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Audience

Audience

Introduction

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The audience for magazines, while it varies markedly by category, has shrunken considerably since the mid-1990s.

In 2008, some types of magazines — particularly a handful of niche publications targeted at a small, specialized segment of the population — added readers.

But magazines intended for mass audiences, for most part, saw readership declines in 2008. In particular, news magazines, the central focus of PEJ’s research on periodicals, continued to have audience declines.

Overall Magazine Readership

The problems for the entire magazine sector can be seen most broadly in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves regular magazine readers. This is a measure of potential universe, beyond how many copies are sold, and includes online readership as well as print.

That measure has shown a slow, steady erosion since the 1990s. According a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 23% of adult Americans in 2008 said they read a magazine of some kind the day before — a drop of nearly a third from 33% in 1994, the first year the survey was conducted.1

When asked specifically about news magazines, 12% reported reading one “regularly,” down 2 percentage points from 2006 and down 6 percentage points from a similar survey in 1994.

Another research firm, Mediamark, uses surveys to measure the total audience of a magazine – including, for example, several members of a household reading the same issue. The audience estimates show slight declines for Time and U.S. News, with Newsweek eking out a flat year.

The niche news publications, however, fared much better according to this survey. Gains there ranged between 2% and 23%, according to Mediamark. Audience for all magazines Mediamark surveys increased four-tenths of 1 percent in 2008 compared with 2007.

Change in Magazine Audiences
2007 to 2008
Magazine
Increase/Decrease from 2007
U.S. News
-3.2%
Time
1.2
Newsweek
0
The Atlantic
+2
The New Yorker
+7.3
The Economist
+22.8

Source: Mediamark. Figures are total print readership based on surveys.

Circulation

Despite gains in Internet traffic to magazine websites (See Digital Trends) and shared print editions, the most loyal base remains those who subscribe. The movement of this base is measured through audited circulation figures that calculate how many copies of a magazine were sold through subscription or newsstand sales.2

Circulation for all of the three biggest news magazines declined in the first half of 2008, the latest period for which comparable data are available.

Newsweek and U.S. News both had substantial losses in total sales (subscription or single copy sales). Newsweek fell to 2.7 million copies per week in the first six months of 2008, down 13% from the same period in 2007. U.S. News fell to 1.8 million, or 10% (bigger changes came later in the year). Time had a negligible decline, down three-tenths of 1 percent, to 3.4 million.

Circulation for the Big Three News Magazines Over Time
1988-2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations
2008 figures based on publisher’s statements for the first half of 2008


At niche publications that compete for news magazine readers, most though not all posted gains in 2008.

The New Yorker, with a circulation of just over 1 million, had a slight decline (2%) in copies sold, after having added circulation in 2006 and 2007. The magazine also reported a decline in its subscriber base. Subscriptions accounted for 96.2% of its circulation in 2008, unchanged from a year earlier.

The Economist, which had a good year, added circulation for the third year in a row, up 8% to 747,254. Of those, 91% were by subscription.

The Week, a digest of the week’s news compiled from other outlets, managed to increase circulation in 2008 by 2%, to more than 500,000, but its growth slowed considerably compared with the previous two years. Subscription sales accounted for 98% of the circulation, the highest percentage among all the news magazines studied.

The Atlantic, the smallest-circulation magazine studied by PEJ posted the largest gains. The periodical, which in 2007 cut back publication from monthly to 10 times a year, had a big circulation increase in 2008, up 12% to close to 400,000 per issue in the first six months of the year versus the same period a year earlier, and that was before a well-received redesign of the print magazine and its companion website.

Change in Circulation
2007 to 2008
Magazine 2008 Circulation Percentage Increase/Decrease from 2007
Time
3,389,166
-0.3%
Newsweek
2,737,450
-12
U.S. News
1,828,293
-10
The New Yorker
1,043,931
-2
The Economist
747,254
+8
The Week
501,255
+1.7
The Atlantic
439,318
+12

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations


The Question of Rate Base

Some of these declines in circulation are by design. All three of the traditional news weeklies in the United States, for example, have been actively trying to reduce minimum circulation the publications guarantee to advertisers in recent years.

Why would a magazine seek to reduce the number of copies it distributes?

The biggest share of revenue a magazine takes in comes from advertising, with a much smaller share from subscriptions and sales of individual copies. Advertising rates are based on a promised circulation number for each issue. This number is often lower than actual circulation.

