U.S. News’ Web Success a Model for Newsweeklies?

Newsweek’s pending sale raises new questions about the viability of general news magazines, but one of them has shown a possible path to survival.

U.S. News & World Report largely fell off the radar when it switched from a weekly to monthly publishing schedule last year and shifted focus to the Web. But now the company is claiming success online, where it reports strides in traffic, content and ad revenue while narrowing losses.

The brand has recently built out its Web site, adding a travel channel and mutual fund rankings. Law firm rankings are coming in the fall. Traffic is up, to 7.7 million monthly unique visits in April from 7 million a year ago, according to U.S. News, citing Omniture data. It hasn’t abandoned news altogether; in place of the weekly issue, it created a paid weekly digital political news edition that counts 93,000 subscribers.

Explaining to advertisers the shift away from a weekly news report to a collection of rankings and consumer advice took time, president Bill Holiber admitted. “It’s hard to grasp because everybody thought of U.S. News as what it used to be,” he said. “People thought we were just putting the magazine on the Web site.” Advertisers including Allstate and Siemens have since signed on, leading to 30 percent growth in digital revenue—which is now 60 percent of total revenue, from almost nothing a few years ago.

The site’s ability to collect consumers’ e-mails accounts for a growing part of the business, said Holiber. For example, the auto site generates 12,000 leads per month to advertisers from people who opt-in to get quotes from car dealers. He projects that the company will erase its losses in a year and a half if this keeps up.

Buyers credited U.S. News for recognizing its value was in research rather than a weekly newsmagazine, given how troubled the category is. Still, the model has its critics. Scott Daly, evp, executive media director at Dentsu America, for one, questioned the magazine’s suitability to a subscription format given its themed issues.

Along with the frequency cut, the magazine reduced its rate base twice in 2009, from 1.5 million to 1.1 million. Holiber said the focus is on the site, adding, “We’re now driven digitally and happen to put out a print product.”