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Economics

Economics

The uncertainty that continues to linger over the nation’s economy left its mark on the magazine industry in 2005. While some titles still saw gains — People and Us Weekly, for example, had increases in advertising pages and dollars — others suffered through a hard year. For all of 2005, ad pages were up a mere .5% and dollars 7% for all titles (not including the Sunday newspaper magazines) according to the Publisher’s Information Bureau, which tracks ads throughout the year.1

The bad news for magazine ads for yet another year may raise questions about the economic health of the industry in the long run. Economic times may be uncertain, but they are by no means bad, with growth in gross domestic product somewhere around 4%. Those kinds of numbers, combined with a relatively robust stock market, have meant good news for magazine ads in the past. It may be that the structural changes in the media environment — the growth of online outlets, readership and ads — are beginning to have a bigger impact on magazines. Indeed magazines, with niche readerships that allow targeted ads buys, are perhaps more directly in competition with the hyper-targeted world of online ads. The ad trend will bear watching in coming years, particularly if the economy grows stronger.

Over all, newsstand sales numbers were poor in 2005. By mid-November they were down 3.4% for the industry as a whole. But again, celebrity titles seemed an exception to the trend; their sales grew by nearly 9%. In Touch Weekly saw its newsstand sales climb 49%, while Us Weekly was up 33%.2

If there were doubts about the depth of the struggles traditional news magazines are facing, they may have been clarified in December when Time Inc. announced it was laying off 105 people, including some high-ranking executives.3 One of the biggest casualties was Eileen Naughton, the president of Time magazine. The Time cuts followed on the heels of a reorganization at Business Week that sliced off 60 jobs.4 And a month later, as January 2006 came to a close, Time announced the layoff of another 100 employees.5

Even in a relatively gloomy year for ads in magazines, the biggest news magazines were particularly down. Time and Newsweek both saw double-digit dips in ad pages in 2005 and revenue figures were down almost as much. Many of the other titles saw a split year, with pages down and dollars up or vice versa. The exception was, again, the Week, where the numbers were all positive.


Inside the News Group

Positive indeed — while all the other news titles we examine saw a drop in either ad pages or dollars or both in 2005, The Week, now five years old, enjoyed significant growth. Ad pages were up 9% in 2005 and ad dollars were up a dramatic 63%. In absolute numbers, The Week still lags far behind its competitors. Its 568 ad pages are only a fraction of Time magazine’s 2,293 and not even equal to David Bradley’s National Journal, with 820 pages — a title where ads are an afterthought and subscriptions pay most of the bills. And in ad revenue The Week’s $17.8 million does not compare to Time’s $632 million.6

Still, the speed at which The Week is growing is impressive, and because of the low-cost, low-overhead, manner in which the magazine is put together — compiled from publications around the country and world — even relatively small increases in revenue can have a big impact on the bottom line. The magazine is not making money yet, but its staff reports it is on track to break even in 2006.7

Change in Ad Dollars and Pages, Select Magazines
2004 vs. 2005
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Publisher’s Information Bureau

Other nontraditional news titles had more mixed results in 2005. Jet had a 7% increase, or about $2 million, in ad dollars and a 9% increase in ad pages. A smaller increase in ad dollars than in ad pages (the reverse of what most magazines experience or, at least, announce) may suggest that the magazine will not be able to command the rates it would like.8

Four other titles saw the reverse advertising picture — pages down but dollars up, a little more favorable position once the economy improves.

The Atlantic’s ad pages were down 13%, while dollars were up a small 0.3%. In actual dollars the Atlantic experienced a $73,000 increase in revenues.9

The New Yorker and the Economist suffered through small reductions in ad pages — 3% for the New Yorker and 2% for the Economist — but both also witnessed good-sized increases in ad revenues — 7% and 11%, respectively, in 2005. In dollar terms, the Economist had a revenues increase of about $7.5 million in 2005 to $72.5 million, while the New Yorker had an increase of about $15 million to $215 million. That number puts the New Yorker in the same ballpark as U.S. News and World Report ($256 million), the struggling bottom player among the big traditional news weeklies.10

It is not unusual for ad revenues to rise while pages decline; ad rates can increase even as pages fall. The ad revenue figures collected by the Publisher’s Information Bureau and cited here are determined by multiplying pages by each magazine’s stated ad rates. The rates advertisers actually pay are closely held secrets and are often not uniform. Actual rates can depend on anything from the advertiser and to the length of contract. Some industry insiders say the revenue figures are so inflated that the actual numbers could be only around half the amount the PIB figures indicate.

