What will publications do post-Saddam?

The prelude to war with Iraq has been music to the ears of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, which in recent months have posted gains after double-digit declines since 1999. Even upstart The Week has found some room to grow.

But when the curtain falls on the Iraqi dictator, the mags will have to think about their encore.

“The last time these magazines rethought their role was in the ’80s,” says Mark Edmiston, managing partner of investment and publishing advisory firm Ad Media. “It’s time to rethink.”

Edmiston, a onetime CEO of Newsweek’s international division, says the congloms that own the two main newsmags have little motivation to overhaul their approaches.

“CNN didn’t change on its own,” he says, referring to the AOL Time Warner cabler. “It was Fox News that changed it.”

For now, the titles can say they have fought a noble battle against the recession.

In 2002, Time collected around $560 million in ad revs, up 2% from the previous year, according to the Publisher’s Information Bureau. During the same period, Newsweek amassed $389 million in ad revs, jumping 16% from 2001.

But the gains may only give a false sense of security. Critics say the mags go too soft during peacetime, that their lifestyle and religion covers skew toward baby boomers.

“They’ll spike during a war, and then return to celebrity or health covers,” says George Sanscoucy of Initiative Media. “But how do they stay compelling during a slow news week?”

The titles have the cable-news quandary: how to draw auds during peacetime.

Time managing editor Jim Kelly and his predecessor, Walter Isaacson, started to lean more on columnists — most recently Joe Klein — as the equivalent of personalities on appointment TV.

Newsweek exec VP and worldwide publisher Gregory J. Osberg cites the mag’s “Tipsheet” series as a way to personalize its relationship with readers.

“There’s no fundamental change in what we’re doing,” says Osberg.

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