For the past several years, even decades, it has become popular to speculate on the demise of the general interest news weeklies. It has been argued that in a world of 24-hour news, niche magazines and the Internet, the news weeklies are dinosaurs. Unable to react quickly enough to break real news and now dealing with a world where instant analysis and spin follows quickly on the news’s heels, the weeklies don’t really have a mission anymore, the argument goes. On top of that, their audience is getting older.
The weeklies, well aware of this analysis and witnessing declines in circulation or steady circulation numbers in a growing population, have tried to respond. They have changed what they cover, reaching more and more into areas outside of hard news. They have changed their look, adding more and more photos, trying to get slicker and glossier to attract a younger audience. The changes have seemed to stem the tide somewhat, but stagnant or falling subscription numbers don’t look likely to suddenly climb.
It’s easy to blame those losses on a changing culture that simply doesn’t value news anymore. But what has happened to the general news weekly may be more complicated.
The changes in the magazine industry over the last 20 years have been mirrored by cable television. The rise of “niche”-ing and delivering specific audiences to advertisers took place in magazines well before cable had evolved. Before there was the “Animal Planet” cable channel, if you will, there was “Cat Fancy” magazine. Yet somehow, news magazines largely missed the trend. Paradoxically, as the magazine industry (and communications in general) got more and more concerned with targeted specific content, the news magazines actually got broader and more general. They cover more topics now than they did 20 years ago. They reach farther afield for cover stories. In a world that has become more and more like cable television, broken into interest groups and subsets, the news weeklies have become more like the networks, a one-stop catch-all with something for everyone.
Indeed, the news weeklies may have found a way to survive with this formula, although this is less certain of U.S. News. Their oft-predicted demise seems to be again on hold. Subscription losses seem to have slowed to the point where the weeklies may now have a steady and reliable, though graying, audience.
The question is what have they become in the process. As the amount of hard news in their pages declines, the “news” part of their “news weekly” tag seems less and less relevant. The magazines are, more than anything, broad general interest weeklies. A little bit of People, a little bit of Forbes, a little bit of National Journal and little bit of Entertainment Weekly. And there may be an audience for this product, but the product is not what it once was. And as the trend toward “niches continues to grow, one has to wonder about the long-term wisdom of this strategy.
Looking at the circulation and advertising figures though, one could argue there is an alternative model of news magazine journalism that is thriving. The Economist and, to a lesser extent, The New Yorker have flourished over the last 15 years by doing the opposite of what the big news weeklies have. The Economist, in particular, has essentially the same mission as big three news weeklies but takes a sharply different approach. It has few pictures, keeps light coverage relatively low and covers the entire world. And yet its circulation has grown despite a relatively high subscription price. The New Yorker has moved more closely and more successfully to this formula under its current editor, David Remnick, than under his predecessor, Tina Brown.
The rise of The Economist and the success of The New Yorker may suggest that there is a separation of audiences going on in the magazine industry. A small group of upper-income and perhaps more highly educated readers is choosing to get its news and analysis from smaller, more select, more focused sources outside the mainstream. The publications, while clearly smaller in readership, have had steady growth in circulation and ad pages. This may presage changes coming to the news media at large.
The steady growth among more expensive, more text-heavy, more serious news magazines suggests there is another niche growing. If one looks around at all the news media, one can see signs of this shift happening on a larger scale. The circulation of The New York Times is based less and less on geography and is increasingly scattered through the country in areas based on cultural and income factors. In radio, the audience for National Public Radio has doubled in 10 years.
It is too early to know exactly what all these changes will mean. But it is possible that in future years the big three news weeklies will no longer dominate the news rack. It is possible that the news part of the magazine rack will look like the rest of the rack. Perhaps there will be one or two big titles, followed by a group of targeted niche news books, all with a different view of what happened last week.