Quick, name the competitors of U.S. News & World Report. Time and Newsweek, right? Would you believe Consumer Reports?
These are hard times for newsmagazines, and many of them are tweaking their offerings, looking for new ways to thrive — or just to survive. But U.S. News wants to take on a new role, as a definitive source of information and ratings on a range of expensive consumer products.
The first step in that strategy went public Friday on a magazine Web site (usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/cars-trucks) and today on newsstands — rankings, reviews and information on nearly every model of car, truck, minivan or sport utility vehicle available on the American market.
In the 1980s, U.S. News discovered a popular audience for authoritative-sounding statistical rankings, beginning with the annual report on colleges that is widely second-guessed — and even more widely read. It later did the same thing with hospitals, graduate schools, high schools and even places to retire.
The magazine wants to extend that practice to mostly high-end goods, starting with the automotive rankings, followed over the next few years by detailed rankings of things like video cameras, television sets and digital music players. This is less about selling particular issues of the magazine than about driving traffic year-round to Web sites with vastly more material on those products than will fit on printed pages.
The plan is a gamble on where U.S. News’s future lies — a future that its owner, Mortimer B. Zuckerman, describes in terms of shopping as much as news. In an interview in his office on the East Side of Manhattan, Mr. Zuckerman repeatedly cited market research showing that most Americans do research online before making big purchases.
After two decades of rankings, “we have branded credibility,” he said. “You’d have to be blind not to see what is the economic strength of the franchise.”
Building credibility in a new area, however, may take some doing. In its automotive rankings, U.S. News assigns an overall numerical score to each vehicle — along with subscores in a handful of areas — and offers quick, easy-to-use comparisons of that grade to all the others in its class.
But the central feature, the score, is not the product of U.S. News’s own detailed analysis of a car or truck. Rather, it is an analysis of other people’s analyses.
The magazine has searched the work of dozens of automotive reviewers at newspapers and magazines, assigned a numerical value to each review (a process U.S. News describes as complex, rigorous and top secret), and then aggregated those into final scores. The Web site offers a description of each vehicle, sprinkled with snippets of quotes from those reviewers, so that it reads as much like a Zagat’s restaurant blurb as something you might find in Consumer Reports.
“The goal is to take as much subjectivity out of it as possible,” said Rick Newman, a deputy business editor and writer who runs the magazine’s automotive coverage. “You read a car review, all you’re reading is some guy’s opinion. What we’re doing is taking all the credible information that we think is out there. The end result certainly smoothes out a lot of the opinions.”
Roberta Garfinkle, a senior vice president of TargetCast TCM, an advertising buyer, called the single-focus issues and the Web site “an excellent way to draw some advertisers into the franchise that normally would not be there,” like autos and luxury goods.
“They’ve got to try something” to set the magazine apart from its peers, she said. A magazine’s reinventing itself used to be seen as a sign of desperation, Ms. Garfinkle added, “but it’s what everybody has to do now to survive.”
Newsweeklies, like newspapers, have been bleeding revenue for years, and analysts, along with current and former executives, say that U.S. News breaks even, at best. (As a privately held company, it does not release financial information.) It had $126 million in ad revenue in the first half of the year, compared with $224 million for Newsweek and $252 million for Time, according to the Magazine Publishers of America. Paid circulation of U.S. News is about two million, while the two others are above three million.
U.S. News already stood apart from Time and Newsweek in 1984, when it was bought by Mr. Zuckerman, a big real estate developer based in Boston. It had a smaller staff and so, making a virtue of necessity, it offered less straight news coverage of recent events and more news analysis. And it had almost none of the lighter content, like sports or entertainment, that its competitors put in the back section of each issue.
Mr. Zuckerman brought in new editors and strengthened the emphasis on analysis. He mandated a new “back of the book,” made up of practical advice for consumers on personal finance, health, technology, travel and education, an approach that grew indirectly into the rankings.
The strategy worked. Readership rose and the magazine became highly profitable, according to analysts and former executives.
But over the years, a lot of other magazines made similar changes, with more analysis and “news you can use,” while U.S. News experienced rapid turnover among top editors. By the mid-1990s, many people at the magazine were suggesting that Mr. Zuckerman’s attention had moved on to his other pursuits — New York’s Daily News, The Atlantic and, of course, his real estate business — and that U.S. News had lost much of its innovative edge.
“If Mort is engaged again,” said Thomas R. Evans, who served as the magazine’s president and publisher in the 1990s, “it’s a good thing for the magazine because the guy just sees the world better than other people do.”
U.S. News says that at least one early sign of its online experiment is positive: at the outset, advertising on the automotive rankings site, which has thousands of pages, is sold out.
In the printed magazine, “we used to get 500 pages a year of ads out of Detroit, and now we’re down below 50,” acknowledged Mr. Zuckerman, who writes a column for U.S. News and has the title of editor in chief.
When it came to rating hospitals and colleges for a mass audience, U.S. News all but invented the field, but any number of Web sites, magazines and newspapers rank cars and electronics. Rating consumer products “is crowded territory,” said Lee Rainie, a U.S. News managing editor in the 1990s, “so it will be tougher to establish the kind of authority” the magazine has with colleges. Current editors at the magazine agree.
To be successful, U.S. News has to find a broad audience that is not comfortable with magazines aimed at enthusiasts, and wants some of the nuts-and-bolts practicality of Consumer Reports, but without the online subscription charges. “They probably should have done something like this a lot sooner,” Mr. Evans said.