, Newsweek might no longer have the scale of the New York Times or the Economist but its audience is “tightly-targeted”, with high numbers of C-suite executives, business travellers and high net worth individuals, Witham says.

This famous title’s demise saw it become a symbol of legacy media’s vulnerability in the internet age. But its digitally-native owners believe it is on the way back to past glories. “There’s so much doom and gloom about journalism in the air,” says McAllester. “But we see Newsweek investing and growing. In civic terms, let alone business terms, that has to be a good thing.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.