|It is difficult to point to any one audience trend for news magazines in 2005. Instead there are competing ones. The outlook for the smaller nontraditional titles is quite sunny as circulations continue to rise. The picture for traditional titles, however, is gloomier, with the numbers continuing to fall.
The continuing growth of the nontraditional titles in our informal survey (the New Yorker, the Economist and The Week) along with the continuing growth of the Nation, is impressive in that it is occurring in a time when other print media, like newspapers, are losing subscribers. The success of these nontraditional titles, which are text-heavy, suggests there may indeed be a future for print publications.
The biggest trend, moreover, may be occurring outside of the news. Entertainment titles are growing again, and growing fast. New titles are jumping into a market that was once thought to be saturated, some coming from Europe .
Winners and Losers in News Magazine Circulation
Among news magazines, the headline is the success of The Week. With its aggregation approach to the news weekly, it added more than 65,000 subscribers in one year. In total numbers, it is still relatively small potatoes in the news weekly world — 246,000 circulation as of June 2004 — but its rate of growth is impressive. In fact, if 2005 publisher’s numbers are correct, the magazine has since added another 100,000 in circulation.1
Other nontraditional news titles, the Economist and the New Yorker, continued to grow as well, but more slowly, according to June 2004 audit reports.2
The other steady story line in magazine circulation, the decline in audience numbers at the three traditional titles — Time, Newsweek and U.S. News — continued as well in 2004, according to audit reports and publisher’s statements.3
The growth among the new, smaller and different approaches to news gives fuel to the theory that Americans aren’t necessarily rejecting a weekly publication of news, they may simply want a different format. If one compares the paid circulation gains at the New Yorker, the Economist and the Week (164,000) with the losses at Time, Newsweek and U.S. News (150,000), there is a net circulation gain of 14,000.4
But if it is a different format they want, Americans don’t seem sure what it is. The magazines growing in circulation bear little resemblance to each other in content. It may be that no news magazine today will be able to command the kind of audience once garnered by the traditional titles. People read magazines for different reasons than 30 or 40 years ago, and people are awash in choices and information. So the dominating news weeklies may be a thing of the past, and the news weekly model may become more of a niche product. If so, expensive world-wide reporting staffs may be unsustainable.
The Nontraditional Titles
The Week, perhaps the most different of the three growing titles has seem its circulation skyrocket — up more 38% in 2004 from 2003.5 If the growth continues at that pace, the effects on the entire news magazine field could be significant. For now, the growing numbers are slightly more heavily based on subscriptions than those for the traditional titles. Time and Newsweek get 4% or 5% of their circulation from newsstand sales, U.S. News around 2%. The Week‘s newsstand sales are less than 1% of its total circulation.6
The Economist continues its impressive growth as well, seemingly unburdened by its high subscription price, which is more than twice those of Time or Newsweek. And its growth seems to belie the oft-heard theory that consumers aren’t interested in international news. There is no real “home country” in the magazine. Countries and continents are treated more equally in terms of space than in any other major title. If foreign news doesn’t sell in other U.S. publications, perhaps the Economist has found a niche with the audience that enthusiastically embraces global news. Over all, the Economist’s circulation was up 49,000 in 2004, or 11%, over 2003.7
The New Yorker, with its literate, long-form approach to news, also continues to see circulation growth. At 996,000 in 2004, it was just shy of the 1 million mark according to audit reports.8 That was an increase of 47,000 over the year before. That growth may not be as explosive as the growth of The Week, but considering the age of the New Yorker, it is in some ways even more impressive. People aren’t just learning about the magazine, they know what is in it and they are seeking it out. Again, while critics will note (rightly) that the New Yorker does not fit the traditional mold of a news magazine, its growth has come during a stretch when the title became more news-focused, particularly around politics.
The other titles we track were mixed in their numbers.
The up-again, down-again circulation bounces of Jet continued in 2004, with the upside winning again. The magazine was back to just over 900,000 after a dip in 2002 and 2003.9 It still isn’t where it was before the 2001 recession, but the gains of 44,000 in the last publisher’s statement suggest it may be in line to get there.
The Atlantic Monthly, meanwhile, continued its slide. Its 2004 circulation of 439,137 is the lowest we have seen since 1988.10 What’s driving the drop? That is not immediately clear. Publisher David Bradley says his goal is to change the magazine’s audience base, shrinking circulation while increasing subscription costs, aiming for a more exclusive niche. Even with such a strategy, though, the drops are fairly steep. The last decline of 55,000 represented an 11% drop; over two years the decrease has been 17%. Some analysts believe that the New Yorker, which offers similar longer pieces about topical subjects, is drawing readers away from the Atlantic. The magazine is in the process of moving its headquarters from Boston to Washington, D.C. , and will be removing short stories from its content mix. It will be interesting to whether those changes help circulation, and if so, how.
