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Audience

Audience

The audience picture for news magazines varies markedly.

The magazines we refer to as the nontraditional titles — The Economist, the New Yorker and The Week — are seeing their circulations grow, in some cases rapidly, and some are aiming to increase print circulation even more.

Yet the most conventional titles — Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report — continue to struggle to hold on to readers and may be moving away from print in trying different strategies to win audience.

As a result, some publications may try to move to a new way to measure audience and sell ads, one that looks at readership rather than circulation, with the goal of trying to combine print readership and Web visits.

Even such a new mode, however, is not all good news for the stalwart titles. The readership surveys they hope will boost their audience numbers also reveal that those audiences, while wealthier than the overall population, are also older. Meanwhile, their less traditional challengers in the field are reaching an audience that is young and even wealthier.

Time It Is a-Changin’… but How Much?

The shifting approaches to news magazines’ audiences were most dramatically signaled in the moves by the biggest, Time. It announced three major steps in 2006, all of which are expected to play out in the coming year.

First, Time announced that it was deliberately cutting the number of subscribers it promises to deliver to advertisers (its so-called rate base) by 750,0001, while also raising its newsstand price. (Newsweek, the other big player, later raised its cover price to $4.95 as well, but has not as yet cut its rate base)

Then Time announced a new delivery day, Friday, replacing its longstanding newsstand day of Monday. That change coincided with a shift in content toward review and analysis of the week’s news rather than trying to break stories. That task, Time said, would be left to its Web site. (The announcements followed on U.S. News’s pledge in 2005 to focus more on Web content.) Time also said the move to Friday might help it add advertisements aimed at weekend shoppers.

Potentially the most far-reaching change, however, came in the new way Time said it wants to measure audience. The magazine wants to move away from circulation completely as a metric and turn instead to overall readership. To measure that, it intends to use online surveys from the firm Mediamark, a demographic research company.

Focusing on the readership numbers rather than circulation would create a radically different image of the reach of Time — as well as Newsweek and U.S. News. Time’s 4 million2 in print circulation yields about 22 million readers3 according to MRI data. (Newsweek’s 3.1 in circulation4, meanwhile, nets 19 million readers5 and U.S. News’s 2 million6 gives it 11 million readers7). Those reader numbers would presumably be adjusted upward if Web readers were added to the mix, though how much is not clear. Time says the move is “the first step toward our ultimate goal of measuring the combined audience of our multi-media brand.” But at the start, the readership numbers generated from the survey will be based on print-only readership. Advertisers, meanwhile, can choose between Time’s reduced subscriber number or that print readership figure.

If the shift to measuring the magazine’s combined audience is successful, and, soon, Time begins to sell ads based on its combined print and online audience it will move Time toward being less a magazine than that new thing in media, “a multi-platform content provider,” – one with an audience that is potentially much larger than anything measured in traditional circulation figures. If advertisers accept the changes and show an interest in buying cross-platform ads, other magazines may follow suit and turn their attention to focusing more heavily on the Web. But those remain big ifs.

While the changes at Time are dramatic – they were in the early stages as 2007 began – and could potentially change the business structure of the news magazine field. But some kind of large-scale moves were not a complete surprise. They represent a considered response to a major structural challenge.

The Big Three traditional news weeklies have been struggling for years to maintain circulation. While they welcomed even small bumps in audience, there was a law of diminishing returns. The magazines were paying to keep those numbers up through promotions and discounts. Some subscriptions have even come through third parties who offer deep discounts and capture a big part of the actual fees from the subscribers.

For the big weeklies, that was acceptable, if sometimes painful, because it meant big circulation numbers that allowed them to keep ad rates high. But as the Internet posed greater challenges, the cost of maintaining circulation rose. And the value of a big print circulation also has to be weighed against the costs of printing and mailing the issues of the magazines, both of which have risen.

Numbers Dip Again for the Biggest Titles

In 2006, Time and Newsweek were both slightly up in audited circulation — the first small bump each had seen in a few years – but essentially flat. U.S. News also saw a small bump, its second consecutive, but was still below its numbers from 2003.8

In general, all these magazines have seen flat circulation for the past several years. And experts note that the figures would likely be declining if the weeklies did not fight hard to keep the figures up by offering subscribers big discounts.

Circulation Among the Big Three News Magazines
1988 – 2006
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Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations, annual audit reports & publisher’s statements
Circulation figures are averages for the second quarter annually

At the close of 2006, Time’s circulation was 4.066 million, up from 4.026 million in 2005.9 That’s a small increase, less than 1%, and even with the bump there were problems for the magazine. First, Time was only 66,000 ahead of the 4 million in circulation it promises its advertisers. That suggests a struggle to stay above that critical line, and is a likely factor in the reduction in the rate base. Second, the 2006 circulation number, while an increase over 2004 and 2005, was lower than any other figure we had seen for Time between 1988 and 2003.10

The audience news for Newsweek appears to be on a similar path. Again, the increase was very small, to 3.118 million in 2006 from 3.117 million the year before, also less than 1%.11 But that total, was the second lowest circulation number recorded for the magazine in the time for which we have data – 2005 was the lowest. The figure places Newsweek just 18,000 in circulation above its rate base of 3.1 million and may lead the magazine to consider cutting its base somewhat, if not as dramatically as Time.

