By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
As the political winds shifted toward Democrats in 2008, the cross currents already seemed to be lifting the nation’s conservative opinion magazines.
The popularity and the energy of opinion magazines often move opposite to changes in the political landscape, and that process had begun for conservative publications after 2006.
Circulation of the right-leaning National Review, for instance, peaked in 1994 at almost 270,000, two years into Bill Clinton’s presidency, and fell to 150,000 after Republicans took power in the House and Senate. The liberal Nation, meanwhile, saw its circulation climb steadily after the election of President George W. Bush, topping out in 2006 at more than 186,000.
In 2008, true to form, conservative publications saw growth and liberal ones generally lost ground. “There is a countercyclical nature to this business,” said Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, whose circulation grew in 2008.1
Unlike mass-market consumer magazines, opinion journals do not rely on advertising. Profits are rare, and benefactors or readers normally keep these magazines afloat.
As such, opinion magazines were less susceptible to the downturn in the print advertising market in 2008.
However, a simmering debate over the impact of postal rates for mailed magazines continued to raise alarms from some smaller publications.
Circulation of Leading Opinion Magazines
|Design Your Own Chart|
Source: The Nation, National Review: Audit Bureau of Circulations; The New Republic, Weekly Standard: BPA Worldwide. 2008 figures based on publisher’s statements for the first half of 2008
National Review had an eventful year, enduring the death of its founder and former editor while it also increased its circulation.
William F. Buckley, Jr., who launched the every-other-week magazine in 1955, died at 82 on February 27, 2008, at his desk. In October 2008, his son, Christopher Buckley, a columnist for the journal, resigned after endorsing Barack Obama for president in a blog posting on TheDailyBeast.com. Christopher Buckley told the New York Times that he had “been effectively fatwaed by the conservative movement” following his endorsement.2
David Frum, a conservative writer and a fixture on The Corner, National Review’s blog, also departed after negative comments he made about the fitness to serve of the Republican vice presidential nominee and Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin, prompted another controversy. “The answers to the Republican dilemma are not obvious and we need a vibrant discussion,” he told the New York Times. “I think a little more distance can help everybody do a better job of keeping their temper.”
For its part, the magazine pledged to provide “intelligent, disciplined opposition” during the Obama presidency.
The swing to Democrats has already helped National Review’s readership. The magazine increased its circulation by more than 14,000 in 2008, to 178,780, the highest among the opinion magazines examined here.
National Review publisher Jack Fowler told PEJ that his publication relies on donations from readers as its biggest source of revenue, followed by circulation and advertising.
The magazine was established as a for-profit company in 1955, and as such, Fowler explained, cannot take donations from institutional donors like as nonprofit organizations and think-tanks. Because of its status, donations to the magazine are not tax deductible, which poses another challenge to raise money in tough economic times. “It’s hard to ask retirees for donations when they’ve seen their nest eggs disappear,” Fowler said.
Yet operating under nonprofit status would prevent the magazine from taking positions on legislation or endorsing candidates.
And while traffic to National Review’s website spiked during the election campaign, according Fowler, and was up over 2007, the online portal continues to lose money. No content from the magazine appears on the website. “Our magazine loses money, and the website loses more money,” Fowler said. “You have to have fresh content on the Web, and we have to pay people to do that.”
Less than two years after selling the left-of-center New Republic to Canada’s largest media company, long-time editor-in-chief Martin Peretz emerged among a group of private investors who bought it back.3 Terms of the deal were not made public at the time of the March 2009 sale.
CanWest Global Communications paid $2.3 million for its initial, 30% stake in 2006, and took full control in 2007 for an undisclosed additional investment.4
The corporate owners cut the magazine’s frequency from weekly to every other week. A redesigned magazine and website debuted in March 2007.
At the time of the 2007 sale, Peretz said corporate ownership was good for the magazine. He told the New York Times that CanWest’s investment would help because small publications “are finding it hard to meet the demands of the marketplace.”5
CanWest, which owns a stable of television stations and newspapers based almost entirely in Canada, sold the magazine and other properties in an effort to reduce debt.6 “[The New Republic] remains our only American asset and as such, we have determined it to be non-core to Canwest,” the company’s President and CEO Leonard Asper said in a statement.7
The New Republic, published since 1914, focuses on a broader range of topics than most opinion magazines, including politics, public policy and the arts. The publication gained a reputation for hawkish views on foreign policy following its full-throated support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in the lead-up to war in 2003, a position it came to regret three years later.8
Changes at the publication failed to attract new readers in 2008.
