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Audience

Audience

Three trends in news magazine circulation and readership stand out.

First, readership surveys indicate that the audience for news magazines is holding steady, while the audience for pop culture, entertainment and lifestyle magazines is growing. This fits with the trends in ad pages and revenues and suggests one of two things: Either the market for news magazines is more or less at its capacity or the genre needs to be reinvented.

Second, despite changes in content designed to grab younger readers, the audience for news magazines is aging – more than for most other magazine genres. News magazine readers are also more affluent than magazine readers overall, but that is not a big consolation financially. Advertisers are often looking for youth more than money, particularly in general interest magazines like the news weeklies.

Third, while the big three news magazines are finding it hard to increase their circulation, a few smaller circulation books that focus on news and public affairs have found steady growth over the past 15 years. This may suggest that the genre is ripe for change and indeed that the news magazine audience, or at least part of it, is looking for a new approach.

Who is Gaining and Who is Not

Over the past 10 years, there has been a clear division among magazine genres – those that are rising and those that are sitting still. Readership figures from Mediamark Research, the leading U.S. provider of syndicated consumer magazine audience data, indicate that since 1995 the entertainment and pop culture genre has gained popularity.1 Interest in the news and business genres has remained flat.

Both news and entertainment magazines trended down in readership from 1995 until 2000. Then both categories began to rise again. But the increase in entertainment magazines was much more substantial, increasing 14 percent from 2000 to 2003.2 News rose only 9 percent in the same period.3

Business magazines followed an opposite course. These magazines grew in readership from 1995, peaked in 2000 and then began to fall off.

Part of this is explained by the dying off of some magazines that were riding the success of the stock market and the technology boom. But other losses may have more to do with the fact that, when the market dipped, people stopped looking at their copies of Forbes and Fortune. For many readers, no news on their 401(k) was better than the bad news.

The figures also may suggest some shifting going on from genre to genre. Readers have only a certain amount of time to devote to magazines. If that time is not going to one genre, it’s going to another. News and entertainment benefited from readers turning away from business publications.

But the uptick in entertainment readership is too sharp to be the result of falling business readership alone. It also follows logically another basic theory about media. If more of the media agenda is focused on lifestyle and entertainment, it increases interest in those areas. The media is both reflecting and reinforcing a broader cultural shift toward celebrity, entertainment and infotainment.

Magazine Readership by Select Genre
1995 – 2003
Design Your Own Chart
MediaMark Research, ”Magazine Audience Estimates”
* Number of people who have read magazines of each genre in that year
Number of Magazines by Select Genres
1980 – 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Publisher’s Information Bureau annual reports

Newsmagazine Demographics: A Graying Market

Other key trends in news magazine readership, according to the Mediamark data, are affluence and age. News magazines are a graying habit. Despite the occasional hiccup in the data, the age gap is quite noticeable. And with few or no new titles entering the news genre, the hopes of significantly lowering the average age will probably go unmet.4

Average Age of News Magazine Readers
Compared to U.S. population, 1995 – 2003
Design Your Own Chart
MediaMark Research, ’’Magazine Audience Estimates’’
Average Age of Readership by Magazine
Time, Newsweek, U.S. News
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MediaMark Research, ’’Magazine Audience Estimates’’

Why does age matter? Advertising. Over the long term the aging of the news audience suggests fewer dollars will likely be flowing to news magazines, which have a higher average age than pop culture magazines. Advertisers, who seem ever- interested in younger demographics, will likely be more interested in spending their money on entertainment and pop titles that reach those target age groups.

Offsetting the “age problem” is that along with age often comes wealth. News readers have much higher income then the U.S. adult population overall and have for some time. In 1995 news magazine readers were 28 percent more affluent than the U.S. adult population, and in 2003 that gap was about the same, 29 percent.5

The advantage has allowed magazines like Time and Newsweek to charge more for the ads they run. Given that these magazines have had smaller increases in the number of ad pages they run than other magazine categories, this is some consolation.

Average Income of News Magazine Readers
Compared to U.S. population, 1995 – 2003
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MediaMark Research, ’’Magazine Audience Estimates’’
Average Income of Readership by Magazine
1995 – 2003
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MediaMark Research, ’’Magazine Audience Estimates’’

More Demographics: The Affluent Boys Club

The readership data on the newsmagazines are not extensive. But combining what we know about the age, sex and income of the readers, one can draw very rough sketches of the audiences here. Among the big three news magazines, readership tends to be male. Time and Newsweek each have about two million more male readers than female, and U.S. News has three million more men than women thumbing through its pages.