U.S. News, also, saw pages down and revenues up in 2005. The revenue increases, though, were more in line with the Atlantic ’s, just 9%, to about $257 million. Ad pages dropped 0.6% following a year when they were up substantially.11 The question for the magazine now is what will happen as it embraces its new mission and becomes more of a Web-based publication? And how soon and how quickly will those changes occur? Some of the ads in the magazine may migrate to the Web, but it is unclear what the net change in revenue will be. If newspapers are any example, U.S. News is likely to be limited to much lower rates for online ads than for print ads.

Both Time and Newsweek fared much worse in 2005 than in 2004. Ad pages and dollars both fell at both titles. Time had a particularly down year with a drop of 12% in ad pages and 8% in ad revenues — more than 300 ad pages and $55 million. Newsweek witnessed a 11% decline in ad pages and a 6% drop in ad dollars, or 247 ad pages and $30 million.12

News Magazines Ad Pages, by Title
1988 – 2005
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Publisher’s Information Bureau annual reports
News Magazine Ad Dollars, by Title
1988 – 2005
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Publisher’s Information Bureau annual reports

What might explain the declines? Could they be attributed to a post-election year drop-off — numbers simply looking low in comparison to 2004?

If you compare 2005 to 1997 — the year following the most recent presidential re-election — that theory doesn’t hold up. Time, Newsweek and U.S. News all saw increases in ad pages and ad dollars in 1997.13 All magazines, news and otherwise, saw a drop in 2001 (after the 2000 election); the industry suffered through a one-year decline in advertising pages of more than 10%.14

It may be that the ups and downs of the news titles have more to do with the nation’s overall economic situation than the news environment. From 1994 to 1999, when economic times were good, ad pages were rising at the traditional weeklies. From there they dropped, and not even the 2000 election could save them. But are times so hard in 2005 that pages should be falling the way they are? And why are the drops so much more dramatic at the big news weeklies? The nature of the 2005 economic situation may suggest at least part of the answer. Car ads make up a lot of the pages in the big titles, and the U.S. auto industry is in a slump. The question may not be fully resolved until the economy improves. If the advertising picture does not rise then, it will signal bigger problems for general-interest print magazines.

A Look at the Ads in the News Titles

Another way to understand the advertising appeal of a magazine is to look at the kinds of ads it carries. They reveal something about the nature of the audience, and the breadth of the ads may predict the ability of a magazine to weather difficult times.

A look at the ads in one issue each of Time, the Economist, the New Yorker and The Week suggests that the magazines are aimed at different audiences and that some have a deeper pool of potential advertisers than others.

The May 23 Time relies heavily on cars (9 pages of ads), banks and financial companies (6 pages) and computers and technology (4 and 2/3 pages). And the companies in the 28 total ad pages are names familiar to most consumers: Honda, Citi, Microsoft and General Electric.15 There are a few exceptions. GE, for example, specially sponsors a section in the back of the magazine called “innovators” with an ad that is more about what a good clean company GE is. But most of the ads are like the one inside the back cover for the Toyota Sequoia, the three-page spread on Citi’s Thank You program, or the one-pager for the prescription drug Nexium. They are ads to spur sales.

The Economist’s May 14-20 selection of advertisers is broader. Its biggest advertisers are banks and financial companies (7 pages), followed by automakers (5 pages) and computer and technology companies (5 pages).16 But other advertisers suggest a different audience from Time’s — consulting companies, petroleum companies and a government ( Puerto Rico to be precise). Even the magazine’s car ads are different. Toyota’s ad in the Economist isn’t about a car, it’s about an assembly line and its engine plants in the United States. Hyundai’s focuses on the company’s engineering plant in Michigan. The ads aren’t about the sleek products as much as they are about the companies themselves. (But the back cover which features a silver Jaguar on the inside and a Patek Phillipe watch on the outside.)

The Economist, which still calls itself a “newspaper,” also features 10 pages of “classified” advertisements for things like conferences, symposiums and jobs, including chief executive and chief economist positions. Altogether, the Economist carries 46 pages of advertisements.17

The New Yorker’s May 23 edition features an even broader set of ads. Not many magazines offer a huge four-page BMW advertisement in the same issue with a little box ad — 1/18 of a page — for www.replacements.com, a Web site to help you find china, crystal and silver collectibles. The biggest ad buyers are still banks and financial companies (6 pages), followed by automakers (5 and 1/3 pages) and computer and technology companies (4 pages, all of which are for Microsoft products). But books and book companies have nearly three pages of ads. General travel ads — everything from Frommer’s guides to a cruise to Antarctica — get 2 and 1/6 pages. And the tiny boxes of miscellaneous ads, selling everything from commemorative crystal bowls to subscriptions to a literary magazine by children, take up a total of about 2 and 1/3 pages.18 If one were to try to get an understanding of who The New Yorker’s reader’s are by looking at these ads, one could only say the advertisers seem to see the magazine’s readers as literate, with a lot of disposable income to spend on “unique” items.

