Thursday: 08/09/01

All The News That's Fit To Excerpt
The London Sunday Times says that The Week "was styled on the weekly briefings given to the president of the United States and was set up by Jolyon Connell, a former Sunday Times journalist, in 1995." The Wall Street Journal explains that the American version of The Week, which launched last April, has "no original reporting." Instead, the 40-page periodical "feature[s] unbylined pieces of typically fewer than 200 words that summarize selected articles from a broad range of U.S. newspapers and magazines."

The Week is bankrolled by British publishing potentate Felix Dennis, the man behind Maxim, the wildly successful monthly that summarizes selected body parts from a broad range of U.S. movie starlets and bikini models. According to Vanity Fair, Dennis maintains a garden in England that features "a series of life-size bronze statues of Chuck Berry playing the guitar [and] Charles Darwin riding a galapago tortoise."

The Week is a much less fanciful enterprise. Printed on matte stock with boring typography, plain art, and just six pages of ads each issue, The Week is, in the words of's Simon Dumenco, "a smartly made mass magazine with upscale pretensions" that only looks like it's for "stupid people." In fact, The Week's promotional material says The Week will attract "affluent, well-educated men and women" who check their "mailboxes on Friday."

What to make of it all?

G. Beato, writing in Soundbitten, calls The Week "above everything else, a product of the Web. It gleefully follows the Web's first commandment: leverage other people's content. It packages news into info-chunks designed for people whose idea of a good book is a cell phone. The only thing that keeps it from being a genuine citizen of the online world is its website, a skimpy promotional tease whose actual content could be printed, with room to spare, on Shannon Elizabeth's latest pair of silver lam� hot pants."

Beato went on to say that�oh, wait a minute, I'm G. Beato and this is Soundbitten. Because I own the copyright to this piece, I can use as much of my own material as I like, without worrying about whether or not I'm overstepping the bounds of the "fair use" provisions that allow The Week to cut-and-paste itself onto the newsstands every Friday.

Of course, thanks to a nice library of previous coverage about The Week, I probably won't bother to add much original thought or reporting to this piece: news is a commodity now, so it pays to let others do the heavy lifting. This is the web's ethos, and The Week's ethos, and while Felix Dennis has characterized the American magazine industry as "a bloated whale," he's smart enough to realize that rancid blubber can be sifted and summarized into reconstituted, modestly profitable rancid blubber.

Indeed, because so many magazines and newspapers employ staffs of hundreds, The Week can get by with an editorial staff of only 15. With an initial circulation of 100,000, and single issues going for anywhere between 75 cents (the best subscription rate) and $3.00 (the newsstand rate), The Week is likely to generate at least $8 to $10 million in revenue this year, plus whatever it collects from advertisers.

It may not sound like a full-blown fortune, or even enough to help Dennis substantially expand his collection of life-size bronze statues. But what if The Week reaches, or tops, its relatively modest goal of 400,000 subscribers? (Time currently has a circulation of approximately 4 million, Newsweek 3.14 million.) In 1997, Maxim's initial circulation was 175,000; now it's 2.45 million. If The Week grows only half as fast, it would have 700,000 subscribers by 2005�

However its future plays out, you have to give credit to Dennis for his vision. As media proliferates, audiences and ad dollars disintegrate, which means that media producers are always looking for new ways to generate content as cheaply as possible. Much of this innovation now takes place on the web, where there's both a huge demand for content and a huge lack of revenues to actually pay for its production.

As a result, sites like The Drudge Report, Slate, and many others have developed ways to produce content inexpensively by leveraging the work of others. But so far, only Felix Dennis has had the good sense to import their cost-saving techniques to a medium where there's an actual tradition of making money.

* * *

MediaWeek says that The Week is "what Time and Newsweek were like when they started." Newsday likens it "to the early Time." The Wall Street Journal reports that Felix Dennis "says the magazine is akin to the original Time magazine founded by Henry Luce in 1923."

In other words, The Week isn't new at all. And when you consider that the British version of The Week appeared in 1995, before even the most prescient old media early adopters had begun to feel much mother-love for the Internet, it may seem doubly misguided to call The Week a product of the web.

But if The Week isn't a wholly new species, it's certainly a notable mutation. Because it doesn't reprint complete articles like, say, Reader's Digest does, it doesn't have to pay for the material it appropriates. This is true for any publication, of course, but how many other publications are composed almost entirely of excerpts and summary? Individually, each theft is so tiny that it's not considered a theft, but what if you add them all up? In the realm of journalism, The Week is the closest thing to Napster that exists�

Like all great rogues, The Week is superciliously brazen about its methods: a company spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that "legally, [The Week] can rewrite and republish any work that has appeared in print, as long as the source is credited." The Week is also quick with the mitigating rationale. Here is its editor-in-chief, William Falk, testifying in The Atlanta Constitution: "What we take from any publication is limited. We attribute the source and in most cases include a Web site as well for readers who want more information."