If a magazine fails to deliver the promised circulation, a publisher has to refund advertisers a portion of the rate, based on how short circulation falls.

Publishers make certain that they meet the guaranteed circulation, or advertising rate base, mostly by attracting readers through incentives. And some offer steep discounts to subscribers to meet this goal, discounts that can cut into any profits.

With a slow erosion of ad sales at magazines since the mid-1990s—and significantly fewer ads bought in 2008—publishers have reconsidered the cost-effectiveness of trying to maintain high circulation bases. As Victor Navasky, the former publisher and editor of The Nation and now a journalism professor at Columbia University, sees it, reducing the rate base has become a strategy of necessity for news weeklies, “owing to higher mailing costs, paper costs and lower subscription returns, not to mention the growth of online.”3

Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report

In the last two years, all three news weeklies have reduced their circulation bases as a way to cut costs. They have also argued that circulation reductions allow them to focus on a smaller readership more valuable to advertisers.4

Time began the current wave of rate base reductions. In November 2006, Time promised to trim its 2007 advertising rate base by 19%.5 As it turned out, Time cut slightly less than planned from the rate base, closer to 700,000. According to an Audit Bureau of Circulations report for the first half of 2008, the magazine maintained a rate base of about 3.25 million.

In November 2007, Newsweek without much fanfare, slashed its rate base as well, from 3.1 million to 2.7 million—a cut of 500,000 that represented a 16% decrease.6

But as the economy weakened, the moves were seemingly insufficient.

In February 2009, Newsweek announced it would cut its circulation rate base throughout the year: from 2.6 million to 1.9 million in July and to 1.5 million in January 2010.7 Focusing on a smaller elite audience would put Newsweek into competition with The Economist, a magazine that tries to present itself as a “thought leader” that emphasizes analysis more than straightforward reporting and has a smaller staff, lower production costs and an upscale readership coveted by advertisers.8

It would also put Time, even with its move toward commentary and away from reporting, as the closest thing to a surviving mass audience weekly news magazine.

In April 2008, U.S. News & World Report announced a 25% reduction of its advertising rate base reduction, cutting it 500,000, to 1.5 million. Then, six months later, the periodical announced another even more fundamental change: it would cut the number of issues it publishes from 46 a year to 12 a year beginning in 2009, and focus each issue on single subjects like college and hospital ratings.

The most obvious question is whether the cutbacks are a signal of the long-predicted end of the mass market news magazine—the publications invented in the 1920s and 1930s to offer Americans a weekly summary of events in the world—or whether they signal something else, the smart realignment of these periodicals into smaller, leaner, thought-leader publications, a kind of hybrid of opinion and news magazines.

It is too early to know the answer. It may well be that the deteriorating economy could alter, or perhaps even scuttle, the planned realignments each magazine now has in mind.

What is clear is that already these are much smaller publications than they once were. Consider that in 1988, just 20 years ago, Time’s circulation was 28% larger than in 2009, Newsweek’s 17%, and U.S. News, which no longer exists as a print weekly, had a circulation of 504,000 more (22% larger).

Rate Base at Other News Magazines

With the exception of The New Yorker, whose advertising base remained the same from 2007, all of the other publications studied among news magazines—the so-called alternative or niche publications—pledged to increase the reader base promised to advertisers in 2008.

The Economist had the biggest increase. The magazine’s North American edition added 119,000 to its advertising base in 2008, for a total of 714,000.

The Week added 25,000 readers to its rate base, reaching 450,000.

In December 2008, as the result of an increase in subscriptions and website traffic following the rebranding of the magazine two months earlier, The Atlantic announced it would raise its guaranteed rate base by 50,000 to 450,000 for 2009.

Circulation For Nontraditional News Magazines Over Time
1988-2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations
2008 figures based on publisher’s statements for the first half of 2008


News Magazine Demographics

News magazine readers continue to represent an elite audience.

They are wealthier than the U.S. population at large, according to reader surveys by Mediamark Research.

Moreover, news magazine readership in 2008 got a bit younger compared with 2007, when the average age of the population over all hit an all-time high. But the average age of readers of news magazines (47.2 years old) remains older than the average age of all magazine readers (42.9 years old) and the U.S. general population (44.8 years old).

