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Opinion Magazines

Magazines
By the Project For Excellence In Journalism
Opinion Magazines

True to industry dogma – and despite the swirling economic storms – conservative opinion publications did better than their liberal counterparts in 2009 as Democrats added command of the White House to their control of both houses of Congress.

We examine four of the magazines each year for which we have data. The conservative National Review had the biggest surge in circulation, jumping 9.9% from a year earlier in the latest period for which there was data.1 Another conservative publication, the Weekly Standard, which was more closely allied with the Bush administration, stayed relatively flat.

On the left, The Nation shed 3% of its circulation and the New Republic plunged 18%.

Circulation of Leading Opinion Magazines
1988-2009
Design Your Own Chart
Source: The Nation, National Review: Audit Bureau of Circulations, The New Republic, Weekly Standard: BPA Worldwide. Figures are for six months ending June 30. The Weekly Standard was launched in the fall of 1995 and circulation data prior to 1997 were unavailable..

National Review

The steep gain in readers at National Review came despite a period of turmoil.

In 2008, the magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., died, and one of its bloggers, David Frum, left after questioning GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s fitness to serve.

But the Obama presidency and the earlier Democratic takeover of the House and the Senate provided the twice-a-month magazine with an opportunity to, as it said, provide “intelligent, disciplined opposition” during the Obama presidency.

It seemed to work. National Review’s average circulation for the six months ending June 30, 2009 grew nearly 10% over the same period the year before, to 189,294 – the highest level since the days of the Clinton administration.2 The magazine’s recent peak was 1994, when it sold an average of 269,512 copies per issue.

Online, nationalreview.com attracted the largest audience of all the opinion magazine sites, according to Nielsen Company data.

The magazine’s free website consisted exclusively of features not found in the magazine: NRO TV, produced by the Hoover Institution and featuring conservative lectures and discussions; 13 blogs, including one devoted to Sarah Palin and another entitled Planet Gore that provides criticism of the former vice president’s environmental policies. Getting a digital version of the magazine online required a $21.95 annual subscription.

Publisher Jack Fowler told PEJ that the nation’s leftward electoral tilt did boost the magazine’s readership, but he noted that circulation had been on the rise for several years. He credited this to quality writing and an improved system for renewing subscriptions.3

“I would have thought we would have had a greater bounce from the Obama presidency and Pelosi and Reid. But I think the economy may have impacted us,” he said.

The circulation gains also failed to boost the magazine’s economic fortunes. The company  was reluctant to increase its $59-a-year subscription because past efforts  faltered and the price was brought back down. Ad revenues, too, fell by several hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2009, he said.4

The magazine turned to other sources of revenue, such as donations and cruises with conservative luminaries. But it wasn’t enough to avert the first staff cut in many years, he said.5 He declined to provide specifics on either revenue or staff cuts but said the magazine employed about 40 people as of early 2010.

“We’re not a nonprofit but we are unprofitable,” Fowler said. “Our operating revenues have always been negative.” 6

In addition to a staff of 17 editors, correspondents and researchers, the biweekly National Review’s January 25, 2010, masthead listed seven people assigned to the online operation as well as 28 contributors.

Changes in Circulation of Leading Opinion Magazines, 2008-2009

Average per issue circulation

2008 2009 %change
National Review 172,280 189,294 9.9%
The Nation 173,930 168,198 -3.3%
The New Republic 65,162 53,485 -18%
The Weekly Standard 76,033 75,487 -0.7%

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations, BPA Worldwide. Figures are average per-issue for the six months  ending June 30, 2009.

The Weekly Standard

The other major conservative journal, the Weekly Standard, had a slight decline in circulation in 2009. It also was sold during the year.

In a deal between conservative billionaires, Philip Anschutz’s Clarity Media bought the Weekly Standard from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Clarity, which also owns the San Francisco Examiner and the free Washington Examiner among other media properties, paid $1 million for the magazine, which was founded in 1995 and loses $5 million a year.7

Circulation for the Weekly Standard, which was founded by the conservative commentators William Kristol and Fred Barnes with backing from News Corp., was essentially flat at 75,487 for the first half of 2009.8

Online, weeklystandard.com managed to hold on to more of its traffic than the other opinion journals, according to Nielsen Company data.

The magazine hit its peak in circulation in 2005, during the George W. Bush administration. The magazine was an early and vocal supporter of the invasion of Iraq and Vice President Richard Cheney reportedly picked up 30 copies each Monday – giving it a cachet analogous to that enjoyed by National Review when Ronald Reagan was among its avid readers.9

But the close association with Bush and its vocal support for Sarah Palin’s vice presidential candidacy may have hurt it when the popularity of both plummeted.

