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Newsweek, Sidney Harman, and Donor Centered Marketing

These are nervous times for journalism in America. Just look what happened to Newsweek. But fundraisers can learn a lot from the tribulations of the formerly-popular weekly newsmagazine.

Heaven help us all from ever being as good a bad example as Newsweek has proved to be. The word is that in 2008 the magazine lost $13.6 million on revenues of $16.5 million. Readership has plummeted.

Enter audio multimillionaire Sidney Harman, who bought Newsweek from the Washington Post last summer for one dollar ($1). That’s less than the magazine’s cover price. Asked about his plans for the publication, Harman commented, “You pick up the magazine and it ought to be shouting at you, ‘Hey, man, you’re in for the time of your life!’”

Simple concept, exuberantly expressed. But as columnist William Murchison has pointed out, “[Harman’s] onto something too few fellow owners seem to apprehend – to wit, think about your readers, otherwise you’re gone. Get close to them. Figure out what they want…Then, for Horace Greeley’s sake, give it to ‘em! They’ll bite, and they’ll buy…”

(Horace Greeley was the renowned editor of the influential New York Tribune in the mid-19th Century.)

Let others debate the reasons behind Newsweek’s travails. The good news is its new owner seems to grasp the most basic principles of successful communicationengage your audience. And that’s how fundraisers can punch up lackluster old marketing vectors like newsletters. Forget the pages of gift-plan boilerplate! Grab your readership with lively content — practical news they can use. Smart marketing says you grow your readership by appealing to them, not putting them to sleep.

There’s a world of difference between “canned” content and “canny” content.

We may not be able to promise readers the times of their lives reading our material, but at least we can show them a good time. That’s how we retain them and how we persuade them. That’s how we turn prospects into donors.

And that’s how we stay out of Newsweek’s shoes.

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