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Newsmagazines spruce up for a showdown

Those who have been following Newsweek's ad campaign (``Why it happened. What it means.'') may be wondering what it really means -- especially if they noticed on the newsrack, alongside the spiffy new Newsweek, a spiffy new U.S. News & World Report (``A smart magazine just got brighter.''). What it means is that in the highly competitive news field, our venerable newsmagazines are sprucing up for a battle. And while they are fighting for market share, they are also fighting to maintain the strength of the newsmagazine genre. In the past five years, circulation and ad pages for all three have been relatively flat; newsstand sales have fallen off. New competition has come from cable's 24-hour news service and from USA Today, with its newsmagazine format.

Rumors of change have hovered around Newsweek for several years -- during the turbulent rise and fall of editor in chief William Broyles in 1983 and in the cutback phase that followed. Now the changes have been channeled by editor in chief Richard M. Smith, who oversaw November's redesign and reorganization.

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The reorganization is what matters, says Mr. Smith; the redesign is mainly ``wallpaper'' enhancing the content changes. In Newsweek's new six-section format, the so-called back-of-the-book features -- life style, society, arts -- are given the same weight as the hard-news sections in front -- national affairs, international, business.

``While the front section always had weight, coherence, a good mix,'' says Smith, ``the back seemed to have a shotgun approach -- with bits and pieces, no organization. I've always been a hard-news person, but it seems to me that arts, technology, life style are every bit as important in news terms as the front features. These aren't frivolous things.''

Key to facilitating the change, says Smith, is new technology (costing $1-1.5 million) that enables the magazine to keep all sections open through the week. No longer tied into material early in the week, editors can evaluate the whole magazine as late as Friday for the best mix. Thus the forward-looking approach that led editors to change a recent cover story from the space shuttle to the Philippines -- on Saturday morning -- can be applied throughout the magazine.

Newsweek's new organization helps differentiate it from Time, says executive editor Steve Smith, formerly with Time. As Osborn Elliott, dean of Columbia University's graduate school of journalism and former editor in chief of Newsweek, observes, ``Back in the '60s, Newsweek carved out its territory by riding the liberal issues -- civil rights, women's liberation, the Vietnam war.'' But Time, he says, has loosened up, and today there are no roiling issues Newsweek can use to differentiate itself.

For sheer difference, U.S. News has the advantage on Newsweek: Its service orientation and lack of entertainment coverage (no sports or movie reviews) distinguish it from both competitors. But to date, this difference has yielded few rewards. U.S. News has steadily placed third in circulation, ad revenues, and critical opinion, which has often judged it ``dull'' (from a journalism professor) or ``unfocused'' (from a media critic).

Change at U.S. News was expected after its acquisition in 1984 by real estate entrepreneur Mortimer Zuckerman, owner of The Atlantic. His challenge has been to change U.S. News without losing the 2 million subscribers who enjoy it.

After spending $400,000 to research what changes readers would tolerate, U.S. News improved its graphics, beefed up its business coverage, departmentalized its features, and upgraded its writing. But Mr. Zuckerman plans no major editorial moves. ``We're in the mainstream now -- not because we've done anything different but because America has shifted,'' he says, anticipating that the conservative U.S. News will benefit from America's conservative swing.

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To capitalize on its difference, U.S. News plays up its service features (a recent cover story was ``Ways to Save on Your '85 Taxes'') and promotes its no-entertainment emphasis on ``serious'' news. ``We won't put Michael Jackson on the cover, unless we've got an article on where he invested his money,'' says Kathryn Bushkin, director of editorial administration, with a not-too-oblique reference to competitors.

But some people question whether U.S. News is more ``serious than its competitors.'' Mr. Elliott does not perceive Newsweek overplaying entertainment; he feels it is doing excellent reportage. But ``U.S. News may be in the best position to break out of the news mold as Time and Newsweek have defined it,'' says Elliott, who in February turned down the editorship of U.S. News because he believed editor in chief Zuckerman would not give him the editorial independence he required.

How is Time responding to its competitors' campaigns? Time is planning no changes, says publisher Richard B. Thomas. The new managing editor, Jason McManus, will put his own stamp on Time, giving it perhaps a more informal tone. ``But Time,'' says Mr. Thomas, ``is right on track. Our leadership position is strong, our formula is successful -- it's working.''

Time, however, has recently had some changes thrust upon it -- not by its competitors, but by Time Inc., where company losses (from such ventures as TV Cable Week, Picture Week) have led to cutbacks. Recent layoffs of more than 100 employees included members of Time's editorial staff -- which could make Time more vulnerable to its competitors' efforts.

In general, ``newsmagazines don't play quite the central role they used to,'' according to Elliott. ``But they continue to perform an important function, providing in-depth coverage that isn't provided on TV.'' Whether the increased availability of information whets consumer appetite for newsmagazines' in-depth coverage, as Time's publisher hopes, or shifts the ground beneath the newsweeklies, forcing them to change, as a Newsweek editor predicts, remains to be seen.

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