Time, the oldest magazine of the three, has the youngest readership, an average age of 43.1 Newsweek is a bit older with an average age of 44.4. And U.S. News is the highest, with an average reader age of 45.6

Newsweek’s readers are slightly more affluent than Time’s – average annual incomes of $66,739 and $65,697, respectively. U.S. News readers, while still above the industry average as a whole have a slightly lower average income at $63,603. This finding is surprising because it is generally true that older readers have higher incomes. U.S. News seems to be an exception in this regard. Up until 2001, U.S. News actually had a higher average reader income, but in the past few years its figures have been surpassed by both Time and Newsweek.7

Outside the Big Three: Younger, Richer, More Female

Move beyond the traditional three news magazines, however, and one can see more differences. Of all those listed in the news magazine category, Jet magazine, a magazine with a predominantly black audience, has by far the youngest readership. In the past decade the average reader age never got above 38.7 years old and some years its average age was in the early 30s. Its readership was also always more female than male, in 2003 it had two million more female readers than males. Among the news magazines examined, Jet also had the lowest median income. In 2003 the median income was $35,536 – below not only the news magazine average but also below the U.S. adult population average of $50,760.8

The New Yorker and The Atlantic have the oldest readerships of any of the news magazines examined – 45.4 years and 50.0 years respectively. But they also had the readers with the highest incomes, by a large margin. Readers of The New Yorker have a median income of $78,538, about $12,000 higher than the next nearest news publication, Newsweek. The Atlantic readers’ incomes were higher still, an average of $82,983. That pushes The Atlantic nearly up into the range of readers of business magazines. In terms of gender, The Atlantic’s readership tends to be more male than female – 774,000 versus 615,000 in 2003. The opposite is true of the New Yorker, which has a few more women readers – 2.1 million females compared to 1.9 million males.9

Getting Subscribers

The differences with more specialized news magazines raise another question. While the news magazine category is flat overall, some of these more specialized publications are faring better in keeping readers. An even worse picture is painted, however, for two of the big three news magazines – Time and U.S. News.

Time’s circulation has fallen by 13 percent from 1988 to 2002. U.S. News has lost as well, also 13 percent from 1988 to 2003.10

Newsweek has been the most stable of the three, experiencing a smaller drop of 3 percent in circulation since 1988. This disparity has significantly closed the gap between Newsweek, the historic No. 2, and Time, the long-time genre leader. The gap, 1.4 million in 1988, narrowed to 928,000 in 2001 and may have narrowed even more in 2002.11 Yet financially, this has not helped Newsweek – or hurt Time — as much as it once might have.

Circulation Among the Big Three News Magazines
1988 – 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Audit Bureau of Circulations, annual audit reports
* Circulation figures are averages for the second quarter annually

The circulation losses have occurred despite the fact that these magazines have changed format and content to try to hold on to readers and to attract the much valued youth demographic. Pictures are larger and stories are often shorter in an attempt to lure the MTV generation and its more visual sensibility. Graphics have also become a larger part of all of the big three.

Circulations of Other News Magazines
1988 – 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Audit Bureau of Circulations, annual audit reports
* The Atlantic is a monthly magazine

At the same time, however, the circulation trends among the smaller, more specialized news magazines are all up, some slightly, some more sharply, and these among publications that have not lightened their fare as much. Again, of particular note are The Economist and The New Yorker.

While there may be some question as to whether The New Yorker publishes a product that is similar in format to a traditional news weekly, the same argument cannot be made about The Economist, which has seen its subscriber base more than double in the past 15 years.12 And it has done it with a decidedly different approach than the big three..

The circulation numbers are particularly telling, considering the fact that magazines often “buy” circulation. Publications sometimes make their subscription prices so low that many readers simply find them too low to resist. On top of the discounts, publications can do enough promotions, mailings and gift giveaways that they can pretty much control the amount of circulation they will gain and, to some extent, where they will gain it. The idea is to attract readers – and certain kinds of readers – in order to get higher circulation numbers that command higher ad rates. All of the big three magazines employ this technique. Subscription cards in Newsweek, for instance, offer a year of the magazine home-delivered for $42, a savings of $209 or 80 percent off the cover price. The question is whether it is worth the money. That depends in part on whether the new readership is converted into more ad revenue. It also depends on how much a magazine has to spend to maintain its circulation base. How many existing readers is it retaining, versus new readers it has to attract, to hold its overall numbers?

