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Magazines – Summary Essay

Magazines
By the Project For Excellence In Journalism
Summary Essay

As 2010 began, several existential questions hung over the American magazine industry.

One is whether there is a future for the mass-market magazine anymore. The evidence in 2009 was mixed but not encouraging.

Among news magazines, niche publications such as The Economist or The Atlantic, gained the most in circulation, as they have for several years. But Newsweek, which tried to downsize and reimagine its editorial focus, saw little evidence of revival. Ad pages plummeted 26%, one of the worst performances in the sector. Time, still closer to a mass-market magazine, was down 17%.

Another question is to what degree advertising, which makes up the lion’s share of magazine revenue in the United States, will continue to support the industry. For the year, the number of ad pages sold across magazines generally fell by 25.6%.1 Ad revenue is not projected to resume growing again until 2013. And by then, according to estimates by industry analysts at Veronis Suhler Stevenson, ad revenue will have fallen to a point well below where it was in 2003. In effect, the industry would have lost a decade.2

Another sign of trouble in 2009: several well-known publications stopped publishing and staffs at many of the surviving ones were cut (again).

In response, some experts are urging the industry to try to change its basic approach. Magazines, they argue, must charge readers more, including erecting pay walls online, and stop the practice of discounting subscriptions.

That scenario, however, is challenged by events on the ground. For latest period, newsstand single-copy sales fell by more than 9% year to year, and industry surveys find fewer people saying they read magazines each month. Overall circulation fell by only 2.23% in that period, but that decline was likely cushioned by the old habit of discounting, virtually giving magazines away to readers.3 It just isn’t clear how the industry can break that dependence.

“We are in a transition period – which is good in most situations, if the powers that be wake up from the coma and accept that the business model they have depended on since World War II is dead,” said Samir Husni, the director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi’s School of Journalism and New Media, who also publishes a blog under the name Mr. Magazine.4

A third question, even more basic, is what constitutes a magazine.

Salon, one of the original online publications, announced during the year that it was no longer a magazine because it posts content too often. The Daily Beast, launched in 2008 by celebrity magazine editor Tina Brown, has gained prominence, but Brown, in her inimitable way, promotes her site as something faster and bouncier, and has the word “daily” in its name. The Week is a magazine that summarizes the work of others, an aggregator as magazine. The Economist comes close to the original notion of a news magazine, byline-less and covering the world.

Beyond the news space, the term magazine encompasses everything from Bowhunt America, about hunting with a bow and arrow, to O, a magazine built around the tastes and personality of talk show host Oprah Winfrey, to AARP, now the country’s largest magazine and the only big one, according to the data, to increase its audience in 2009.

We asked a number of industry professionals for their definition. One concept seemed to connect all of their responses. A magazine is not instantaneous. It does not cover the news as it is breaking.  It is not a destination to find out what’s new.

Rather, there is something in the periodicity of magazines — regardless of the platform of delivery — that involves contemplation of the news rather than coverage of it. A daily newsroom is necessarily focused more on what has just happened and what might happen next. A magazine can raise questions those events imply that the daily press is unlikely to answer. One looks on news that breaks. The other on news that bends or the trends and currents that flow beneath. Thus by degrees magazines try to focus on ideas and conclusions, to assimilate evidence, be it about the debate over health care, the character of our public figures, the shifts in film or art, the story behind war policy, changes in our national temperament.

Generalizations such as these are fraught with exceptions. This does not mean, for instance, that magazine work is not deeply reported or does not make news. Among the highlights of the year readers might put the work of Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorkerthat, through in-depth reporting, changed almost overnight the national perspective on concussions in professional football, or James Fallows’ reporting in The Atlantic on the peril and promise of an emergent China.

Nor does it mean that there isn’t contemplative work about trends and big ideas in daily journalism. The distinctions lie rather in where the bulk of the effort lies, in the focus of most of the attention. A daily newsroom is necessarily fixed to a larger degree on today as a specific date. A magazine can be more easily thought of today in the sense of contemporary life.

Even in the 21st century, when the mode of delivery may be digital rather than print, some believe the magazine is still rooted in these distinctions from the 20th. The magazine involves a level of reflection at its heart that cannot fully be the focus of other kinds of news operations.

“A magazine is where you go when you already have an idea what has happened but want to learn more about it,” said Slate editor in chief Jacob Weisberg. And he believes its possible online. He pointed to a series of initiatives that resulted in 10,000-word, multipart series on his site. “We’ve cracked the case,” he argued.5

Others are not so sure the contemplative quality of the magazine can survive online. “It seems like all kinds of publications on the Web are being pulled into this very fast pace on the Web,” said Jeanne Carstensen, a former managing editor of Salon.6 “Magazines used to fill a different role; they were more idea-driven. Now Salon and Slate and the Daily Beast, which have a lot of magazine DNA, are trying to figure out how to do that kind of thoughtful content and still be a part of the conversation on the Web.”

