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So What Do You Do, Bill Falk, Editor-in-Chief of The Week?

Presiding over a major content push online, this EIC is bullish about the newsweekly's longevity

By David Hirschman - May 27, 2009
At a time when many magazines are seeing advertising declines of 30 percent or more, aggregating newsweekly The Week has actually seen ads increase by 19 percent in the first quarter of 2009. Circulation has also grown steadily, with the magazine gaining readers in the past 10 consecutive ABC periods for a total increase of 170 percent over the past six years. We spoke with The Week's editor-in-chief Bill Falk about the magazine's distinct voice, how it aggregates and condenses news, and what about its business model is helping it weather the recession with relative ease.


Name: Bill Falk
Position: Editor-in-chief of The Week
Birthdate: November 23, 1954
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Marital status: Married with two daughters.
Education: New York University
Resume: After college, worked as a copy editor and news reporter for Gannett's Westchester Rockland Newspaper Group, and eventually became a Sunday magazine writer and news columnist for the chain. Moved on to Newsday, where he worked as a reporter writing long-form features and was part of two Pulitzer Prize-winning projects. Returned to Gannett as an editor heading up the projects teams at the Journal News (which was created in the 1998 merging of newspapers from the Westchester Rockland Newspaper Group), and then became deputy managing editor in charge of the news department. Was named editor-in-chief of The Week ahead of the magazine's 2001 launch.
Favorite TV show: Cable news and Mets games.
First section of the Sunday Times: The A section and Week in Review.
Last book read: So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger
Guilty pleasure: "Kayaking by myself without access to phones or email or newspapers."

What's your system for picking stories to condense? Does most of your content come from people scanning for and finding print articles or from searching online?
Our process is that we're all reading print and online all the time, and we're constantly making notes and clipping stuff out. We sort of get a sense of what the big stories are, and we have a couple of meetings where we decide [which ones to choose]. And then we have a researcher who basically pulls everything that's been written on them, using LexisNexis. But we're online all day long and we're printing stuff, so it's a combination.

It's surprisingly difficult to [create the magazine each week]. It looks very easy, but the art is in making it look easy. I've found it very hard to find journalists who can do this work. In order to hire the original 15 people [at launch], I had to interview and do writing tests with something like 150 people. You're doing several things at once -- it's the compression without losing clarity and readability, and then managing to take four or five opinions and putting them all into one coherent essay that reads smoothly. It's surprisingly difficult, and it's a knack that some people have and others can't handle. Plus, there's a really distinct voice that the magazine has, the way the old Time and Newsweek used to all read like just one person had written it -- we're very much that way. We have no bylines. Time and Newsweek used to achieve that by having five or six levels of rewrites until it all kind of came out as a homogenized form, but we only really have one level of edit and then a copy editor, so people that work here really have to have that voice in their head.

"We look all over the world for stories that you'd want to turn to a friend and say, 'Hey, have you heard about this?'"

While there's the distinct voice, though, you don't have a political bent or really comment on the news.
No. It's a sensibility and it's certainly a writing style. It's very succinct, lively, and sometimes witty. It has a sort of British feel in the sense that Brits do a sort of deadpan irony -- and all the humor in The Week is like that. We don't do gags, or Spy magazine-type humor. I often describe the magazine's humor as a kind of "twinkle in the eye"; it's subtle and understated; it's being bemused by the world.

We don't really ever comment on what anybody says. The Week doesn't speak directly to the readers. It's our filtering; what we've chosen. Sometimes a writer will come -- when it's a subject that has been dominating the commentary -- with a manila folder that has 100 or more printouts. So part of what we're doing is winnowing it down to maybe six or eight that we think represent the best arguments along the spectrum and getting them to work together. Part of the art is figuring out which of the pieces can be made to cohere so that the argument has a line that goes through it. So we're looking for balance, and our value-add is that we're reading all this stuff for you so you don't have to, and we're helping you make sense of it.

Is it more important not to miss the big stuff, like a major Times story? Or is the value of the magazine in highlighting articles from obscure publications that people would never find on their own?
I think we do two things, really. Part of it is that we do the big stories. If there's a huge debate going on about Dick Cheney and torture, we're definitely going to do it. We're sort of like a buzz-meter. I will read the op-ed and editorial pages of every major newspaper every day, and if we suddenly realize, "Wow, this is the ninth piece I've seen on this same subject," then we have critical mass. But we also look for the little, quirky, fun things. We look all over the world for stories that you'd want to turn to a friend and say, "Hey, have you heard about this?"

News aggregation, generally, has become a major topic online, and Google News gets a lot of flak from newspapers, particularly, for taking their content and putting advertising against it. Do you all skirt that by the rewriting? Do news sources ever object to your summarizing their pieces?
We haven't had that kind of problem. Google News doesn't do any value-add -- they just take other people's material and put it on there verbatim. I think people in the industry look at the magazine and understand there's a lot of work that goes into it. We are taking stuff that they've reported and attributing it to them, but we're also adding a lot to it. In fact, a lot of people send us their magazines and want to be quoted.

"[Owner Felix Dennis] has said that he sees The Week as one of his legacies to the world, and he really wants to grow it out into a global brand."

The Week has continued to grow recently even while other magazines, and newsweeklies in particular, have been losing readers and making cuts. What are you doing differently?
A couple of things are going on there. Our business model is really more the business model that Time and Newsweek are now adopting. We get half of our revenue from subscribers and half from advertising, so we are less advertising-dependent than some of the other magazines, which, essentially, gave their magazines away. They charged, in the old days, $10 or $12 for a subscription, and were just trying to make big numbers so that they could sell advertising against that. That left them very vulnerable to advertising downturns like we're experiencing now. Now they're all trying to get their subscription price up and have more "quality" readers.

We've always had a fairly high subscription price. We ask $49 per year now, but for that we know our readers are very engaged -- they're sort of cult-like in their attachment to the magazine. And right now our biggest sales force really [is] the readers; we got over 200,000 gift subscriptions last year. Part of the success of the magazine is that -- because The Week isn't a big, huge, visible brand like Time or Newsweek or things like that -- they feel a sense of ownership.

It's also a very lean and mean operation. While other publications have 200, 300 or 400 editorial employees are finding they can't support that anymore, this business model is 15 full-time people and a couple of contributing editors. We don't have this huge overhead cost that some of these other magazines have.

Felix Dennis, The Week's owner, sold all of his other U.S. magazines a couple of years ago, but held onto this one. Does he have a special investment or involvement in it?
Yes, he does. In fact it's one of the major reasons I came to work for him in the beginning. He convinced me that this magazine was really near and dear to his heart, and it really is. He has said that he sees The Week as one of his legacies to the world, and he really wants to grow it out into a global brand.

What are your plans online, and how does The Week's concept translate?
We just announced that we've hired Maer Roshan to head the Web site, so we're really going to put a lot of effort into that because we want to be as strong on the Web as we are in print. The concept does tailor to the Web -- it's kind of a quick take, rather than the end of the week where we have a chance to really digest everything. With the Web, it's, "Here's today's buzz." And I think we'll adapt our filtering function to other media, like video. And on the Web, we've added some original content. This year will really be a big push online for us.


David Hirschman is editor of mediabistro.com's Daily Media Newsfeed.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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