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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Winners and Losers in Circulation

The numbers for the Big Three news weeklies over all dipped slightly again in 2003 (the latest numbers available), continuing the downward path the magazines have been on for decades. In contrast, the circulation figures of some of the non-traditional news magazines continue to rise. Those increases raise further questions about whether the news genre is undergoing a slow remaking.

The success of the non-traditional format of the boutique news magazines can be measured in several ways, but the most telling may be the most rudimentary – growing circulation. While many print media outlets decry declining reading habits and find themselves facing shrinking subscriptions, two of the four nontraditional news weeklies whose data is readily available, The New Yorker and The Economist, continued to see increases in the 2003 data.1

Along with the three main news weeklies, we look at four nontraditional news magazines that report with the Audit Bureau of Circulations – The New Yorker, The Economist, The Atlantic and Jet. In this group, The New Yorker witnessed a 2% bump up in 2003, while The Economist saw a more substantial rise of 6%.2 Also noteworthy in the New Yorker figures were indications that the magazine that has historically treated New York City as one of its primary characters is seeing its circulation broaden geographically. Publisher’s Statements show that for the first time there were higher circulation figures in California than in New York – 167,000 to 166,000.3 While that might not be completely surprising, considering the size of the population of California, it is significant considering the magazine’s roots, its focus and the fact that New York is the home of the magazine publishing industry.

Not all the numbers are positive among the nontraditional books. Both The Atlantic and Jet saw fairly substantial declines in 2003, in the range of 30,000.4 For Jet, targeted at African Americans, the 3% decline in 2003 continues a trend that began in 2000. In fact since 1999, the magazine’s circulation is down by about 90,000, or about 10%. The loss of circulation could be due to reader discontent, or it might be tied to the decline in African American incomes in the U.S. The Economic Policy Institute reports that the real median income of African American households is off by about 6% since 2000.5 When household budgets get tight, magazine subscriptions are often among the first things to be cut. The 6% drop in 2003 circulation at the Atlantic, though, comes after an increase in 2002. In fact, after years of stability, the past four years have seen the circulation at the monthly go up and down yo-yo style, though hovering around the 500,000 mark.6 Rising by roughly 60,000 between 1999 and 2000, then dropping by 34,000 in 2001, then up again by 37,000 in 2002 before this latest drop. The first rise coincides with David Bradley’s purchase of the magazine in 1999 and might be explained in part by buzz it received from a change in ownership. But the drop and the subsequent increase are harder to explain. Regardless, considering the moves by Bradley to double subscription rates and drop circulation, the bobbing up and down may be finished. We will watch this number closely in years to come to see if this circulation drop is limited.

Circulation of Non-Traditional News Magazines
1988 – 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations, annual audit reports
*The Atlantic is a monthly magazine

At the traditional news weeklies, changes in content have coincided with dropping subscriber numbers – a combined 1 million in circulation lost for the three magazines over the last 16 years. The latest figures, for 2003, show those declines continuing for Time and Newsweek while U.S. News and World Report actually had a very small increase, of 2,000.7 Only time will tell whether that increase is a one-year blip or something more substantial. As was true a year ago, the magazines essentially now sit about a million apart from one another in circulation. As of the end of 2003, Time had about 4.1 million, Newsweek 3.1 million and U.S. News 2 million.

Circulation Among the Big Three News Magazines
1988 – 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations, annual audit reports
*Newsweek audit figures unavilable, figures from Publisher’s Statement

Along with those general circulation trends, newsstand sales continued to fall into 2004. Time was off by about 4% in the first half of 2004 compared to 2003, Newsweek slipped by about 7% over the same period and U.S. News saw a 4% newsstand decline.8 Those numbers mirrored industry-wide declines. The weeklies experienced a large bump in newsstand circulation in the weeks and months after September 11, 2001, when it seemed Americans were again interested in news, but the effect was short-lived. When year-end 2004 numbers become available it will be interesting to see whether the presidential election and the events in Iraq drove the newsstand numbers up again. These declines, combined with the growth of the boutique magazines, may be pushing new players into the news magazine market. Though still really getting off the ground, The Week, a magazine launched by Maxim’s Dennis Publishing in 2001 that prides itself on summarizing the entire week’s news in a succinct 40 pages, is surviving and claims a readership of 200,000, though the Audit Bureau put the figure at 178,000 for 2003.9

