The Economist effect: Not all news media are dumbing it down

Time magazine's changes could be a tipping point for the American media.

With all the tumult in the news media today – the decline of the old media, the rise of the citizen journalist, the startling discovery that a woman can, in fact, read a teleprompter from behind a big desk just like a man – it is sometimes the subtle changes that go unnoticed.

Take, for example, the recent decision by Time magazine to hit the newsstand on Fridays instead of Mondays. What difference does a few days make? Possibly a big one. And the fact that it is going to happen at all shows how much the news media are changing.

For years the newsweeklies have been a picture of stodgy stability. The three big titles – Time, Newsweek, and US News & World Report – have changed their tone over time, focusing less on "hard news" and more on trend, health, and entertainment coverage. But their essential formula, a weekly low-cost digest of a little bit of everything, has stayed relatively constant. That's what makes the doings at Time so interesting.

Soon after the magazine announced that it would hit newsstands on Friday starting in January, stories also surfaced that Time was considering reducing the costs of maintaining its circulation by allowing its reader base to drop by as much as 25 percent.

Why the big changes? This is an industry in need of some changing. Since 1988, Time's circulation has fallen by about 13 percent. US News & World Report has also dropped by about 13 percent. Newsweek, meanwhile, has lost about 6 percent of its paid readership.

But during that same time period, other titles have thrived.

Take The Economist. The British news weekly has seen its circulation jump by about 300 percent, despite the fact that it is less flashy, more serious, and costs more than twice as much as its US counterparts. And since its launch in 2001, The Week, a new kind of Reader's-Digest-type summary of news accounts from other organizations, has attracted 439,000 readers.

So maybe it's all about format and content, and maybe Time's moves indicate that the other weeklies are beginning to notice.

Time's new publishing schedule will mean it hits the streets on the same day as its British competitor. And Time's idea about circulation, placing less emphasis on quantity, suggests an approach that several publications, including The Economist, have pursued: It's not how many subscribers you have; it's who they are.

The strategy is practiced by media outlets that are sometimes called the "elite media." They aim at better educated, more-affluent audiences that have more money to spend on news and are more desirable to advertisers. The news outlets that serve them place a premium on trying to bring more depth and breadth to their coverage.

Among newspapers, the rise of the elite media can be seen in the growing and increasingly nationalized circulations of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. On radio, it can be calculated in the increase of National Public Radio's audience. In magazines, the prime example is The Economist.

If Time, which, like the other newsweeklies, hasn't made serious changes for decades, is considering joining that club, it may signify a kind of tipping point for the American media. A great segregation of media outlets may be upon us, with many more news organizations choosing a specific path for their coverage.

There would be definite advantages to a flourishing "elite" media. Those interested in more complex news coverage would have a broader list of places to go and, overall, the quality of the news available to consumers might increase. But there is a twofold problem as well: 1) "serious coverage" might be considered an "elite media" trait only, and 2) the growth of these outlets might lead to a dumbing down (OK, maybe a further dumbing down) among other mainstream news sources.

As wealthier, more news-focused audiences leave mainstream outlets, those outlets will be forced to reach out to different groups to fill the holes in their audience – groups that probably have lighter definitions of news. In other words, a small group of coverage-rich news media will get richer while the rest get poorer in their content.

Is that good or bad? Both, probably. But good or bad, if we drift down that road, it will mean a different kind of democracy and a different society.

Just think, there may come a day not too long from now when Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes's baby not only finds time on the network news – as baby Suri did last week on CBS – but leads the newscast. The good news is you won't have to watch it. The bad news is a lot of others will tune in and possibly find little else.

Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at: dante@csmonitor.com.

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