The Traditional Weeklies
The most worrisome drops, however, were in the three traditional news weeklies. Taken together they lost 126,000 readers in 2004.11 With a total subscriber base for the three of nearly 9.5 million, that is only a 1.3% drop. Similar losses, however, have been occurring for several years now. All three magazines have fallen below their 1988 figures, and Time and U.S. News are sitting at new lows for that period. (Incidentally, unaudited Publisher’s Statements for 2005 show further declines among these titles. Time was down .2% to 4,026,000. Newsweek was off .3% to 3,118,000. U.S. News reported a 1% increase to 2,035,000.)
And this year there are finally signs that the long, slow erosion of readership among them is taking a toll. U.S. News announced major staff cuts along with a plan to reposition itself in the market. The goal is to spend less time and money on the print edition of the magazine and more of both on its Web presence, which is also expected to mean spending less on newsgathering and features. “We’re trying to be a more fluid, responsive news organization because that’s what the times demand,” Editor Brian Duffy said.12 Some staff members joked about the magazine’s becoming little more than a newsletter with ties to a Web site, people close to the magazine told the Project.
The problems at U.S. News make it timely to consider what, in fairness, is merely speculation. What would happen to the news weekly market if U.S. News suddenly became a completely different animal or stopped publishing altogether? The short-term result presumably would be a bump in subscriptions for Time and Newsweek — a substitution effect. But it’s unlikely the total circulation of the two magazines would reach the numbers the three currently do. Some readers might gravitate to the nontraditional titles. Or some could just stop getting a news magazine altogether.
We noted last year that the number of people who say they regularly read news magazines had declined over the previous 10 years.
If the overall downward trend continues for the traditional news weeklies, however slowly, it is hard to see a sunny scenario for them in the long term. The problems for U.S. News may help Time and Newsweek some now, but could be a harbinger of things to come for those two, as well.
Entertainment Grows … Again
Unlike the news magazines, the entertainment kind aren’t just seeing growth, but staggering growth. It seemed to many a few years ago that this field was fully mature and had no more room for growth in titles or audience. But the last few years have seen the rise of not just one but two new titles: In Touch and OK! As with the news magazines, the emerging star here brings a new approach to the content. But the success of the new and different titles has not (as yet) hurt the mainstays.
OK! s the newest entry in a field already crowded with the likes of People, Us and The Star. The jury is still out on its fall 2005 debut, but the magazine, which has sister publications of the same name in the United Kingdom and Canada , has a format that has been successful elsewhere and a publisher, Northern and Shell, with deep pockets. OK! brings a different approach to celebrity journalism: much of the content has been openly bought — from the celebrities themselves. The tactic, which the magazine calls “relationship journalism,” has in the past granted the title exclusive access to stories such as the wedding of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones — to which American magazines have later bought the rights. There have long been suspicions that a certain amount of this checkbook journalism goes on in the entertainment world. The editors of the magazine maintain, however, that they actually pay only a fraction of the title’s content— about 5%, according to editor Sarah Ivens.13 Ivens says the magazine is “pro-celebrity,” not interested in gossip or hearsay, and that is why it gets the interviews and exclusives it does. One celebrity’s positive story, of course, can be another’s gossip, particularly where breakups are concerned.
Whatever one calls it, in some ways OK!’s pay-for-access approach is a merging of the tabloid and entertainment forms of journalism. That merging has been growing in recent years in the launching of In Touch and the relaunching of the tabloid Star as a glossy magazine.
In Touch is already a huge success, with much less of a “pro-celebrity” approach. It often carries cover stories about whether celebrity rumors are true or not. The magazine, which began publishing in late 2002, grew to boast a regular circulation of 887,000 by the end of 2004.14
Meanwhile the former tabloid Star, which remade itself as a glossy in 2004, has a circulation of about 1.3 million.15 Despite its re-launch, the magazine isn’t that different from what it was when it sat next to the National Enquirer at the supermarket cash register —who’s dating whom remains a hot topic.
And all of that has not crippled the rest of the celebrity market.
Consider, for example, People magazine, the godfather of the celebrity genre. In 1999, People had an average circulation of 3.59 million. By 2004, even with all the increased competition, it had grown slightly, to 3.7 million.16 Other titles have fared even better. Since 2000, Us Weekly has gone from 837,000 on average to about 1.4 million.17
Why do these magazines continue to do so well, seemingly immune from the pressure of the Web? Photos may be a key part of the answer. Reading about celebrity weddings on a computer screen is one thing, glossy pictures another, and many readers would rather hold them in their hands. It’s also worth noting that these titles’ scoops and exclusives (which often come from the celebrities themselves) are part of a larger public relations plan that has an interest in keeping exclusives exclusive. That is to say, if you are a celebrity with a deal with Us regarding your wedding pictures (big events have often operated by checkbook journalism rules), you are not likely to leak them elsewhere. The immediacy the Web provides can’t do anything about such deals — at least without risking lawsuits.