“On foreign policy, the Weekly Standard had a lot of influence with the Bush administration,” conservative writer and former Bush speechwriter David Frum told the New York Times. “It was among the most consistent defenders of the broad outlines of Bush policy.” 10

Anschutz spokesman Jim Monaghan hinted that a greater concern with the bottom line may be in the offing for the magazine, which has reportedly never earned a profit.

“We have a high regard for the magazine, and a high regard for the leadership in Kristol and Barnes. We look forward to increasing circulation, increasing advertising and Web presence,” Monaghan told the New York Times. “We don’t purchase assets with the intention that they won’t become profitable.” 11

As of December 28, 2009, the masthead of the Weekly Standard listed 20 editors, designers, editorial assistants and writers. It also listed 16 contributing editors.

The Nation

The Nation, a vocal opponent of postal rate increases in 2007, took several steps to control costs in 2009 as rates rose again.

The magazine hired a consultant to review its mailing system and implemented efficiency measures, its president, Teresa Stack, told Foliomag.com.12

She also encouraged readers to voice concerns with members of Congress. “The largest publishers are pushing for their interests, and their interests are not the same as those of small publishers, so we have to speak up. I think it’s essential that small periodicals are given a voice in the new process,” she said.

The liberal magazine, which ended 2008 in near parity with National Review, fell behind it with a 3.3% loss in circulation through the first half of 2009. 13 Traffic to thenation.comwas the lowest of the opinion journals examined, according to Nielsen data.

The Nation’s masthead on January 21, 2010, listed a staff of 29 editors and correspondents working at the weekly. It also listed six columnists, 10 interns and three correspondents listed in bureaus in London and Southern Africa and 32 contributing writers and editors.

The New Republic

The New Republic’s first year under new – really, old – ownership coincided with the biggest loss in circulation of the leading opinion journals.

The average circulation of 53,485 for the first half of 2009 was 18% lower than the level for the first half of 2008, and was half what it was the year before George W. Bush took office.14 Its circulation began a steady decline in 2000, interrupted by modest gains in 2007 and 2008.

Its free website contains content from both the current issue of the magazine and online-only blogs, podcasts and other content updated daily. The full print version is available in digital form for $29.95, or $10 less than a print subscription.

In March, 2009, Canada’s CanWest Global Communications sold the magazine to longtime editor-in-chief and former part-owner Martin Peretz and a group of investors for an undisclosed sum.15

CanWest acquired a minority share of the publication in 2006 and bought the rest in 2007. It sold the magazine in 2009 to cut costs and meet debt obligations.

The semimonthly New Republic announced the elimination of six jobs in December 2009. Among those dropped was senior editor Chris Orr. Three of the writers were converted to contractor status.16 As of January 21, 2010, its masthead listed 41 editors, critics, correspondents and a designer. There were also 32 contributing editors and four interns.


Footnotes

1. For comparative purposes we use circulation data for the six months ending June 30 because end-of-year data were only available for two of the magazines.

2. Audit Bureau of Circulations, FAS-FAX report for consumer magazines, June 30, 2008 and 2009; December 31, 2008 and 2009. For the second half of 2009, the National Review’s circulation averaged 183,751, up 1.3% from a year prior.

3. Jack Fowler, interview with PEJ, January 6, 2010.

4. Jack Fowler, interview with PEJ, January 6, 2010.

5. Jack Fowler, interview with PEJ, January 6, 2010.

6. Jack Fowler, interview with PEJ, January 6, 2010.

7. Jason Turbow, “It’s Official: Anschutz Buys Weekly Standard,” Baynewser.com, August 4, 2009.

8. BPA Worldwide audit report, via spokesman Glenn Schutz.

9. Tim Arango, “New Owner for a Magazine as Political Tastes Change,” New York Times, August 2, 2009.

10. Tim Arango, “New Owner for a Magazine as Political Tastes Change,” New York Times, August 2, 2009.

11. Tim Arango, “New Owner for a Magazine as Political Tastes Change,” New York Times, August 2, 2009.

12. Jill Ambroz, “The Plight of the Postal Service; Most publishers are looking at a 3.8 percent increase this spring,” Foliomag.com, April 29, 2009.

13. Audit Bureau of Circulations, FAS-FAX report for consumer magazines, June 30, 2008 and 2009; December 31, 2008 and 2009. For the second half of 2009, The Nation’s circulation averaged 158,513, down 12% from the same period a year earlier.

14. BPA Worldwide audit report, via spokesman Glenn Schutz.

15. Jason Fell, “The New Republic Sold to Former Editor,” Foliomag.com, March 9, 2009. http://www.foliomag.com/2009/new-republic-sold-former-editor.

16. Betsy Rothstein, “TNR’s Layoffs Up to Six,” FishbowlDC, December 16, 2009.