Few magazines can walk readers through the political power struggle in Pakistan, recommend a decent Chianti and provide a listing for a five-bedroom home on the Long Island Sound with a boat dock. But The Week condenses news, celebrity gossip, real estate, finance and international news into a CliffsNotes-style magazine — and the formula has proven successful, with a circulation of 515,000 and a spot on Adweek Media’s latest Hot List for magazines under $60 million in ad revenues. In a compact Midtown office, 15 editors cull through thousands of news sources a week. “If you see five people quoted in a piece, that means there are 95 that you didn’t see, that either weren’t good enough or original enough,” said general manager Steven Kotok. The sources for the items — spanning from the International Herald Tribune to The Hartford Courant to New Scientist — are synthesized into short news items, providing a balanced perspective on the most talked-about headlines.
Since its U.S. launch in 2001 (Felix Dennis first launched The Week in the U.K. in the late Nineties), the magazine has developed a following among both readers and advertisers. Circulation grows in large part through word of mouth: 40 percent of subscribers have either given or received the magazine as a gift. Advertisers including Delta, Sprint, BMW, HSBC, Nautica and Ralph Lauren have also discovered its highly educated, high-net-worth audience (its median household income is around $101,000). Despite an evaporating ad market, The Week is one of five magazines to report a three-year growth in both advertising and circulation; through March, the title has added 19 percent more ad pages, or 104 total. Below, editor in chief Bill Falk speaks about the magazine, its influence, and why adding Sudoku puzzles caused a reader revolt.
This story first appeared in the March 27, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: Sitting in the number-one spot on Adweek Media’s Hot List for magazines with $60 million or less in advertising, what’s the view from the top like?
Bill Falk: You look around the industry right now, and the view isn’t pretty. It’s a tough time; for that reason, it’s particularly gratifying and flattering to be recognized in this way.
WWD: Do you feel being on a list like this undermines your cult status among your readers?
B.F.: We were a cult for a number of years when we weren’t known. But that’s changed. The first three or four years, I would run into people that would know The Week and they’d say, “Why don’t more people know about it?” But with 515,000 circulation as of our last Audit Bureau of Circulations report, that’s not really a cult anymore. We’ve gotten bigger. We’re a movement.
WWD: Why are your readers your best circulation sales force?
B.F.: They proselytize. Every day I get e-mails from readers saying “I’m completely addicted. One word readers always use is “addicted.” Then they say, “I’ve told six friends, and I’ve given two gift subscriptions.” Our readers are a totally viral phenomenon, and our readers are out there selling the magazine for us.
WWD: How much ownership do they take?
B.F.: We recently added a page of puzzles. Sudoku, a crossword and a question-and-answer [contest] about the news, so we needed to find some space in the magazine. We started cutting down on the music coverage. And I got about 80 e-mails in a couple of weeks asking, “What did you do? I go to The Week to find out what music to buy, and now I have no idea what music to get! You have to bring it back.” We brought it back.
WWD: Newsweeklies like Time and Newsweek have adapted their formula to be more similar to yours and The Economist’s, with less breaking news and more analysis. How do you look at yourselves as the model for the newsweekly?
B.F.: There’s certain room for a number of different approaches. That category is somewhat embattled, as is all print. People are recalculating on how to reposition themselves for the world, newsmagazines are doing a lot of that. But there’s a definite, significant role for our approach to it. Our mission from the beginning has never changed. We help you make sense of the news and of the world, and we’re not going to bring people the news in a weekly format. We’re going to remind them of what happened in case they were too busy to pay attention, but then we’re going to help people make sense of it.
The Economist tries to make sense of things by having one writer give the conclusion about that particular story. What we do is present readers with five or six different opinions on a given subject and bang them against each other and let our readers make up their own minds. There’s a real wisdom that comes from that, as opposed to just one person gathering the info and saying, “Here’s how you should interpret this.”
WWD: Could that work with fashion magazines?
B.F.: The aggregation of info is going on everywhere, on the Web and in print. But they’re linking it and blogging it. We’re identifying the issue and giving a comprehensive and balanced take of it.
WWD: Being that you repurpose information from other print sources, do you believe The Week helps or hinders the viability of print?
B.F.: At this point, most of the papers that have disappeared have not been the ones where we usually quote. What’s disappearing are the smaller, second- or third-tier newspapers. The papers we most often quote are The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. I don’t think we’re hurting print media. What’s hurting print isn’t a lack of readers. It’s more of an advertising problem at this point, and we don’t have anything to do with that. I don’t think The Week keeps people from buying existing print sources. If you want to be informed, you’re going to buy your daily newspaper if that’s already your routine. What The Week does is give you far more sources than you’d get in your reading habits. A good portion are really media junkies, and they don’t use us instead of, but to really give them another big espressolike dose of media.
WWD: What do you think of the potential of newspapers adopting The Week’s format?
B.F.: I don’t think the New York Times is going to become The Week. Maybe some of the smaller papers will be doing more [aggregation of news]. The big papers all do a bit of aggregation, but it’s just a small sideline for them. Not just The Week, but all Web media depend on the original work of mainstream organizations. I’m hopeful that they figure their way around some of their business problems. There’s still a big market for what they do; it’s just making a business model that works.
WWD: How does The Week’s Web site work in tandem with the magazine?
B.F.: We do the daily version of the controversies we do in the magazine. It’s much shorter on the Web and we provide links. We’ve also brought in original columnists including noted conservative writer David Frum, [Democratic political strategist] Bob Shrum, and our executive editor Frank Wilkinson writes a media column.
WWD: How many publications are you reading throughout the week?
B.F.: We quote in every magazine more than 200 publications, but the whole staff reads 10 times that number. We tend to look at the more reputable sources, the big newspapers, major Web sites and magazines, because we feel like their writing on these subjects is better and they’re known to readers more, so the readers have a sense of the credibility of these sources. If we’re quoting from the Altoona Daily Bugle, [readers] might say, “Who is this person being quoted and should I put any credibility in this person?”
WWD: Do you feel pressure to read Twitter and blogs as the frequency of use of these outlets expands?
B.F.: No. There are millions of blogs and Twitter accounts. We don’t need to know all of the minutiae of a reporter’s Twittering, what happened at 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and what someone said at 6 p.m. We’re pulling back and giving you an end-of-the-week perspective piece on what’s happened. On a weekly, you’re looking for the bigger ideas and perspectives.
— Stephanie D. Smith