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Newsweek’s digital future: How soon is now?

You may have heard rumors recently along the lines of Newsweek, arguably one of the two top news and current-affairs magazines in the US, preparing to cease print publication and transition into a digital-only proposition very soon. If not, you’re one of the few; as if part of a high-powered game of Telephone, the idea has gone from an off-handed remark made by one person into enough of a commonly-accepted idea that even the managing editor of Newsweek has been forced to deny the plan. So what, exactly, actually happened?

The rumor, at least, has a great original source – Namely, Barry Diller, the chairman of Newsweek‘s parent company IAC. He told reporters and investors on a conference call earlier this week that, while Newsweek as an idea (and a brand, perhaps more importantly) is healthier now than when IAC bought it back in 2010, the problem remains that print publication is in trouble. “What is the problem? The problem is manufacturing and producing a weekly newsmagazine. That’s going to have to be solved. Advertising in this category is entirely elective,” he said, before going on to add that “the transition will happen. I’m not saying it will happen totally. But the transition to online from hard print will take place. We’re examining all of our options. Our plan is that by September, October and certainly … (we’ll) firmly have a plan in place for next year. It’s going be different than it is this year. I can’t tell you in what ways it’s going to be different. But it will be different.”

That sounds pretty definitive, if a little vague; we’re told, after all, that the transition from print to digital will happen, even if not necessarily “totally” (It’s unclear what that means, although I wonder if he’s leaving the option open for less regular, special editions of the print edition in response to specific events), and that decisions will be made by the end of this year, or the beginning of next. Sooner or later, it seems, Newsweek is going digital. Unless you’re editor-in-chief Tina Brown, who put out an internal memo – leaked to Politico – to say that nothing was definitive as yet.

“Barry Diller would like to make it clear that he did not say on the earnings call as reported that Newsweek is going digital in September,” Brown wrote, explaining that what had actually done was make “the uncontroversial, industry-wide observation that print is moving in the direction of digital.” Summarizing his statements, she said that what he had meant with his comments was that “eventually, over time, digital would replace much of print (hardly a controversial revelation),” and that “in September we would be evolving our plan for the year ’13, with many options to choose from.” There was no mention made of the “the transition will happen” or “the transition to online from hard print will take place” statements, of course.

It remains to be seen whether Diller was speaking out of turn with the rest of his own company, or whether Brown’s memo is an attempt to prevent Newsweek workers freaking out from the possibility of losing their jobs as the magazine transitions to a digital future. I suspect we’ll all know more by the end of the year.

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