Circulation decreased by 612, to 65,162 in 2008. As recently as 2000, the magazine’s circulation stood at 101,268.
Founded in 1995 by the conservative commentators William Kristol and Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard gained some readers in the Democratic surge.
Its circulation grew to 76,033, from 74,094 in 2007.
Like most other political opinion magazines, the News Corporation-owned Weekly Standard generally loses money. But News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch has long dismissed the idea of selling The Weekly Standard. Although Murdoch put up the money to launch the magazine—and absorbs its losses— Kristol and Barnes insist they have editorial independence.9
The magazine’s orientation against many of the stated policies of the Obama administration and Kristol’s high profile throughout the election campaign in 2008—he wrote an Op-Ed column for the New York Times that has since been discontinued he and appeared regularly on Fox News Channel—could bode well for The Weekly Standard in 2009.
The144-year-old Nation lost readers for the second year in a row in 2008.
The magazine’s circulation hit a peak of 186,691 in 2006, but fell to 178,932 the next year and 173,930 in 2008.10
Any drop in circulation hurts the publication because revenue from subscriptions and single copy sales is its biggest source of revenue, followed by donations from readers and supporters, and advertising sales. According to Nation president Teresa Stack, advertising makes up about 20% of all revenues at the magazine.
The Nation Company, a private limited partnership, owns and publishes the magazine. The publication generally loses money each year and defrays costs with donations from a group of supporters called The Nation Associates.
Stack said losing money is a fact of business at opinion journals like The Nation. “The fact is, no magazines in this category make money—we are all run more like a cause,” Stack told Publishers Information Bureau.11
An increase in postal rates approved by the Postal Regulatory Commission in 2007 forced small-circulation magazines to look for ways to defray higher costs.
The new rate was intended to reduce the Postal Service’s costs for mailing periodicals, but it also translated to a big increase for small, time-sensitive publications.
Fowler, National Review’s publisher, told PEJ that his magazine’s contract with its printer expired in 2007, allowing it to shop around for a printer that was able co-mail with other publications, something larger publishers are able to do to reduce costs. Fowler also said his publication had more flexibility with scheduling deliveries than small magazines like the Nation, which is generally more timely.
The higher mailing costs, which represented an 18% increase at The Nation in 2007 —estimated at an extra $500,000 a year — prompted the magazine to seek donations from readers, rather than raising subscription rates. “If you raise rate you get lower circulation, it’s a real balancing act,” Stack told FolioMag.com. “So it was natural for us to say to our readers ‘this is what we’re facing, can you help us?’ ”12
Stack told PEJ that donations to The Nation covered the additional costs in 2007, but said the magazine could not go back to that well in 2008 and had to absorb additional costs. The rate Postal Service rate increase for 2008 amounted to a smaller, 5% hike.
The costs of distribution will most certainly increase in 2009 as well. In February, the Postal Service increased rates for periodicals again, this time by about 4%.13
2. Patricia Cohen, “Buckley Steps Down From National Review,” New York Times, October 14, 2008
3. “CanWest sells The New Republic,” Canwest press release, March 9, 2009.
4. Andrew Willis, “Canwest sales continue as debt deadlines loom,” The Globe and Mail, March 9, 2009.
5. CanWest bought the remaining interests owned by Peretz, Roger Hertog and Michael Steinhardt to assume full ownership. “New Republic’s Top Editor Sells His Stake to CanWest,” Dealbook blog, New York Times, February 28, 2007.
6. Wojtek Dabrowski, “Canwest creaks under debt load, may seek protection,” Reuters, February 12, 2009
8. Editorial, “Obligations,” The New Republic, November 27, 2006.
9. John Cassidy, “Murdoch’s Game,” New Yorker, October 16, 2006
10. Audit Bureau of Circulations, Publisher’s Statements, January 1-June 30, 2008; January 1-June 30, 2007; January 1-June 30, 2006. In an interview with PEJ on February 25, 2009, The Nation’s circulation director Art Stupar report that from July 1-December 31, 2008, circulation increased to 181,070.
11.“The Four Questions With Teresa Stack of The Nation,” Publishers Information Bureau website, October 16, 2007. Online at: http://www.magazine.org/indy/four_questions/Teresa_Stack.aspx.
12. “The Nation Seeks Donations to Pay Ballooning Postage,” FolioMag.com, July 19, 2007
13. Dylan Stableford, “Postal Service Releases Details of Rate Hike,” FolioMag.com, February 10, 2009