|As with many other media, the evidence suggests that news magazines have seen their credibility with the public erode in recent years. News magazines have long sat below television — both cable and network — in public believability. In 2006, there was little evidence that much had changed.
The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press measures “believeability” on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the highest. And in its 2006 Biennial Media Consumption survey those giving Time and U.S. News & World Report the highest rating fell slightly. For Newsweek the rating climbed slightly, but the prevailing trend is clearly downward.1
What’s more, the ratings for all three magazines measured continued to lag behind broadcast media.2
It’s interesting that it isn’t necessarily the magazine style of writing that is holding the Big Three back, but perhaps the fact that they are printed on paper. “60 Minutes,” a broadcast magazine, actually scores higher on believability than the news divisions as a whole. And it should be noted the three news weeklies cited in the survey on average have the highest believability numbers of any print publication measured, other than the Wall Street Journal and the person’s local newspaper — and that includes the New York Times, USA Today and the Associated Press.3
That finding opens the door to several interpretations. Is there a point to the argument that people tend to distrust the idea of objective media so much that they give more weight to outlets that offer more interpretation, or what some might even consider bias — outlets that write with a slant or a “take” as the weeklies like to call it? Is it that outlets that come out less frequently are thought to have spent more time on each item, and their news is therefore more trustworthy?
As the magazines continue to talk about moving more of their operations to the Web, those two theories should get something of a test.
If people are rewarding magazines for coming out less often, the migration to the Web theoretically could hurt the magazine brands. One of the web’s strengths, news on demand, is less about taking time to check facts and more about immediacy. Other strengths of the Web — searchable data bases and access to original materials — are also not the province of news weeklies, which synthesize material into more digestible form. Once the magazines enter that game, if they truly try to compete and break news, will there be less separating them from other Web outlets in the public’s mind?
Those challenges presented by the Web may explain why magazines like the New Yorker are thriving in print. The long-form narratives of the New Yorker — in a stapled and small magazine format — suit themselves more to the portability of print than to the Web. A long New Yorker piece is not digested quickly on a PDA or read at the computer. We take the time to read it on a train, or in an armchair.
If Time, Newsweek and U.S. News are to thrive on the Web, does the mission change? Does the nature of their narrative change? Does the notion of being a weekly publication in itself disappear over time?
What Readers Know
For the vast majority of readers, news magazines are an extra source of news. Their subscribers are generally thought to be more interested in news than average news consumers. In a world where news and information are available in abundance, they pay to get an additional source of news delivered to their homes. What does their desire for more news say about their news knowledge? Perhaps not as much as one might think. News magazine readers are not particularly good students of the news. They know more than some news consumers and less than others.
In the 2006 Pew Biennial Media Survey, 52% of respondents who said they had read a magazine “yesterday” and could correctly identify the Secretary of State. That was a lower score than respondents who said they had read a newspaper yesterday, 55%, or read news online yesterday, 58%. But the magazine readers scored higher than people who said they had watched TV news (47%) or listened to news on the radio the previous day (49%).4
On a question involving foreign affairs — can you name the current president of Russia? — the findings for people who had used various media yesterday were similar. Roughly 43% of magazine readers knew Vladimir Putin’s name. That was lower than newspaper readers and Internet users, of whom 47% and 50%, respectively, got the answer right. But magazine readers did better than TV news viewers (37%) and radio news listeners (41%).5
News magazine readers scored lower than newspapers readers, Internet users and radio listeners on the question of which party was in control of the House of Representatives (before November’s elections). Some 71% of news magazine readers answered the question correctly, compared to 76% for newspapers readers, 73% for radio listeners and 80% for Internet users.6
The meaning of those numbers is hard to know for certain. There is overlap in the data — people use many media every day — but the numbers do suggest that the news magazine audience is not as elite as many believe. It’s interesting, for instance, that radio listeners, who use the lowest-cost media listed here — no subscription cost, free content and inexpensive receivers — score higher than magazine readers on at least one of the questions.
It’s also worth noting that “news magazines” as defined for this survey do not include the niche news titles we discuss in this chapter — The Economist, The Week and the New Yorker — but rather the big news weeklies. When we last looked at the question of audience knowledge, in our 2005 report, the audience of the big news weeklies was broken out on its own and it was shown to rate higher than the audience knowledge of newspaper readers on four questions on current events.
What’s behind the change? It may be that that the audience changes this report has discussed for the past few years — declining readership at the big weeklies and growth of the niche news titles — means that the niche publications are cherry-picking more serious news audiences. It may be that the separation we’re now seeing is simply a matter of the questions that were asked this year. Or it may be a different reason altogether. Regardless, the finding bears watching.