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Opinion Titles

Opinion Titles

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Going into 2007, one question was whether opinion magazines were ripe for a shakeup. The popularity and the energy of these magazines often tend to move with changes in the political landscape. Would the midterm elections in November 2006, and the change of party control in Congress constitute such a switch? Apparently not.

Opinion magazines are a different breed of news magazine. They often are more oriented to analyzing the news, putting it into perspective, than reporting it. And their aim is to influence policy as much as cover it. What’s more, their audience numbers generally rise and fall with the political tides — liberal magazines seem to thrive when Republicans are in power and conservative ones do better when Democrats have control.

Circulation of the right-leaning National Review, for instance, peaked in 1994 at almost 270,000, two years into Bill Clinton’s presidency, and began to fall to 150,000 after Republicans took power on the House and Senate. Similarly, the liberal Nation saw its circulation climb steadily after the 2000 campaign and the election of President George W. Bush, topping out in 2006 at more than 186,000.

With that in mind, the Democratic takeover in the House and Senate in 2006 presented the right conditions for a change in the dynamic among the magazines. And, so far, it appears that circulation for both magazines is staying true to course, with The Nation down and National Review up. The Nation closed out 2007 with a circulation of 181,070, down 5,000 from the year before. National Review ended with 166,285, up a healthy 14,000 from 152,603 in 2006.

In 2007, unexpected action by the Postal Regulatory Commission united the two rival journals. The Nation and National Review collaborated for the first time in mounting a small culture war by lobbying Congress and the postal authorities against steep rate increases, effective July 15, which they saw as discriminating against small-circulation magazines in general and journals of opinion in particular. The postal rate plan, written by media giant Time Warner, translated into a 20% to 30% jump for most publications. For The Nation, that adds up to an additional $500,000 in annual mailing costs. After a grass-roots letter-writing campaign, and a joint op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, a Congressional hearing was held in October, but so far the rates are still in effect.

Meanwhile, as 2008 arrived, the more centrist New Republic was wading through another tough scandal and a hotly contested presidential race seemed to offer the possibility of a fresh influx of readers looking for inside political wisdom.

Circulation of Leading Opinion Magazines
1998-2007
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulation, annual aduit reports and publishers’ statements
The New Republic Circulation numbers as of June 2007; all others as of year-end 2007

The New Republic

One name missing from the audience chart in 2007 is the New Republic. The past 12 months have been eventful at the 92-year-old magazine.

In late 2007, the magazine got new owners, and shifted its publication schedule from weekly to every two weeks. It found itself in another ethics debate over a writer’s work. And it decided on a new way to count its readership, filing to remove itself from the Audit Bureau of Circulations system to go with an alternative auditor, BPA.

The New Republic’s publisher, Elizabeth Sheldon, said the new auditor, BPA, also handles similar magazines and thus the switch would give it “more of an apples-to-apples comparison.” While the Weekly Standard, which might be considered a conservative alternative to the New Republic, is audited by BPA, other opinion magazines, such as The Nation and National Review, use ABC audits.

The new auditing firm comes with some advantages. BPA lets magazines count the free copies sent to readers as “qualified circulation,” provided those readers are in the market served by the publication. For the New Republic, this means 6,000 free copies sent to Capitol Hill now are counted.

While the ABC does allow magazines to count free copies as “verified,” restrictions come with that tag – readers must get an opportunity to opt out after three months, and documentation of subscription orders must be less than three years old.

As the BPA audit ending in June 2007 shows, counting the Hill-delivered copies allows the New Republic to keep its subscriber numbers up above the 65,000 mark (although just barely, at 65,779) . That is a critical point because it means the magazine, which has been losing circulation since 2000, can say that it has stemmed the losses. Keeping subscriptions up at the magazine is a priority for its new owner, CanWest.

When CanWest bought out the former owner and editor-in-chief, Martin Peretz, in March 2007, assuming full control of the magazine, the talk then was about making it profitable and more like a consumer magazine. That would mean, of course, selling more ads, which might be easier with higher circulation figures.

Can West made its biggest move in March, when the magazine switched to a publication schedule of once every two weeks. The magazine was redesigned, as well, with a new title font and thicker paper stock. CanWest also updated the look and content of the magazine’s Web site, with a more modular design and staff blogs.

But soon the magazine found itself enmeshed in a dispute about its reporting after dispatches from its “Baghdad Diarist” were called into question. Scott Thomas Beauchamp, a 23-year-old soldier serving in Iraq, wrote three accounts that were described as first hand about U.S. troops’ behavior, which included running over dogs with Bradley fighting vehicles and playing with the skulls of Iraqi children. The stories appeared in January, June and July. Beauchamp, it later was discovered, began working for the magazine in large part because he was the husband of a New Republic staffer.

An army investigation found the reports to be false. The New Republic initially stood by Beauchamp and his accounts, something he himself later refused to do. Still the magazine defended its stories, saying independent sources had come forward to verify them.

But in December of 2007, the editor, Franklin Foer, wrote a 7,000-word piece acknowledging that the magazine “cannot stand by these stories.” “In retrospect, we never should have put Beauchamp in this situation,” Foer wrote. “He was a young soldier in a war zone, an untried writer without journalistic training. We published his accounts of sensitive events while granting him the shield of anonymity – which, in the wrong hands, can become license to exaggerate, if not fabricate.”1 Also in December, the New York Times reported that the soldier has continued to insist that his articles were true.2

The situation uncomfortably echoed other controversial events at the magazine. In recent years its reporters have been accused of such journalistic malfeasance as misquoting and plagiarizing, and, in the case of a former staffer, Steven Glass, making up stories out of whole cloth, which Glass has admitted.3

Much of the magazine’s drop in circulation has been attributed to its pro-Iraq War stance early in the conflict. Since Foer took over as editor in 2006, the magazine has taken a more critical view of the war. Beauchamp’s stories clearly took the magazine in that direction.

With the Beauchamp controversy quieting down, and the presidential election on the way, the magazine might be able to rebuild its subscriber base with political coverage.

Footnotes

1. Franklin Foer. “Fog of War,” The New Republic, December 2007

2. Patricia Cohen. “Magazine Voices Doubt Over ‘Diary’ From Iraq,” the New York Times, December 4, 2007.

3. 60 Minutes, August 17, 2003, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/05/07/60minutes/main552819.shtml .