Magazines – Intro
By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
Magazines often are harbingers of change. When large social, economic or technological shifts begin to reshape the culture, magazines frequently are the first media to move, and the structure of the industry is one reason. Unlike newspapers, most magazines are not so tied to a specific geographic area, but are instead centered on interests or niches. Writers are looking for trends. Publishers can more quickly than in other media add and subtract titles aimed at specific audience segments or interests. Advertisers, in turn, can take their dollars to hot titles of the moment aimed at particular demographics.
One can, if careful, look at what is happening in the magazine industry and get a reasonably good idea of what the culture at large is interested in and where it may be heading. Magazines 40 years ago, for instance, signaled early signs of the social fragmentation so commonly understood today with the decline of general interest magazines like Look and the rise of specialty magazines like Psychology Today.
What do magazines tell us about the culture today and the future of magazine journalism, particularly news?
First, the news agenda has gotten softer and more oriented to lifestyle rather than traditional hard news.
Second, the audience for news in magazines is fragmenting. The large, well-known general interest news weeklies continue on their mission of reaching a mass audience with fair to moderate success. But a small group of news magazines with a very different approach to the coverage, such as The Atlantic, is seeing gains. These magazines have eschewed the conventional wisdom about the need for more pictures and lighter stories. Instead they rely on fewer photos and deal with serious topics. Aimed at a more educated audience, they seem less concerned with getting as many readers as possible and are more focused on getting the right readers. They come out just once a month and charge more per subscription, yet their circulation is growing. Their ad revenues are not near the mass-market competitors, but they are growing.
Beyond these overarching shifts, other magazine trends emerge in the data:
- The overall number of magazines is growing, but much of that is occurring in niche service magazines such as child care, travel or bicycling.
- The largest and most powerful magazine owners are largely not involved in the service niche. Instead, they are heavily invested in pop culture and entertainment magazines, which have also seen large growth in the last decade.
- There is less interest at the corporate level in traditional news. With a few relatively minor exceptions, publishers are not launching new titles. Among the magazines that exist the audience is flat even as the population grows.
- Perhaps as a result, coverage in the general interest news weeklies (Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report) is edging into lighter areas such as pop culture, health and service. To survive, they are becoming less specialized experts in anything and more a lighter version on every topic.
- The vast majority of the high-profile opinion-making magazines – everything from Time to Esquire to Vanity Fair – are owned by one of three big media companies.
Overall, the magazine industry is healthy, but its landscape is very different than it was even 10 years ago, let alone 20.