But the primary reason these titles thrive, particularly the new ones that blend a tabloid approach with the old celebrity magazine, may be that they tap a different audience. Two key elements, price and point of purchase, suggest that the new magazines have different readerships than old-line titles like People. People and Us Weekly have a newsstand price of $3.49.18 In Touch rings in at $1.99.19 And while about 39% of People’s circulation comes from the newsstand — not bad in an era of declining newsstand sales — that figure is low when compared with the Star’s 71% and In Touch’s astronomical 97%.20 Those numbers seem to indicate that the new titles are impulse buys made at the cash register. And many of those purchases are from younger readers. Marc Pasetsky, general manager of Life & Style Weekly, still another celebrity title, says the average age of his magazine’s readers is 30, while the average age of tabloid readers is 50.21
Is there a limit to how many titles this field can support? Presumably the answer is yes — it may even be reached soon — but the time is decidedly not here yet.
The Opinion Titles Settle Down
In the simplest terms, the 2004 presidential race was good for the opinion journals. After a few years of big changes, drops and rises in circulation, the world of the opinion magazines, things seem to have stabilized and are even looking up. After years of decline, including a precipitous decline in 2003, the New Republic has seen a small climb, from 61,124 to 61,129, according to publisher’s statements — its audit report for 2004 was not available at the time of this report’s writing.
Whether this marks a turnaround for the title, which had seen declines since 1999 (when its circulation was over 100,000), remains to be seen. In an arena that thrives on taking a side, the New Republic has moved back toward the left in the past few years, becoming more critical of the Republican administration. This content change may have helped.
Two of magazines experiencing growth suggest that in the current climate a hard-line voice carries appeal.
The Nation with its strong leftward tilt grew again in 2004, climbing from 160,029 to 173,473, keeping it the No. 1 opinion journal in circulation, according to audit reports. The title has come a long way since 2000, when it had about 96,000 subscribers, and is now reportedly profitable. Its top editor, Victor Navaksy, who had been with the magazine since 1978, moved on this year to focus more on other work, including his job as chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review. (Navasky, now publisher emeritus at The Nation, also volunteers as a reader for this study).
National Review’s reliable rightward slant hasn’t hurt it over time, either. But its circulation dropped slightly in 2004, going from 156,157 to 155,271, according to audit reports. The magazine’s circulation is still down from its high in 1996, during the heart of the Clinton presidency, when it was over 200,000.22
The biggest trend in the numbers may not be about any single title, however, but about the numbers of the left-leaning publications. As we have noted in past years, the journals supporting the political party or point of view that is out of power often do better than the ones supporting those in power. This norm may be re-establishing itself.
But early publisher statements from 2005 indicate that all the titles we examine were seeing growing circulation at that point. If those figures turn out to be verified in audit reports, they may suggest that the country is entering a more political phase again, one where at least part of the public is engaged in the national policy debate. The Nation and National Review seem to be seeing the biggest growth, so the ideological battle may be joined with ready fervor from both sides. In an age of information overload, perhaps well-reasoned opinion magazines that help citizens put news in some order have an enduring appeal. In a sense, it is the oldest kind of journalism enduring — literate, text-heavy interpretation and debate.
Grayer and Greener, Over All, Again
The aging of the U.S. population is reflected in the ages of the magazine readers, as well. And the slight and steady increase in the U.S. incomes also comes through in the magazine readership data (a sampling of some 27,000 households by the marketing firm MRI).23 Some small moves in the audiences of individual magazines seemed to counter those trends, but such changes might be caused by differences in the sample taken — particularly as regards smaller readerships, where even a small difference in sample can mean big changes.
Every title we examined had a higher average-age readership in 2005 than it did in our baseline year of 1995, except the Atlantic . That wasn’t profiled by MRI until 1997 and had a baseline-year age of 51.5 years.24 In 2005 the average age of all the news titles we look at was 46.3 years, up from 45.4 in 2004.25 This marks the first time the average age has climbed over 46, and it is now more than two years above the average age of the adult U.S. population, which sits at 44.26
Among the more peculiar findings is the average-age decline for the Atlantic . It still has the oldest readership among the news titles we look at, but its average reader went from 50.9 years old in 2004 to 49.7 in 2005.27 Again, such fluctuations aren’t uncommon with the MRI data, and further years would need to point in the same direction to be a real trend. Still, the Atlantic was the only news title that saw a declining readership age.
