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As the news media have gone through wave after wave of consolidation the magazine industry is consolidating as well. A handful of companies now controls the industry, at least in terms of revenues and in terms of owning the powerful agenda-setting titles.

But, the consolidation here looks different than it does elsewhere. The top companies are different than the companies that rule in newspapers or television. While they are still large, they are not all part of media behemoths, with the obvious exception of Time Warner and, to a lesser extent, Advance. This is especially true for two of the three news magazines – Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report.

There are several potential reasons for the news magazines’ ownership situation. It may be due to the age of these magazines – they are so old and well-established other players from other companies cannot jump into the market to compete. Or it may be that because the real growth in the magazine industry is in the niche and service areas, the news-oriented mission of these magazines simply does not jibe with the strengths of most of the major magazine players.

A Few Big Players

In some ways, the same rush all media felt to consolidate in the 1980s and 1990s hit the magazine industry as well. Indeed, it may be fair to say that the magazine industry in the United States is dominated by four companies: Time Warner (which is by far the largest), Hearst, Advance and Primedia. Together those four companies get about 50 percent of all the magazine revenue that comes from the top 100 media companies.1

And when one broadens the list to look at the top 10 magazine companies in 2002, they collect almost three-quarters of the revenues in the industry.1

But the biggest players in the magazine industry in terms of revenue are not necessarily the biggest players in the larger media world. For instance News Corp., Washington Post and Tribune, three giants of the media world – Nos. 7, 21 and 12 of the top 100 media companies, respectively – are only bit players in the magazine sector.

Magazine Revenue of Top-Ten Companies, 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Advertising Age, Chart: 100 Leading Companies

In fact, only four of the top 10 magazine companies – Time Warner, Hearst, Advance and Primedia – are among the 25 largest media companies overall. That is quite contrary to other media. Nine of the top 10 newspaper companies are among the 25 media giants as are all of the top 10 cable television companies.1

A Different Sort of Medium

Why does the magazine ownership landscape look so different than other media segments? It is because there are really two tracks available to magazine publishers. There is the route of high-impact, mass-market, agenda-setting magazines – the magazine names everyone knows – largely the province of the three largest companies. And there is the route of smaller niche, news-you-can-use titles. Much of the growth in magazines over the past 20 years has come in these niche service magazines (See Economics). And many of the big magazine companies publish almost only these titles. International Data Group, the sixth largest magazine company, publishes only computer magazines such as PC World, Macworld and GamePro. Reader’s Digest, the fifth largest, besides its famous main title, publishes Family Handyman and American Woodworker. Even Primedia, the fourth largest company, is, despite its high profile New York Magazine, really based on service titles like Wards Auto World, Home Theater and Shutterbug.1

The difference in magazine economics creates very different worlds among the 10 companies in the medium. The top 10 companies publish most of the magazine titles seen on newsstands. But it is the top three companies that hold the best-known books. Time Warner is home, of course, to Time, People, Sports Illustrated and Entertainment Weekly. Hearst publishes Cosmopolitan, Esquire and the hugely successful O, the Oprah Magazine. Advance owns all the Condé Nast titles – including Vogue, CQ, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker – plus Parade.

And, one could argue, that means that the magazine market in terms of content is even more concentrated than it first appears. Those top three companies control 45 percent of the revenues in the magazine market and also control what might be called the agenda-setting magazines in the areas of pop culture and business. They play important roles in shaping the national dialogue in these areas, which are the areas readers and advertisers are most interested in. They are the magazines cited by other media in the critical game of buzz.

Who Owns the News?

Only one of the top 10 magazine companies, Time Warner, publishes one of the big three news magazines, Time. Newsweek is owned by The Washington Post, a big media company that is only a bit player in the magazine world. And U.S. News is owned by real estate mogul Mort Zuckerman, who also owns a hodgepodge of magazines and newspapers. Why are the big news magazines so underrepresented in the big magazine companies? In part it may be that they are not sexy or new. They are among the longest continuously published magazines in the country. They got in, established their names and made competition difficult.

Lack of profit potential should not be overlooked as cause as well.

Even as magazine startups grow, the news magazine category remains largely unchanged, particularly at the mass-marketed, high-circulation end of the spectrum.1 Does this mean that three big news magazines is the limit? Possibly. But the fact that there are, and long have been, only three big news magazines despite continuous growth in other segments (such as entertainment) suggests that many publishers simply do not think there is money to be made here. It is true that the magazine companies that have thrived in the past 20 years are more focused on niches other than news and might have a hard time starting a news magazine from scratch. But there is nothing preventing companies with strong editorial backgrounds, such as Hearst or Advance, from launching new news magazines. Even Time Warner might be interested in the idea if it looked profitable. The company did not fear cannibalizing People’s readership when it launched Entertainment Weekly or Teen People. It assumed there were niches in which it could move without harming its franchise and it was right.

Why this did not occur in news magazines is a question. Perhaps the field was considered too crowded. Now, absent a remaking of the genre’s format, it seems, it certainly is.


1. “100 Leading Media Companies,”, August 2003. Companies are ranked by their total media revenues collected in the United States in 2002. The list is available at


3. Ibid

4. In December of 2003, Primedia announced the sale of New York Magazine to Bruce Wasserstein, an investment banker. The deal moved Primedia out of the mainstream consumer magazine market and put it more squarely in the niche magazine camp.

5. In 2001, Dennis Publishing, publisher of Maxim, launched an American version of its British news magazine, The Week. The magazine, made up of a collection of stories from other publications, has 150,000 subscribers. It still survives but is losing money. Its long-term prognosis is unknown.