And while U.S. News circulation was up for the second straight year in 2006, the moves were very small and the figures don’t seem to bode any better for long-term trends. The publication continued to bump along at right about the 2 million mark. Its 2.036 million for 2006 was an increase of 2,000 over 2005, less than 1%.12 Since 2000, U.S. News has hovered right around its rate base of 2 million — staying between 2.086 million and 2.022 million. One question is, were Newsweek to cut its base, would U.S. News follow in order to save on its cost of maintaining that circulation?

The future for both magazines may rest with Time, the leader now not just in audience but in the way it wants Madison Avenue to think about audience. If Time is successful in its move toward using readership — including Web readership — as its base for ad rates, that could amount to a revolution, one that others, it seems, including the newspaper industry, would likely try to follow.

It is also possible, ironically, that U.S. News or other publications may be best situated to capitalize on the proposed new measurement. Time is in the midst of figuring out exactly what its more Web-based approach will look like. Newsweek, for the time being anyway, is primarily relying on its connection to MSNBC for its Web traffic. But U.S. News already had a jump on trying to focus on the Web, announcing its intent in 2005. And its heavy “news you can use” content, full of information on colleges, graduate programs, hospitals, etc., already has something of a database feel on parts of its site.

Users of U.S. News’s site have to pay for those premiums, but they could be used to drive traffic and Web ads. The broader online-and-print readership measurement model also opens the door for some other publication — one that may not be burdened with the costs of a print structure — to enter the field.

The Audiences for the Other News Titles

The shifts proposed by Time stand in marked contrast to the story of the nontraditional new weeklies. Magazines like The Economist, the New Yorker and The Week are not only seeing growth in the circulation of their print products, they are actively aiming for more.

Some are aggressively seeking to expand, such as The Economist, and some are growing more “organically,” as The Week’s editor, Bill Falk, puts it. And some of them are doing it while charging more for their publications than the big weeklies.

Whatever their approach, they offer evidence that, first, print is not yet dead, and second, that hard circulation numbers can still be desirable. “Even in the dawning Web era,” Falk wrote to PEJ in an e-mail, “there is a role for a print magazine that is edited for the way busy people live today.”

Consider the differences in the circulation of these titles over the past five years. In 2000, Time, Newsweek and U.S. News had a combined circulation of about 9.3 million. By contrast, The Economist and the New Yorker in 2000 had a combined circulation of about 1.2 million.13 That was a ratio of about 8 to 1.

For 2006, the three traditional weeklies, after Time’s cuts, will show a combined print circulation of about 8.4 million.14 The Economist, the New Yorker and The Week will be more than 2.1 million15 over all. That is a ratio of less than 4 to 1. Looked at that way, in six years the alternative news weeklies will have cut the print dominance of the Big Three almost by half.

Circulation of Non-Traditional News Magazines
1988 – 2006
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Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations, annual audit reports & publisher’s statements
*The Atlantic is a monthly magazine

The fastest-growing of the alternatives is The Week, the publication owned by the British company Dennis Publishing that edits news accounts from other organizations into short capsules for readers. From 2005 to 2006, The Week added over 75,000 in circulation, climbing to 443,952 from 366,758 — an increase of 21%.16 And the magazine’s rate base has was bumped up to 400,000 in 2006, a rise of 100,000 over it 2005 base. That kind of increase allows the magazine to increase what it’s charging for ads. The numbers are even more impressive when one considers that it was launched in 2001.

The news magazine world’s other British import, The Economist, also had another good year, climbing over the half-million mark in U.S. circulation for the first time in its history. As of December 2006, it had a circulation of 639,205, a gain of roughly 70,000, or 12%, from 569,366 in 2005.17 That growth, moreover, follows a long-term trend. The Economist has seen its U.S. audience grow in each of the 17 years for which we have data — a feat unmatched by any of the other titles we follow. And it has made known its desire to reach 1 million, in large part because as an English-language magazine, if considers the U.S. a critical market.

The New Yorker similarly continued its upward trajectory in 2006. The title, which broke the million mark in 2005, rose to 1.067 million in 2006 from 1.051 the year before — an increase of over 16,000, or about 1.5%.18 That figure is an all-time high.

As we have noted in recent years, the New Yorker has become “newsier” as it has grown, an approach that, among other things, may have helped draw a different crop of readers to its pages. But with its focus on long pieces, the arts, poetry and New York and Washington, the New Yorker is also a magazine for elites. How high can an elite circulation climb?