A Grayer, Greener Audience Across the Board

Reports of younger Americans turning away from print news are, it seems, borne out by the figures for news magazines. Of the three types we examine to get a feel for the industry as a whole – news, business, and entertainment/pop culture/lifestyle – news has the oldest readership, even older than the business group. The average age of news readers was 45.4 years, according to audience surveys by Mediamark Research. Business readers were the next oldest with an average age of 44. Those for entertainment were much younger, an average of 34.9. News magazine readers are also on average older than the adult population on the whole, which has an average age of 43.8. 10

Average Age of News Magazine Readers
Compared to U.S. population, 1995 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MediaMark Research, ’’Magazine Audience Estimates’’

After a one-year drop in the 2003 data (possibly a statistical aberration) in 2004 the average reader of every news magazine we examined got older. The Atlantic reader is still the oldest at 50.9 years, the Jet reader still the youngest at 38.7. The other magazines are close together in between, with average ages between 44.6 and 46.8.11

Average Age of Readership by Magazine
1995 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MediaMark Research, ’’Magazine Audience Estimates’’

It’s worth noting that the magazine with the second-oldest readership after The Atlantic is also the only one with a growing paid circulation – The New Yorker. The good news here for the magazines is there is room for growth even relying heavily on this demographic. But the age data could also signal a problem. It’s hard to see how the trend bodes well for the coming decades as the less print-bound generations come of age.
The magazines might argue that the Mediamark’s data are not the last word in this discussion, because it gauges readership rather than circulation. Mediamark’s figures are based on general public surveys that rely on reader memories, and are not as solid as numbers emerging from subscriptions. Nevertheless, Mediamark’s reports provide the best data available.

If there is good news for the news magazines it is that their readers continue to get wealthier. According to the Mediamark data, the average income of readers rose by about $400 in 2004 to $65,958. That puts the news brand ahead of entertainment, whose readers earn an average of $60,535. The business magazines still have the wealthiest readership by far, however, with an average income of $82,892. All three types of magazines, incidentally, far outstrip the U.S. adult population as a whole, which has an average income of $50,947.12

Average Income of News Magazine Readers
Compared to U.S. population, 1995 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MediaMark Research, ’’Magazine Audience Estimates’’

Among the news magazines, Time saw a small drop in its readers’ income to $65,269 in 2004 from $65,697 in 2003, though (as with all the numbers here) the amount is so small it mostly just suggests something to watch over time. Newsweek readers’ incomes increase by about $1,200 to $67,964 from $66,739 in 2003. U.S. News also saw an increase among its readers, of about $1,500, to $65,181 from $63,603 in 2003.13

The Atlantic’s readers are still the best off, with an average income of $81,571, though that’s down from $82,983 in 2003. The New Yorker is second with an average reader income of $79,005, up slightly from last year. And Jet’s readers sit far behind the rest with an average income of $36,755, though that too is up a little from 2003. The higher income numbers for The New Yorker and The Atlantic show again how the magazines are playing to a smaller, niched market. That gives the two magazines some special advantages, as we’ll discuss in the Economics section.

Average Income of Readership by Magazine
1995 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MediaMark Research, ’’Magazine Audience Estimates’’

The Number of Players in News Grows
One advantage enjoyed by news magazines is that there is not a lot of shaking up when good or bad economic times hit. Last year was something of an exception in the news genre. The 2004 list of news magazines reporting to the Publisher’s Information Bureau grew in 2004 by one, from eight to nine, with the addition of “The Week,” which listed for the first time in December. Business magazines, meanwhile, which saw their ranks thin with the end of the bull market in 2001, saw even more titles drop off the list – 16 listed with the PIB in 2003 but only 14 in 2004. Even the entertainment category, which had seemed to be on an ever-climbing trajectory, finally saw some of its weaker members disappear; the number reporting to the PIB fell from 21 in 2003 to 18 in 2004.14

