The Online Flavor of The Week: As other publishers seek a successful strategy for publishing print and online news, The Week follows ‘a different mandate.’

Originally published in Publishing Executive Magazine
March 1, 2009
by Britt Brouse
In an effort to cut costs and stay relevant in an age of up-to-the-minute, breaking online news, US News & World Report in 2008 reduced its print frequency from weekly to biweekly, and finally to monthly. Similarly, Newsweek plans to shrink its print format and focus on more feature-length stories. Its editor recently told The New York Times, “The drill of chasing the week’s news to add a couple of hard-fought new details is not sustainable.”

Then in late January, US News & World Report pulled a 180, launching a “digital newsweekly” slated to cover what the magazine formerly delivered in print, a move that begs the question: In today’s marketplace, where do newsweeklies fit in online?

The Week seems to have found a niche. Launched in the United States in 2001 (a version had already been launched in Great Britain) with 100,000 subscribers, it steadily has grown its subscription base to 500,000, and its rate base continues to see growth as other newsweeklies’ decline.

The magazine provides readers with a range of voices and opinions drawn from a variety of other media outlets.
TheWeek.com, which launched in September 2007 and underwent a redesign last July, mirrors its successful print model, but with added online-only features and content.

Instead of trying to break hard news, The Week’s editors provide a quick, but comprehensive look at what the most important news sources are saying about the top stories of the week. “We have a different mandate really. … We’re not trying to break news on our Web site, and I think others sort of feel some pressure to do that,” says Frank Wilkinson, executive editor of The Week since August 2008 and former blog editor for the online news site The Huffington Post.

Interactive and User-Generated Content
In print, The Week cites articles sources, but on TheWeek.com, the jump from summarized content to original sources is more immediate with inline links. While most Web sites would shy away from so many outbound links, Wilkinson sees them as a testament to the publication’s editorial mission. “We send readers to a lot of different sites … but that’s part of our job … to be a curator, and find interesting things on the Web for people and then tell them where to find them,” he comments.

Readers also frequently use tags under each story to share TheWeek.com’s content on Digg.com, Delicious.com and other social news sites. “Just like we take it upon ourselves to survey what’s out on the Web and direct our readers to what we think deserves their attention, fortunately other people are doing the same with us and suggesting that people come visit [our] site,” Wilkinson says. Commenting is another popular feature on the site, allowing readers to further engage with the content.

Promoting Original Content Online
The online feature that most distinguishes TheWeek.com from the print edition is the “Bullpen” of weekly columnists who generate original content. The print edition may be full of editors’ opinions, but there are no bylines. Since he was brought on in August, Wilkinson has built up the original online content and acquired new writers like David Frum and Robert Shrum, who draw big numbers, posting weekly columns from opposite ends of the political spectrum. “In addition to having rhyming names,” Wilkinson jokes, “they were both speech writers; Frum was a George W. Bush speech writer in the White House, and Shrum wrote speeches for years as a Democratic consultant and wrote some of Ted Kennedy’s speeches.”

Judging by the number of incoming links, Wilkinson says columnists are usually the most heavily trafficked items on the site. “When we really see a spike, it’s often because we’ve got a provocative column up,” he says. All of the current print stories are online as well, but to protect the value of the print subscription, several articles, indicated by a key icon, are available to subscribers only through a log-in.

Building Fun and Interactive Features
Adding to the meme of interactive editorial features across the Web, like the prevalent “word cloud” (a visual depiction of word “tags” describing a site’s content), TheWeek.com recently launched its own feature combining information graphics and editorial content. The Week Index is a bar graph illustrating the top four news stories of the week and the number of times each story has been written about in 35 of the top columns and editorial pages in U.S. media. Corresponding to each story is a navigable tab with outbound links to all of the listed coverage on each subject. A fifth story links to more cultural commentary from sources such as Rolling Stone, People and Slate.

“It’s a gauge of what premier editorial pages and columnists around the country were writing about last week. … If you’re interested, for instance, in what people were saying about the stimulus package last week, you can go to the index and locate, in just that one place, all kinds of commentary on it,” Wilkinson explains.

He plans to grow The Week Index to make it progressively more interactive and useful. At the moment, you can overlay the prior week’s stories to see how much an item has risen or fallen in the scope of media attention.

Another new addition to the site is Great Satan, a short clip taken from an international news source that highlights, verbatim, what other nations really think about the United States. Since The Week incorporates predominantly national news sources, Wilkinson thought it would be fun to add this tongue-in-cheek tidbit. “We try to find rhetoric that’s amusing as well as vitriolic. It is a reminder that the U.S. is not always well-liked around the world,” he says.

He is also happily surprised that traffic is increasing to TheWeek.com’s syndicated cartoons.

Newsletters and Subscriptions Drive Traffic and Revenue
TheWeek.com’s daily e-newsletter helps capture visitors’ e-mail addresses and demographics, builds traffic to the site, and provides coverage of the top story of the day. Currently, the e-newsletter reaches 6,000 subscribers, and Wilkinson says there is a significant spike in traffic to the site directly after it hits.

Print subscriptions and gift subscriptions provide The Week with a growing source of online revenue. Wilkinson says subscriptions ordered online have nearly doubled in the past two years that the site’s been online, and gift subscriptions also have seen significant growth, especially during the holiday season. While these are important revenue generators, Wilkinson is wary of sending too many e-mail promotions to print and e-newsletter subscribers about the site and its offerings. “We don’t want to clutter our readers’ in-boxes … so we try to e-mail [them] only when we have good reason to,” he says.

It’s a wonder that Wilkinson, as part of a much smaller staff than most major newsweeklies, can do the hybrid work of an on- and offline editor. “Let’s just say we’re very efficient,” he laughs, adding, “That’s pretty easy actually. … It’s more a matter of technology to put new features and applications online.”

As the site’s audience expands, he plans to continue to feature new columnists and focus more on the trickier aspect of growing and adding original features along the lines of The Week Index and Great Satan.

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