The Week’s May 27 issue follows the title’s strict rules on advertising. The magazine limits advertising to only 30% of its pages — the industry average is about 48% — and all The Week’s ads are full-page.19 This issue carries 10 pages of ads, half of them for banks and financial institutions.20 Everything else gets one page each — cars, petroleum, technology, alcohol and food. Some of the ads, like the one for Chevrolet’s SSR vehicle, are clearly consumer purchase ads, but others, like those for Exxon and the Altria Group, are focused on corporate image. The mix may say something about the readers of the magazine, who reportedly include well-known newsmakers. Indeed, nearly every issue features a quote on the cover from a well-known person — from Salman Rushdie to Barry Diller to Bob Kerrey — saying why they like about the magazine.

Industry-wide changes

Overall in the industry, ad sales have staggered since the recession of 2001. But 2005 represented at least a partial rebound, buoyed in large part by the rise of the celebrity genre. Two titles in particular grew dramatically, The Star and In Touch. In 2005, In Touch saw its pages rise 38% and its dollars increase 197%. At The Star, pages rose 30% and dollars 84%.21

And those two magazines have been joined by a third, the European import OK!, whose figures were not yet available at this writing. All those titles share a common approach to the celebrity world. Writing takes a back seat to photos — often “exclusive” photos — and reporting scoops on celebrities’ personal lives. They are also less expensive than the established celebrity titles, like People and Us, and are printed on lower-quality paper. Their layout is evocative of checkout-line tabloids, and in truth they have more in common with those tabs than titles on the magazine stand.

They are the titles experiencing the biggest growth, however. The more traditional celebrity and pop culture titles are suffering. People is relatively flat — no change in pages and a 3.9% climb in dollars — and Teen People is taking a hit — pages down almost 50% and dollars down 28%.22

As mentioned in the audience section, the lower prices and fresh approach of these new titles are scoring particularly well with younger readers. That seems to be particularly hurting Teen People, which has an average reader age of 28, according to MRI’s reader survey. That would put Teen People in direct competition with these new titles for young readers.

There is good and bad news here. If publishers were worried that young people were turning away from magazines, they have reason to feel upbeat. On the other hand, they seem to be gravitating toward the bottom of the market. People magazine may be a pop culture title, but it is not celebrity-driven in the same way these new titles are, and the magazine does actually deal with heavier news, though in a light way. People carries stories about celebrity dates, but Sen. Barack Obama has also appeared as a subject, as have tragedy and crime stories. The newer celebrity titles do not veer far, if at all, from the celebrity world — a world that seems to hold great appeal for readers.

Footnotes

1. Publisher’s Information Bureau data. January – December 2005 vs. 2004. Excluding data from newspaper magazines. http://www.magazine.org/Advertising_and_PIB/PIB_Revenue_and_Pages/Revenue___Pages_by_Magazine_Titles__YTD_/14813.cfm

2. Fadner, Ross, Newsstand Sales Soar for Celebrity Magazines, November 15, 2005, http://publications.mediapost.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=Articles.showArticleHomePage&art_aid=36309

3. Smith, Stephanie, Time Inc. Axes 105 Staffers, Mediaweek.com, December 13, 2005

4. Klaassen, Abbey, Looking for a Grinch? Try Media Company CEOs, Ad Age.com, December 16, 2005

5. Seelye, Katharine, “Time Inc. to Cut 100 More Jobs as It Focuses on Web Business,” New York Times, January 31, 2006

6. Publisher’s Information Bureau data. January – December 2005 vs. 2004. Excluding data from newspaper magazines. http://www.magazine.org/Advertising_and_PIB/PIB_Revenue_and_Pages/Revenue___Pages_by_Magazine_Titles__YTD_/14813.cfm

7. Lowry, Tom, Mighty Week, Business Week, March 21, 2005

8. Publisher’s Information Bureau data. January – December 2005 vs. 2004. Excluding data from newspaper magazines. http://www.magazine.org/Advertising_and_PIB/PIB_Revenue_and_Pages/Revenue___Pages_by_Magazine_Titles__YTD_/14813.cfm

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Publisher’s Information Bureau data. January – December 1997 vs. 1996. Excluding data from newspaper magazines

14. Publisher’s Information Bureau data. January – December 2001 vs. 2000. Excluding data from newspaper magazines

15. PEJ research

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Lowry, Tom, Mighty Week, Business Week, March 21, 2005

20. PEJ research .

21. Publisher’s Information Bureau data. January – December 2005 vs. 2004. Excluding data from newspaper magazines. http://www.magazine.org/Advertising_and_PIB/PIB_Revenue_and_Pages/Revenue___Pages_by_Magazine_Titles__YTD_/14813.cfm

22. Ibid.