Median Age of News Magazine Readers
2002-2008
Design Your Own Chart

Mediamark Research, survey data

Readers of news magazines make more money on average than the U.S. general population and got wealthier in the last year. The median income of readers of the news magazines we study was $81,104 in 2008, up nearly 6% from the previous year and 46% higher than the national median annual income ($55,462).

Over all, men are more likely to read news magazines than women. Of the six news magazines Mediamark tracks, the share of readers who are men is 10 percentage points higher than the share who are of women.

Average Income of News Magazine Readers
2002-2008
Design Your Own Chart

Mediamark Research, survey data

Demographic differences by magazine mostly break along the mass market versus niche format.

Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report

The audiences for the Big Three news weeklies, according to Mediamark’s data, were similar in both age and income—and tend to be older and more affluent than the readers of subject-specific magazines like sports or music.

Time’s median reader is 46.2 years old and makes $70,260 a year, according to median figures. A typical Newsweek reader is a bit older and richer still: 46.8 with a median income of $73,204 a year, the highest among the traditional news weeklies. U.S. News & World Report had the oldest readers, on average, 49.6, and the second-highest median income, $69,650 among the news weeklies.

For all three, the readership also tilts more male than female. Male readers of them had higher incomes, on average, than female readers.

Age and Income Demographics for Readers of Biggest Three News Magazines, 2008
Magazine Median Age Average Income
Men
Women
Men
Women
Time
45.1
47.4
$72,768
$67,202
Newsweek
46.0
47.7
74,622
71,009
U.S. News
49.0
50.5
72,199
64,467

Source: Mediamark, survey data

Median Age, Readers of Biggest Three News Magazines
1995-2008
Design Your Own Chart

Mediamark Research, survey data

Average Income of Readers of Biggest Three News Magazines
1995-2008
Design Your Own Chart

Mediamark Research, survey data

Other News Magazine Demographics

The audience of news magazines other than the big news weeklies tracked by Mediamark is harder to generalize, mostly because the publications are more distinct from each other. But one trait does stand out: These readers tend to be more affluent than those of the three larger mass market news magazines.

Readers of the elite news magazines also stand out for their high level of political knowledge. Nearly half (47%) of readers of publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Harper’s answered three political knowledge questions correctly, the highest percentage of any news audience in the Pew survey.

Beyond that, the differences among the magazines say as much as the similarities. The Economist’s readers are the youngest and richest of the group we study, and more likely to be men (2.1 million) as women (1.4 million). The median age was 39.9, the lowest of the magazines here, and the median annual income was $108,972.

Median Age, Readers of Nontraditional News Magazines
1995-2008
Design Your Own Chart

Mediamark Research, survey data

Average Income of Readers of Nontraditional News Magazines
1995-2008
Design Your Own Chart

Mediamark Research, survey data

The Atlantic’s audience is the oldest (median age 50.9), the second-most affluent ($85,182) and is the only one with more female readers (1.3 million) than male (721,000).

The New Yorker, with a somewhat higher circulation, is more of a cross section, affluent but not strikingly so for the group ($80,622), a little older but not the oldest (median 49.6), and fairly evenly split by gender (1.8 million men and 1.8 million women).

Age and Income Demographics for Readers of Nontraditional News Magazines, 2008
Magazine Median Age Average Income
Men
Women
Men
Women
The Atlantic
50.4
51.4
$88,168
$77,768
The Economist
39.2
41.4
111,307
103,744
The New Yorker
48.8
50.5
86,368
72,558

Source: Mediamark, survey data

Footnotes

1. “ Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources,” by the Pew Research Center for the People & The Press, August 17, 2008

2. Fully 97.2% of Time’s sales are subscription (vs. 2.8% newsstand). The number is 97% at Newsweek, and 98.3% at U.S. News.

3. Victor Navasky, e-mail exchange with PEJ.

4. Lucia Moses, “ ‘Time,’ ‘Newsweek’ Eye ‘Economist,’ ” MediaWeek, November 10, 2008. Online at: http://www.adweek.com/aw/content_display/news/media/e3i431ca797a370fbb25e43b625d815bc2d.

5. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, Time’s actual circulation was 3.4 million as of June 2008.

6. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, Newsweek’s actual circulation was 2.65 million as of June 2008.

7. Russell Adams, “Newsweek Tells Staff of Job Cuts,” Wall Street Journal, December 12, 2008

8. Richard Perez-Peña, “The Popular Newsweekly Becomes a Lonely Category,” New York Times, January 17, 2009

9. Audit Bureau of Circulations, 2009