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Magazines – Intro

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism


Magazines often are harbingers of change. When large social, economic or technological shifts begin to reshape the culture, magazines frequently are the first media to move, and the structure of the industry is one reason. Unlike newspapers, most magazines are not so tied to a specific geographic area, but are instead centered on interests or niches. Writers are looking for trends. Publishers can more quickly than in other media add and subtract titles aimed at specific audience segments or interests. Advertisers, in turn, can take their dollars to hot titles of the moment aimed at particular demographics.

One can, if careful, look at what is happening in the magazine industry and get a reasonably good idea of what the culture at large is interested in and where it may be heading. Magazines 40 years ago, for instance, signaled early signs of the social fragmentation so commonly understood today with the decline of general interest magazines like Look and the rise of specialty magazines like Psychology Today.

What do magazines tell us about the culture today and the future of magazine journalism, particularly news?

First, the news agenda has gotten softer and more oriented to lifestyle rather than traditional hard news.

Second, the audience for news in magazines is fragmenting. The large, well-known general interest news weeklies continue on their mission of reaching a mass audience with fair to moderate success. But a small group of news magazines with a very different approach to the coverage, such as The Atlantic, is seeing gains. These magazines have eschewed the conventional wisdom about the need for more pictures and lighter stories. Instead they rely on fewer photos and deal with serious topics. Aimed at a more educated audience, they seem less concerned with getting as many readers as possible and are more focused on getting the right readers. They come out just once a month and charge more per subscription, yet their circulation is growing. Their ad revenues are not near the mass-market competitors, but they are growing.

Beyond these overarching shifts, other magazine trends emerge in the data:

Overall, the magazine industry is healthy, but its landscape is very different than it was even 10 years ago, let alone 20.