Jet’s readership age has changed the most over time, from an average of 33.6 years in 1995 to over 40 this year.28
Looking at other titles, the New Yorker’s average age rose from 46.8 in 2004 to 48.4 in 2005, Newsweek went from 45.9 to 46.6, Time climbed from 44.6 to 45.7, and U.S. News grew from 45.9 to 46.8.29
Taken together the readers of the news magazines continue to be a wealthy segment of society — and growing wealthier as they separate from the average American. The average household income for the news titles MRI gathers data on was $67,003 in 2005, up from $65,958 in 2004.30 Comparing 1997, the first year MRI gathered information on all six of the titles we study, with 2005 makes the trend pretty clear. The gap between news magazine readers and the general U.S. population is as high as it has ever been — about $15,000.31 Ten years ago it was only about $10,000.
In 1997 the average income of news magazine readers was $50,807, while the U.S. Adult population had an average household income of $39,025 — a difference of $11,782.32 In 2005 the difference between those two groups was $15,537 in household income — $67,003 for news magazine households compared to the U.S. average of $51,466.33
When it comes to the individual titles, The Atlantic had good year according to the MRI survey. Not only did its readership get younger, it got richer — quite a bit richer actually. The household income of the average Atlantic reader climbed $4,000 in one year from $81,571 in 2004 to 85,572 in 2005.34
Jet, on the other hand, had double-barreled bad demographic news. Its readers not only got older, they got poorer. The readership saw a $600-plus drop in household income, from $36,755 in 2004 to $36,093 in 2005. But Jet wasn’t alone. Newsweek also saw a small dip, from $67,964 in 2004 to $67,842 in 2005.35
The other three titles we look at saw small bumps. The New Yorker’s readership went from $79,005 in household income in 2004 to $80,957 in 2005. Time saw an increase from $65,269 to $66,176. And U.S. News went from $65,181 to $65,379.36
This trend showing news magazine readers coming increasingly from wealthier households reflects what may be a long-term problem for the nation in a larger sense.
News magazines have traditionally occupied a special place among American news media. Time magazine was created by Henry Luce so that people living in areas where national and world news coverage was scarce could keep up with the events of the day. It made for a better, more knowledgeable electorate. If economic stratification of news magazine readership signals a broader economic stratification in news awareness, the implications for a democratic society could be stark. It could leave larger parts of the electorate uninformed, under-informed or misinformed.
Add into this dilemma the growing age gap — not only in news magazine readership but throughout much of the news media— and there are even more troubling signs.
But there are hopeful signs as well. Though there are no hard, audited figures, The Week, as it gains in circulation, reports it is doing particularly well with younger audiences. And its lower newsstand price could theoretically attract more lower-income readers.
2. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit reports for the New Yorker and the Economist. Audit reports were used where possible — the Economist, the New Yorker and Newsweek had final reports as this was written — but for other publications publisher’s statements were the best available data.
5. Audit Bureau of Circulations publisher’s statement for The Week.
6. Audit Bureau of Circulations publisher’s statement for The Week, Time and U.S. News. ABC audit report for Newsweek.
7. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit report for The Economist.
8. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit report for The New Yorker.
9. Audit Bureau of Circulations publisher’s statement for Jet.
10. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit report for The Atlantic.
11. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit report for Newsweek. ABC publisher’s statements for Time and U.S. News.
12. Brian Duffy memo as reprinted on the Poynter Online Forum http://poynter.org/forum/?id=32127
13. Soriano, Cesar, “British Mag Makes Scene,” USA Today, August 2, 2005.
14. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit report for In Touch.
15. Audit Bureau of Circulations publisher’s statement for Star, December 31, 2004.
16. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit report for People.
17. Audit Bureau of Circulations publisher’s statement for Us Weekly, December 31, 2004.
18. Davies, Jennifer, Gluttons for Gossip, San Diego Union-Tribune, September 3, 2005.
20. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit report for People and In Touch, publisher’s statement for Star.
21. Davies, Jennifer, Gluttons for Gossip, San Diego Union-Tribune, September 3, 2005.
22. 2004 State of the News Media Report
23. Mediamark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates” 2005. www.mediamark.com
24. 2004 State of the News Media Report
25. Mediamark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates” 2005. www.mediamark.com, 2005 State of the News Media Report
26. Mediamark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates” 2005. www.mediamark.com
27. Mediamark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates” 2005. www.mediamark.com, 2005 State of the News Media Report .
28. Mediamark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates” 2005. www.mediamark.com
32. Mediamark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates” 1997.
33. Mediamark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates” 2005. www.mediamark.com