|How does the public view magazines? What role will they play in journalism’s future?
New data on public attitudes toward the medium is thin. While newspapers and television are often monitored by research groups, magazines in general and the news weeklies in particular tend to be overlooked. In the past year, no new major polls looked deeply into the field.
The long-term trend, however, has not been positive. Data going back some 20 years on the credibility of the traditional weeklies show a general decline. In that time the number of people saying they can believe all or most of what Time reports has dropped by a third — from 27% in 1985 to 18% in 2004. Over the same period Newsweek had an even more pronounced decline — from 23% to 14%. U.S. News, which has data going back only to 2002, actually saw a 1% increase on that credibility score, from 18% to 19%. (See last year’s report for more.)1
In the past year, though, nothing suggested that the declines might be reversed. The two largest weeklies suffered through incidents that probably did little to help ease reader concerns. In May, Newsweek had to retract a piece in its Periscope section reporting that copies of the Koran had been put in toilets at Guantanamo to upset detainees. For its part, Time found not one, but two of its reporters embroiled in the CIA/Valerie Plame leak investigation. U.S. News, meanwhile, the weekly with the highest credibility rating, suffered through hard economic times and faced questions about whether it was becoming largely a Web-based product.
The credibility figures aren’t good, but the struggles of U.S. News may be the most illuminating in regard to the critical issue for the magazines in coming years. What are news magazines for? With news available 24 hours a day on the Web from a variety of outlets — including newspaper sites and TV sites — and on cable news channels, what is it people want to read at the end of the week? The question is not a new one. People have been predicting the end of news weeklies nearly since they began.
Yet the economic trends clearly suggest that the question has to be faced now more squarely than ever before.
Looking at the changes in the content of the news weeklies over past 20 years — and longer — it’s clear their editors have been pondering this question themselves. Their original mission, giving readers a recap of the news of the week, was abandoned long ago. And while they still occasionally serve as media “agenda setters,” with big stories that call attention to big issues, that is not the dominant approach to content anymore (see our analysis of content). The oldest joke about news magazines is that their putting a trend on their covers was the surest sign that a trend had ended. Yet there is also some sign that the older news weeklies, particularly Time and Newsweek, now see their role more as cultural trend watchers than strictly news watchers.
Is this what their readers want? It’s difficult to say for certain. Surveys show that readers turn less to magazines during major breaking news events than they do to faster media. In 2005 a study by the Pew Research Center found that magazines ranked below all other types of media for where people get “news about national and international issues.”
News magazines were essentially unchanged on the question when compared with data from 1999. But in the same time the numbers for the Internet spiked.2
On a more regular basis, people still rely on the news magazines for some things, according to other surveys. In a 2004 Pew Research Center survey, 13% of those surveyed said they got news from magazines “such as Time, News and U.S. News” regularly.
But that figure is down since 1990, when 20% or more of those surveyed said they turned to the news magazine regularly, and 1993, when the number peaked at 24%. And the current 13% for news weeklies is far below other mass outlets, such as daily newspapers (54%), network news (34%) and cable news (38%).3
The weeklies’ 13% is equaled by those who say they regularly go online to the news pages of providers like AOL and Yahoo (13%). An important difference between the magazine figures and those for the various online entities is that online use is still emerging — it is on the rise — while the figures for magazines are stagnant.4
One question, of course, is what does the public still go to magazines for? Another is why has the public turned away? Answers here might help the weeklies figure out a plan for the future. But the answers, unfortunately, are not completely clear.