On the other hand, The Economist has had its circulation rise although its subscription prices far outstrip the big three. According to subscription cards, a 51 percent discounted annual subscription rate of The Economist still comes to $129, a bit more than triple the discount card of Newsweek.

The Opinion News Magazines

The other end of the news magazine universe is a group of magazines whose importance may have more to do with influence than economics. These are the nation’s major opinion news journals, from The Nation on the left to National Review on the right. Looking at the circulation of these sorts of journals over the past 15 years, one trend is particularly notable. There seems to be an inverse relationship between which party controls the political dialogue in Washington and the circulation of opposition magazines. The last few years have been very good to the liberal Nation. Its 2002 circulation was up to more than 135,000, and increase of 40,000 (42 percent) since the election of George W. Bush in 2000. At the same time, the conservative National Review has seen its circulation fall almost 40 percent (to 114,082) since its high point in 1994, when anger over the presidency of Bill Clinton led to the elections in which the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives.

Circulations of Leading Opinion Magazines
1988 – 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Audit Bureau of Circulation, annual audit reports

The New Republic has been relatively immune from this roller coaster effect. Its circulation is relatively unchanged over the past 15 years. It has experienced a slight drop in circulation, perhaps in part because of a string of problems it has faced ranging from the changes in the magazine’s editorial staff (the loss of big-name writing talent), to its less-than-celebrated redesign, to the problems it faced with Stephen Glass, a reporter who made up articles out of whole cloth, to fluctuating changes in its overt political ideology. But as The New Republic has become less overtly partisan, it may also have less appeal to any particular political constituency and for that reason it may be missing out on the circulation increase it could have as a voice for the loyal opposition to the Bush Administration. (The country’s other influential conservative news-opinion magazine, The Weekly Standard, is not included in these figures because it has chosen to opt out of the ABC audits).

The circulation gains that seem to come with being the loyal opposition put the news/opinion journals in an odd position. They get the most readers when the views they espouse are out of fashion in the town that matters to them most, Washington. It makes some sense. When one party loses control of the political scene, it is standard practice that its members wander the wilds of policy-journals and hash out what exactly they believe, why they lost control and how to get it back. The opposition opinion journals are, in effect, needed more when their side of the political spectrum is in a funk.

These journals’ successes are probably best measured not in economic terms but in the pull they have inside the Beltway. That is quite difficult to measure numerically. Circulation is only one proxy.

Conclusions

The circulation numbers for the magazine industry make one thing clear: The news genre may not be dead, but growth and energy is outside the traditional big three news magazines. Whether that is a permanent condition, or a reflection of their current hybrid format, is a question that cannot be answered here. But the attempts by these magazines to become younger by becoming lighter do not, according to the numbers, seem to be working. Magazines that have a little of everything but specialize in little are not where the growth in readership seems to be. Magazines that are more serious, like The New Yorker, or more strictly entertainment-oriented, like In Style, are hotter. And magazines of ideas – and of opposition – seem to endure in having a place at the table. One question is whether bloggers, those little-read but influential writers of opinion on the Internet, will chew away at magazine audiences. So far, there is no measurable sign of that.

Footnotes

1. The figures are based on an annual “Magazine Audience Estimate” of 20,000 readers done by Mediamark Research off a list of magazines the research firm selects. Their list included six magazines that fell into our news magazine category: Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Jet. Thus, The Economist and National Journal are not included in the data. www.mediamark.com

2. Mediamark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates” 1995 – 2003. www.mediamark.com

3. Ibid

4. There are two outlier magazines when it comes to age. One is The Atlantic, whose audience skews older, and was added to the genre in 1997. And the audience for Jet, on the other hand, is significantly younger than other news magazines and has been included in the genre for as far back as we have data. An immediate spike in age occurs in 1997 with the addition of The Atlantic, but overall the two balance each other out. In fact, if we remove the two outliers, the average age for news magazines gets even older and the gap wider.

5. Mediamark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates” 1995 – 2003. www.mediamark.com

6. Ibid

7.Ibid

8. Ibid

9. Ibid

10. Audit Bureau of Circulations, year end figures from “Audit Report”s for magazines cited, www.accessabc.com

11. Ibid

12. Ibid