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Fixing a Tired Brand

Although creative management requires nimbleness and thinking outside the box, for Jim Impoco, editor-in-chief at Newsweek, experience is arguably the most critical attribute.

Impoco joined Newsweek during a time of uncertainty and under the scrutiny of a media industry that largely left the brand for dead. Barry Diller's IAC Media sold the brand to IBT Media in August 2013, only eight months after it transitioned from an 80-year-old print newsweekly into a digital-only magazine. Not only did Impoco have to replace a high-profile editor in Tina Brown, but he also had to start from scratch because the brand inherited less than a handful of staffers in the sale.

"It was a little bit like adopting an abused kid from a shelter," he says. "It was a fully digital product so the question was: How do we reimagine it that way? It wasn't a question of restoring what it had been. All the other approaches had failed. And every era was different. So we had to figure out what we were going to do with it."

Jim Impoco

Build the Right Team

Impoco had a small window of time to establish his new team and produce his first issue as the brand's new editor. Obviously his first objective was to build a staff that could not only produce quickly, but one that would fit into his strategic vision-"to put the news back into Newsweek."

His first step was to recruit a few key players that he worked with in the past, including his deputy editor Bob Roe, who was also his number two at Condé Nast Portfolio. But to get things moving in the right direction Impoco needed to add a lot more than a few editors, and he needed to enlist people that could stand up to the demands of digital publishing.

"I was looking for people with a high metabolism-digital producers who could produce two or three stories a day, if necessary, and with enough added value that they stand out," he says. "We needed someone that could crash a cover story out in a day. So I sought out investigative reporters, but not old-school types that need six months to develop a story. I needed people who were hugely productive and capable and knew how to chase down a story."

Develop A Strategy and Stick to It

Putting the "news" back in Newsweek was a systemic challenge. Not only did editorial need to rethink its strategy, but the brand also needed the audience to recognize and accept its new direction.

"We sort of knew everything wasn't working," he says. "We didn't have a blueprint to work from, we couldn't go back to say, 1999, or some other time, because none of it was working. In a sense, you had to go hard and that's what we did."

By "go hard" Impoco means focusing on long form investigative reporting and standing out as a news organization in an era where news has become a surplus commodity. But a new content strategy doesn't necessarily mean an audience will buy in, especially if they've become accustomed to something else. He admits that when he took over the brand it was "smart, but [with a] middlebrow sensibility." So his ambition was to "relocate it up the food chain a little bit."

"People are a lot smarter now," he says. "There was a time when Newsweek could close the magazine on a Friday and stay fresh and relevant on Monday, but that isn't doable now. You can't do a cover story on Ferguson straight and try to connect the dots and hope that four days later it still seems relevant. Now what we do is the second-day story."

Don't Forget the Past

While Impoco wasn't able to draw on what worked in the past for Newsweek, he was able to draw on his experiences at Reuters and Portfolio. In fact, when he revived Newsweek's print magazine in March 2014, he modeled the product on a quarterly he previously launched at Reuters.

"I couldn't have done it otherwise," he contends. "The Reuters quarterly was a direct blueprint of what we did with the print, I even used the same designers I worked with at Condé Nast. There's a lot of continuity between Portfolio, Reuters and what I'm doing now-including staff. I have a go-to group that I knew could do this. You need people who share a vision."

Some of the elements within the blueprint he's talking about are physical, like heavier paper stock, which makes the book look more like a SIP than a newsweekly.

Of course, there is one critically major difference between Newsweek and his past experiences-resources. Impoco says that while he was at Condé he had what now seems like limitless resources and time to produce an issue. He contextualizes the difference by noting that he had photo shoot budgets that cost more than six months of his current staff's T&E allowance. But he says the valuable lesson he's learned from that is that no matter your budget or resources, things might not always work out, as was the case for the now defunct Portfolio.

Grit Builds Character and Culture

In hindsight, Impoco describes the efforts he and his team fostered to reestablish Newsweek as "herculean." Not only did he need to rebuild his team, redevelop the content strategy, reestablish an audience and assimilate under a new ownership, but he also had to ensure his group shared his vision and had confidence in the brand and each other.

Newsweek faced so many initial challenges when Impoco joined that he says it formed a "band of brothers and sisters." He explains that everyone was in the trenches together and shared the same goal. They also collectively understood that "what they were doing was crazy," he says.

"The difficulty created a bond," he says. "Now we're up to 60 [team members]. When we started out with such a small crowd we were hoping for a minimally viable product. But as it turns out we did a little bit better in my opinion. Once the treadmill starts it doesn't stop. And now it feels relatively chill."

That "chill" environment is succeeding. Impoco says that the brand is now profitable, and the online audience is growing rapidly. Advertising for the magazine has increased 100-fold, and revenue in 2014 grew 400 percent when compared to 2013. What's more, its online traffic increased from an average of 200,000 monthly unique visitors to over 2 million, year over year. Impoco credits much of this success to the brand carving out a niche in international news with major features like human trafficking, ebola, bitcoin and ISIS.