Slapped around by the emergence of the new media, the continued compartmentalization of reading and listening habits of consumers into smaller and smaller groups, and an economic crisis that shows no signs of vanishing soon, the news-magazine Newsweek is about to undergo some major content, design and readership target audience changes.

The New York Times reports that the magazine — sold all over the world — is about to inch closer to being a magazine akin to The Atlantic, The Economist and the New Yorker. It’ll have a new look, be more opinionated, and be aimed at a smaller but more affluent readership.

Newsweek is about to begin a major change in its identity, with a new design, a much smaller and, it hopes, more affluent readership, and some shifts in content. The venerable newsweekly’s ingrained role of obligatory coverage of the week’s big events will be abandoned once and for all, executives say.

“There’s a phrase in the culture, ‘we need to take note of,’ ‘we need to weigh in on,’ ” said Newsweek’s editor, Jon Meacham. “That’s going away. If we don’t have something original to say, we won’t. The drill of chasing the week’s news to add a couple of hard-fought new details is not sustainable.”

And although there is some nostalgia in insisting that because a news-magazine looked one way it needs to look a certain way or it ain’t a news magazine, the fact is: in this age of constant news cycles, cable TV, network news pondering ways to stay competitive with cable TV, dying or gravely ill newspapers, and weblogs that borrow content from professional reporters and comment on it (written by many weblog writers who look at the professional news organizations and reporters whose salaried work they cut and past and comment on with disdain), news-magazines such as Newsweek, Time and US News need to adjust to the 21st century or else they will perish. The bottom line is not looking good:

Newsweek loses money, and the consensus within its parent, the Washington Post Company, and among industry analysts, is that it has to try something big. The magazine is betting that the answer lies in changing both itself and its audience, and getting the audience to pay more.

A deep-rooted part of the newsweekly culture has been to serve a mass audience, but that market has been shrinking, and new subscribers come at a high price in call centers, advertising and deeply discounted subscriptions.

“Mass for us is a business that doesn’t work,” said Tom Ascheim, Newsweek’s chief executive. “Wish it did, but it doesn’t. We did it for a long time, successfully, but we can’t anymore.”

As noted in this earlier post, mass audience is turning out to be oh, so 20th century. The Times reports that Newsweek hasn’t been able to keep promises to advertisers:

Thirteen months ago, Newsweek lowered its rate base, the circulation promised to advertisers, to 2.6 million from 3.1 million, and Mr. Ascheim said that would drop to 1.9 million in July, and to 1.5 million next January. He says the magazine has a core of 1.2 million subscribers who are its best-educated, most avid consumers of news, and who have higher incomes than the average reader.

According to the times, Newsweek wants to raise its subscription price and has this quote: “If you can’t get people to pay for what they love, we’re all out of business.” (If reader attitudes on that issue towards weblogs are any indication, then perhaps Newsweek needs to shop for a buyer for its offices now.)

The Times goes through the whole history of newsweeklies. They’ve always been competing with faster media. The idea was that they’d add deeper perspective: original reporting coupled with solid analytical content.

As anyone who has written for a newsweekly can attest (I was brought in by Newsweek’s Madrid bureau in 1975 to help them on stories about the death throes of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s regime, leading up to Franco’s actual death) before most stories go in the magazine they go through several layers of editors. On some major stories, reporters gather and send the stories and they’re written and rewritten by someone on the desk until they are solid in reporting and analysis.

Even so, the Internet has changed all this and so has cable television. By the time most news magazines come out now, readers have already read more than they wanted (on the Internet and in their ailing newspapers) and heard perhaps more screaming then they wanted to hear (on cable and radio talk and TV news). And weblogs often provide the in depth analysis that readers used to seek in newsweeklies.

Meanwhile newsweeklies don’t look like they used to look just a few years ago: they have been getting perceptibly smaller and the way content has been laid out has already changed, in terms of the amount and actual categories. This is not necessarily a bad thing: all species need to adapt to survive. And that’s the issue here:

But in the last couple of years, circulation and advertising have plunged, and the weeklies have cut news staffs. Time magazine, the nation’s first and largest newsweekly, remains profitable, though its sales are down, too, but Newsweek is struggling and U.S. News & World Report has become a monthly.

Editorially, Newsweek’s plan calls for moving in the direction it was already headed — toward not just analysis and commentary, but an opinionated, prescriptive or offbeat take on events.

So in May, the Times reports, there will be new categories, short takes and more commentaries. Paper will be heavier, to better appeal to advertisers and readers. There will be more photos.

Pages of a mock issue that Mr. Meacham displayed in his office on West 57th Street in Manhattan show a cleaner, less cluttered layout that has more open space and fewer pages that seem an uninterrupted sea of words. The plan turns on raising the amount, for each reader, that Newsweek can charge advertisers, and attracting more ads for luxury goods. It also promises sharply lower costs for printing, distribution, marketing and customer service.

PERSONAL NOTE AND DISCLAIMER: In addition to my being a paid stringer for Newsweek in 1975, TMV was invited to be part of Newsweek’s The Ruckus blog in campaign 2008. And I am biased about news-magazines. My father Richard Gandelman was a printer who did a lot of work for Time, Inc. and I sometimes went with him into NYC to be with him as he visited their offices. Each week I read and enjoy Newsweek and Time — and am also a huge fan of a new news-magazine with its own digest/commentary niche (a must read for me as well), The Week.

JOE GANDELMAN, Editor-In-Chief