The Mr. Magazine™ Interview: William Falk, The Week’s Editor-in-Chief “There is such a rich vein of material to mine now.”December 14, 2008
There are newsweeklies and there is The Week.
True to its name, The Week provides its readers with “all you need to know about everything that matters.” A magazine that distills “the best of the U.S. and international media” and offers it on a silver-platter, well, in fact it offers it on 44 pages of ink on paper weekly every Friday in The Week and pixels on a screen daily at www.theweek.com.
Started in the UK in the late 90s and launched in the US by media maven Felix Dennis in 2001, The Week is still delivering news and opinions from all around the world both in print and on the web. A formula that many said would never work, (On a side note, I still remember the worlds of a CEO of a major publishing company telling me, “This magazine will never work in America.”)…
Well, Felix Dennis sold his other media properties in the US (Maxim, Blender, etc.) but he kept The Week. Why you may ask? Maybe because it is unique (how many other magazines you can use this adjective to describe them?); maybe because it is a MUST read for anyone who really wants to be in the know; maybe because The Week, in its condensed view of the world, will continue to shed some light that will help our intellect as we move ahead in this new century watching the world become flatter by the day; or maybe because Felix Dennis is a genius who knows, to put it bluntly, that the light at the end of the tunnel for the news business is not the train coming.
To understand The Week, I visited with William Falk, the magazine editor and asked Mr. Bill for some answers on the many questions regarding The Week and its success story:
What is The Week?
We usually describe it as a witty distillation of the best of the U.S. and international media with the real focus on commentary and criticism reviews. We are a weekly magazine that very quickly brings you up-to-date on what happened in the world last week if you were too busy to devote an hour of the day to reading your daily newspaper or the web. We really help you make sense of that news by giving you some of the best opinions, commentary and ideas that we can find.
How to your reconcile your sources between print and the web?
We certainly use a lot of web material now. I would say that newspapers and magazines are still probably the backbone of what we provide, but we are blending in more and more web material as websites get better and better. When we launched a magazine in 2001, there were only a handful of websites that really had high quality columnists writing for them. Now we find more and more sites that are providing some really high quality commentary on a daily basis, so we are using more and more of that. We don’t use a lot of material from what you would classify as a blog, although the line there is really blurring more and more. We like to use material that is considered as opposed to some consciousness that is considered as some blogs where the writing isn’t necessarily that good or some people are having instantaneous reactions to things. We like to get a sense that there has been some thought process involved, and the writing itself is considered and has some quality.
If you look at all the other weeklies, what is the role of The Week?
I think that The Week harkens back to the individual vision that they had at TIME magazine. We still want to bring the busy man and woman up-to-date on what has happened and fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Most of the other newsweeklies are under pressure from everything that is on the Internet. The media are evolving away from anything that you would recognize as a newsweekly. The Economist would make an exception, but I think that TIME, Newsweek and US News, which is not a weekly anymore, it is a monthly, seem to be evolving into thought magazines like the Atlantic. They are having a lot of these idea pieces and essays, and they are making very little effort to sum up the weeks’ events. I see a lot of Vanity Fair touches. They are really evolving out of their space and leaving that space to us and The Economist. That space simply being where you go at the end of the week to review what happened and have us, sort of, tour through the thinking of some learned people finding out what you need to know.
The role of editors today is different than it was ten or twenty years ago. How do you define your role as a magazine editor?
My role is probably somewhat unique because of the uniqueness of the magazine, so in a sense I am a museum curator. I am somebody who consumes an enormous amount of media every week and I am reading constantly. I read on the commute to work. I wake up and start reading newspapers. I get several newspapers at home. I am reading all day long. I think my role is really to identify what the big issues and controversies are at a given time and to select for readers some of the most provocative or provisional thinking about those issues, to stimulate people and give them different ways to consider familiar news. I think my job is to provide some sense as to what the heck does this all mean and to help our readers make sense of the world. They are going to have lots of other sources of pure data and information pouring in and I am the person who says, okay, I know you are feeling a bit overwhelmed, let me help tell you (a) here are the stories you need to pay attention to and what is going on. If I don’t include it, you can safely not have to worry about it too much; and (b) here is a range of thinking about these stories, so you can help make up your own mind and feel like you have an informed opinion.
How is The Week put together? How do you select the content and how do you manage to keep that creditability and objectivity that gives The Week high rankings in the aforementioned categories?