Jet magazine, aimed at African Americans, saw a down 2006. Circulation dropped to 901,594, down from 948,694 in 2005 — a decrease of about 47,000, or about 5%.19 That 2006 figure, however, was still above 2004 – 2002 circulation numbers — and just above its rate base of 900,000.

After a few years of deliberately trimming circulation, The Atlantic, the only monthly we measure, is sitting right at the cusp of 400,000. Its 2006 circulation of 404,688 was just slightly up from the title’s 2005 number of 403,636 – an increase of less than 1%.20

It’s not yet clear how far The Atlantic intends to cut circulation, but the number it promised advertisers may provide a hint. As of April 2005, the rate base was only 355,000.21 That means there is still room for further cuts. The strategy is intriguing, considering the jumps at other highbrow titles like the New Yorker and The Economist. Bradley has stated in the past that his goal is to shrink the magazine’s circulation and aim for a more exclusive niche.

Behind all the changing fortunes, the differentiation of “traditional” from “nontraditional” news magazines may be getting less and less salient. If Time indeed is moving more toward commentary, the New Yorker has moved more toward breaking news.

In turn the three traditional news weeklies, so long noted for their similarities, in time may be more notable for their differences.

Who Are the Readers?

News magazine readers continue to represent something of an elite audience. They are wealthier than the U.S. population at large, according to reader surveys by Mediamark Research. In 1997 (the first year The Atlantic joined the Mediamark survey) the average household income of news magazine readers was $50,807, compared to $39,035 for the general population, a spread of 30% and more than $11,000. By 2005 news magazine readers’ average household income was $67,000, compared to $51,466 for the general population, still a 30% gap but a difference in dollars of more than $15,000.22 23

Along with that pattern, which advertisers might consider good news, news magazines also do not skew quite as old as many other media. Over all, news magazine audiences are consistently about two years older than the U.S. population. From 1997 to 2005, the median age of the news weekly readers in the survey went from 44.1 to 46.3.24 The median U.S. adult population in that time went from 41.8 years old to 44.25 Most other news sectors have average audiences ages of over 50. For network news, the average is roughly 60.

Readership data also suggest that there may be some market for younger audiences here.

For the first time since we have kept track, Mediamark has added The Economist to its survey, and the results are surprising. The Economist has the youngest audience of any of the news magazines we examine — at 40.1 years old it’s even younger than Jet’s 41.4 — and it is the richest audience as well, with a household income of $96,257 that easily outstrips The Atlantic’s $83,984.26

The bad news is that both of those titles have small readerships (as distinct from circulation) compared to the biggest news magazines. The Economist, for example, has about 1.7 million readers, but Time has more than 22 million and Newsweek more than 19 million.27 That suggests that if there is a young news audience out there, it may be a small one, and it may be going off in its own direction away from the more mass-audience titles. It also may further explain why Time wants to push readership, if the number of different people who see each copy of the magazine — the so-called pass-along rate — is so high.

Median Age of Readerships by Magazine
1995-2006
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Source: MediaMark Research, ’’Magazine Audience Estimates’’
Median Income of Readership by Magazine
1995-2006
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Source: MediaMark Research, ’’Magazine Audience Estimates’’

The Economist’s demographic numbers, nonetheless, represent a departure from the structure of the Mediamark survey numbers in the past. Generally it was the older titles that had wealthier readers, with the oldest, The Atlantic — average age over 50, average income over $80,000 — as case in point.28

Those addition of the Economist’s readers to the survey on the one hand raise the median household income of news magazines readers to $70,409 for 2006— more than $28,000 above the median U.S. household income, according to Mediamark. That figure would be by the far the largest difference we have measured. The Economist readers would also put the median age of news magazine readers at 45.6 years old, putting it closer to the national median of 44.3 years than it has been since 2003.29

Average Income of News Magazines Readers
Compared to U.S. population, 1995-2006
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Source: MediaMark Research, ’’Magazine Audience Estimates’’
Average Age of News Magazine Readers
Compared to U.S. population, 1995-2006
pie chart sample
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MediaMark Research, ’’Magazine Audience Estimates’’

Those numbers might only serve to show how little such overall averages mean. Two magazines sit below the national age median — Jet with a median average age of 41.4 and The Economist with a median of 40.1. All the other news titles we measure are above it. (Incidentally, The Week, which isn’t yet included in the Mediamark survey, has a subscriber median income of $93,000 and an average age of 48. Again, though, those figures are for subscribers, not for readers — reader numbers include a much broader base of people and generally skew younger and less wealthy.)30

Conclusion

There are a many lingering questions about the future of news magazine audiences going into 2007. Will Time’s Web strategy and new delivery day have an impact on its audience? And, perhaps more importantly, how will advertisers react to Time’s audience-tallying approach? Will the smaller nontraditional magazines pay any heed to Time’s moves? Right now these titles are seeing growth and seem more than happy to stick with traditional audience measures and hard-copy publications. Will one approach win out? Is it in fact an either/or proposition?

The answers may not emerge in the next year. But they hold promise in time of reshaping the news magazine field.