And some magazines are trying to develop a relationship in which print versions and their websites play off each other. What that means, however, is still evolving.

The question looking ahead is not only to what degree this contemplative quality can exist online, but also whether it can pay for itself.

News Magazines

For news magazines in particular, the year was enormously difficult.

Six magazines are studied here that can be categorized as news — Time, Newsweek, The Atlantic, the New Yorker, The Week and The Economist. The categorizations are loose. The New Yorker includes material that is hardly news. Other publications might be included, but this list, all periodicals about which we can get substantial amounts of data, provides a range that is illustrative.

For the six, circulation fell 8.2% year to year for the latest period audited, nearly four times the rate of decline as consumer magazines over all. The gainers here were all niche publications, particularly The Economist and The Atlantic. 7

And if the results of a vastly reconfigured U.S. News & World Report are included — it converted from a twice-monthly news magazine to a monthly theme-based print publication — the category was down 10.8%.8 U.S. News’ print circulation per issue fell by 25%, although traffic grew to the website, usnews.com, where it increasingly is putting its news emphasis. 9

The economics were also grim, though not as tough as the industry over all.

Not including U.S. News & World Report, the top six newsmagazines sold 19% fewer ad pages in 2009 than the year before.10

Only one magazine, The Week, posted a gain in pages. Its editor said it was going to turn a profit in 2009 for the first time since its creation in 2001.

The biggest losers were the larger magazines — Time and Newsweek. And the declines led to further cuts in newsgathering resources. Time and Newsweek, which once fielded hundreds of staffers in every corner of the globe, were operating newsrooms half as big as they were 15 years earlier. And Time’s total staffing fell below Newsweek’s for the first time since PEJ began counting.

Digital

It all leads back, as in other media sectors, to questions about online. Digital traffic numbers in 2009 seemed to take a breather after sprinting upward for several years.

There are questions about how much traffic the sector can gain. The biggest magazine website, Time.com, attracted only about one-sixth as many unique monthly visitors as Yahoo News, one of the leading sites.

Among online magazines, those that claim the designation of magazine but have no print operation, the year was mixed. Audience traffic fluctuated but rarely hit the peaks of the election year. And no clear model for financial success emerged.

Slate remained the most popular online-only magazine website, although the number of unique monthly visitors was well behind Time and Newsweek, according to PEJ’s analysis of data from Nielsen Net Ratings.

U.S. News Weekly, the digital newsweekly successor to U.S. News & World Report, had thousands of paying subscribers, and was meeting projections, according to its editor. But most were print subscribers who asked for a free trial of the online publication. Only about 3,000 nonmagazine subscribers put up the $19.95 a year.

Salon, the pioneer online magazine, lost more money, bringing its accumulated deficits to more than $100 million since its inception in 1995. Its new boss pledged to dive more deeply into the breaking news and commentary that the Web seemed to demand.

Several publishers rolled out online initiatives, including various mobile devices – from iPhone apps to wireless tablet readers — that they hoped might one day replace lost advertising revenue.

“Given the more than 15 years we have been waiting for most legacy media companies to develop Internet-literate products, there is reason to fear they will not segue smoothly into tablet computing,” said media veteran Alan Mutter. “Because tablets represent the last, best do-over for media companies, however, here’s hoping the continuing erosion of their traditional businesses will impel them to act before it’s too late.”11

In one frightening reflection of the age, some of the 31 magazines that changed hands in 2009 sold at virtually no value. TV Guide, once the largest magazine in America, sold for $1 plus the assumption of liabilities.


Footnotes

1. Publishers Information Bureau, Magazine Titles Data, January 12, 2010.

2. Veronis Suhler Stevenson Communications Industry Forecast 2009-2013, August 3, 2009.www.vss.com/forecast09.

3. Audit Bureau of Circulations, FAS-FAX report for consumer magazines, June 30, 2008 and 2009; December 31, 2008 and 2009.

4. Samir Husni, PEJ interview, December 8, 2009.

5. Jacob Weisberg, PEJ interview, December 22, 2009.

6. Jeanne Carstensen, PEJ interview, December 18, 2009.

7. Audit Bureau of Circulations, FAS-FAX report for consumer magazines, June 30, 2008 and 2009; December 31, 2008 and 2009.

8. Audit Bureau of Circulations, FAS-FAX report for consumer magazines, June 30, 2008 and 2009; December 31, 2008 and 2009.

9. Audit Bureau of Circulations, FAS-FAX report for consumer magazines, June 30, 2008 and 2009; December 31, 2008 and 2009.

10. U.S. News & World Report sold 81% fewer ad pages, a figure greatly affected by its conversion to a monthly. With U.S. News & World Report included, the news magazine group sold 27% fewer ad pages.

11. Alan Mutter, “Holy Moses! Media need to gear up for tablets,” Reflections of a Newsosaur, January 8, 2010.