Sound familiar? Like many websites and online services, The Week trades on the concept of exposure - yes, it uses your content in ways you haven't necessarily sanctioned, but it will also help you expand your audience.

But here again, The Week bests its online counterparts. Consider Slate's "Today's Papers." Consider the Industry Standard's "Media Grok" email newsletter. They're based largely on material from other sources too, with promiscuous paraphrasing and excerpting--but while The Week simply cites the publication's name when it excerpts or summarizes, Slate and the Standard offer links to the specific articles in question. Which means, of course, that they pay a penalty for using that content - readers are given an easy way to abandon those publications in mid-perusal.

If The Week maintained a full-blown website rather than a strategic, promotional one, it would face the same problem. Instead, it publishes a list of website addresses on its back page for the publications from which it draws material. Not specific URLs, just general ones. And, thus, anyone who wants to actually read an article that The Week cites must log onto the web, type in the address of the publication in question, and then hope it has a good search engine. By weakening its links, then, The Week strengthens its stickiness - and while at first glance such phantom reciprocity might not seem particularly true to the collaborative spirit of the web, doesn't the web owe its very existence and continued evolution to such moments of convention-smashing innovation?

* * *

In the Wall Street Journal, Felix Dennis calls The Week "Cliff Notes for intelligent and busy people." In a piece, he calls it "Cliff Notes for the busy executive."

Traditional newsweeklies fulfill that role too, but in the wake of the Web, they feel outdated. After all, intelligent and busy people now have access to thousands of easily accessible publications; they have access to search engines that return thousands of documents per query; and everything from the New York Times to the Phuket Gazette is just a click away, free of charge.

Which doesn't actually mean that intelligent and busy people actual view such riches as anything more than virtual birdcage liner. But it does mean that old-fashioned newsweeklies are no longer particularly convincing as digests of the week's news - with thousands of other publications so close at hand, they simply appear too monotextual and insular�

Enter The Week, where a 400-word featurette is not really a 400-word featurette until it has name-checked the Times,, and the Zimbabwe Standard. According to William Falk, this means that "readers will get the opinions of three or four reviewers rather than just one," and also "the best lines that people get off, the best quotes, the most succinct writing, the most provocative views and original thinking."

In the London Sunday Times, Felix Dennis says that such super-concentrated information is great for cocktail parties. "The point is to provide social ammunition and information without being boring," he explains. "When I'm at a dinner party and someone raises a subject I usually know more about it than they do."

Maybe, but remember that this is a man who pledged in Vanity Fair to "die by an overdose of crack cocaine with an 18-year-old perched on top of [him]": his endorsement of The Week's social utility is no doubt as much a testament to the cleavage quotient of the dinner parties he attends as it of the publication itself. In other words, it probably doesn't take more than a few paragraphs about the latest nuclear arms agreement between the U.S. and Russia to be a few paragraphs more conversant on the subject than the the typical Maxim centerfold model.

But does anyone really think that three or four soundbites equal three or four opinions? And do sentiments like, oh, "This is not merely one family's problem, it is society's problem," really constitute "the most provocative views and original thinking" on the Bush daughters' (and society's) drinking problem that The Week's editors could find?

Those questions are moot, because The Week really isn't about offering multiple viewpoints or finding the best quotes. And unlike "Today's Papers" or "Media Grok," it's not about analyzing or critiquing the coverage it summarizes, either. Indeed, The Week tags its arts coverage with the rubric "Review of Reviews," but unless one counts the tacit thumbs-up of inclusion, no discernible "reviewing" takes place in these capsules; they feature strung-together, analysis-free excerpts and summaries, just like the rest of The Week's stories�

But while the excerpts aren't really there for illumination, or entertainment, or to serve as a jumping-off point, that doesn't mean they don't serve a purpose. They stand as the tangible evidence that The Week's editors have been scanning hundreds of publications on behalf of their intelligent and busy readers, with each excerpt referring not just to the article from which it was taken, but also to all the articles on the same subject that weren't excerpted.

In this respect, The Week is more like a search engine than the early Time: intelligent and busy Web surfers don't ever want to read more than a few documents when a search engine returns their query, but if they have to choose between a search engine that indexes a million documents and one that indexes a hundred, they generally choose the former. And why not? A document that comes out on top over a million other documents must be better than one that triumphs over a mere hundred, right?

In the end, then, The Week isn't really selling information. Instead, it's selling the efficient, utilitarian, friction-free assurance that you're not wasting time on stuff that doesn't matter. That may seem like a pretty esoteric trade to ply, but online publications should pay close attention to its fortunes. Indeed, while revenue-hungry web publishers like Salon have taken to charging readers for access to more content, the existence of The Week suggests that that is the exact wrong approach to take. Give readers less content, however, and they may finally open up their wallets.

--G. Beato

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