Really, it is something that is paramount. My thinking is putting a magazine together and individual articles together. Part of what I really try to do is be very informed as to what conservatives are thinking at any given moment, what liberals are thinking and what centrists are thinking, so that every week we really try to reflect all the major points on the political spectrum. It is something that we really pay a lot of attention to here, and it manifests itself not just in the inclusion of a liberal or a conservative piece, but thinking about what stories are important to people who feel that they are conservative or liberal. If you put on Fox News at night, you are going to see a different line up of stories and controversies than you are going to see at MSNBC. We have to know about both of those and select some from both that people will find interesting.
What has been the most pleasant surprise in the last seven years since The Week was started?
There have been a lot of pleasant surprises. I think certainly that the widespread acceptance that we have found. We launched at 100,000 readers and we have grown to about 500,000. The sense that some magazines that looked down their nose at us years ago are now copying us in many ways. I see a lot of features from The Week and ideas from The Week that are being adapted and used all over the media now. Certainly these marketing studies, which are quantitative and therefore give you a real sense of what the readers are thinking, could be rated as most objective and most credible in recent years. That study over publications like The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times is really very flattering and heartening. We have fifteen to twenty people putting this product together, and some of these publications have literally twenty or thirty times that kind of staff. In some ways, I think it is a real testimony to the brilliance of the British editors who figured out this format to begin with and that we were lucky enough to inherit it. The hard work everybody on my staff to execute that and make the magazine lively and fun. I think that is the other key to our success is that you can do The Week’s format badly. There is no guarantee that the format itself will be interesting or successful. It is really understanding, getting The Week and finding the core of the stories, the most interesting ideas and language.
What was the biggest hurdle you have had to overcome?
The biggest hurdle has been finding people who do this well. To get my original staff I probably did writing tests of 200-300 people and interviewed a lot of those folks and over the years just filling vacancies or expanding staff. Part of the secret of The Week is that the writing was all very smooth and we write our essays with five or six opinions and sources in it. It all must read as if it were one coherent conversation, and that actually takes a lot of effort on our part. The simplicity of the magazine is the result of a tremendous amount of hard work on our part. That is another thing that we really focus on. We aim the magazine at intelligent, busy people, so we really want the material to be done at a high intelligence level, yet also be very simple because we understand. I think that some other publications do not necessarily understand that. Our readers have very busy lives. They now have jobs that require them to spend ten to twelve hours a day working. Many readers have children and they may have all sorts of other obligations. In the media sometimes, we think that everybody is following all of the stories to the same extent that we are, and they are not. They have other things that they have to pay attention to. We are very respectful of our readers’ time and energy, so, when we write something, we really try to make it inclusive, not to assume that they know too much, but subtly weave in the background that you need if you haven’t been following that story, and to write it in a way that it has it all crystal clear with what happened, what the debate is and what the ideas are within that debate. Finding people who can do that is really quite difficult. A lot of accomplished journalists have come in here, have tried to do it and failed. It has taken most of us months to really learn to do this well, or six months to a year to get good at this, including myself. A lot of issues are primitive when I look back on them. You get better and better at it as you do it.
What is the problem in the magazine business? Is it the economy, the internet or the content?
I think to some extent it is the business model. The magazine industry has been long predicated on a business model in which we essentially give away magazines. You spend more on the paper and the shipping than you get for a subscription, and magazines have made that up with ad dollars and lots of ad pages. The Internet is making a lot of those ads go away. It is crippling for the industry to have so much competition and also the free competition of Internet material. There is also a lot of magazine material online now that is free, so I think that more than anything the business model is at fault. At The Week, we have a somewhat different business model where we are 50/50 in terms of ad revenue and circulation revenue. I think that actually positions us better to weather these sorts of storms that have hit. We are in better shape for that reason.
What makes Bill tick in the morning?
I love this work. I love my job. I am very wrapped up in the issues of our times. We live in a fascinating age. We launched the magazine April 2001, just before 9/11 and President Bush had been elected. It was funny, because, in the first five or six months of the magazine, we actually had trouble finding good controversies to put in the magazine. I remember we did an issue after Bush’s first 100 days. The headline was “The Quiet Presidency”. Our controversy of the week was about how lovely it was after the tumult of the Clinton years to have a president who has basically done very little and during whose presidency very little had happened. On the other level, I turned the corner on Fifth Avenue and showed the World Trade Center in flames. I knew at that moment that everything was going to be different. It certainly has been different from that day forward. From the war on terrorism to the intense political battles we have had in our country in the last eight years to this historical Obama presidency, which is going to be tremendous fun to watch unfold and see where that goes, I just think this is a great time to be alive and thinking. There is such a rich vein of material to mine now. The internet is wonderful. Newspapers still have wonderful material in them and there is just so much stuff to pour through every week as our society changes that for people in the business of thinking about the world and debating what we should do about our problems. I can’t think of a more interesting time.