Number of Magazines by Select Genres
1980 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Publisher’s Information Bureau annual reports

But among the established titles on which Mediamark gathers data we see the year was more mixed. Readership dropped for all types – news, entertainment, business, sports, etc. – across the board, according to Mediamark (mirroring a drop for all print media), but the decline among the news magazines has a special significance. The lower readership in the entertainment and business areas obviously had something to do with titles disappearing, a pattern both the PIB and Mediamark surveys showed. As magazines disappear, readership necessarily drops.15

But decline for news magazines occurred even as the number of news titles Mediamark inquired about held steady at 6. All the news titles on which Mediamark gathered data experienced declines.

Magazine Readership by Select Genre
1995 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MediaMark Research, ’’Magazine Audience Estimates’’
*Number of people who have read magazines of each genre in that year

Polling Data

Along with circulation figures and readerships surveys, another way of tracking media audience is through more standard polling – surveys of the general public on their media likes and dislikes. The Pew Center for the People and the Press has survey data going back some 10 years on media usage – the news reading, watching and listening preferences of Americans. The data show that the public prefers news magazines over some media outlets, but not others.

The number of people who say they regularly read news magazines remained unchanged in 2004 from 2003 at 13%, according to surveys from the Pew Center for the People and the Press.16 That stability misses the longer trend, over the past 10 years: Readership is down 3% from 1994. That drop is not as dramatic as some others, notably those for newspapers and radio. But considering the lower number news magazines started with, there wasn’t as far to fall. As a percentage decline, the drop for radio was slightly less steep and the drop for newspapers steeper.

Regular Audiences of Select Media
1994-2004, Select Years
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “News Audiences Increasingly Politicized,” Trend in Regular News Consumption charts, June 8, 2004

When compared to outlets and media with smaller audiences, the news magazine data look worse. Of particular note is the rapid growth of the Online News numbers.

It is tempting to argue that news magazines may be losing audience because they do not offer what many news consumers want today, immediacy. But surveys show that media offering more immediacy than the news weeklies are also seeing declining audiences. Commercial radio has seen a drop from 47% of respondents saying they turned to it regularly for news, in 1994, to only 40% today. And the number of people who say they tune in daily to CNN, which offers news as it happens around the clock, has fallen from 35% in 1994 to 22% in 2004.17

Those numbers suggest it is more than magazines’ inability to deliver news at the moment that is leading to shrinking audiences.

The Opinion Titles: TNR Sheds Circ

The world of opinion journals is as volatile as the world of news magazines is stable. As we stated in the 2004 report, the numbers seem to slide up and down depending on who is in power in the U.S. politically – with the out-of-power party seeming to attract the most readers. This was particularly true for the liberal Nation. But we noted that The New Republic, which had grown less partisan in recent years and more difficult to characterize politically, seemed relatively immune from this phenomenon. The latest set of figures shows a much different picture.18

Circulation of Leading Opinion Magazines
1988 – 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Audit Bureau of Circulation, annual audit reports

According to its own estimates the New Republic has taken a large hit in circulation, dropping by almost 25,000 from 85,904 in 2002 to 61,124 in 2003 (the latest numbers available). That would be a drop of 29% in one year.19

Such a precipitous decline warrants closer examination. The magazine says shrinking its circulation was a business decision. But there are a number of possible explanations for the drop. The New Republic’s stance on the war in Iraq – siding with President Bush – may have angered some of its readers. The war was a polarizing issue in a nation that polls showed was already increasingly divided. The New Republic may have chased some of its more liberal readers away by taking a stand on that contentious issue alongside a conservative Republican president. If so, the magazine’s reconsideration of its position on the war last summer may have helped mend fences. But its tepid mea culpa – note the question mark on the headline of that June 18 piece, “Were We Wrong?”- may not have won back those who most deeply opposed the war. It is also possible that a magazine that has positioned itself as iconoclastic, a stance that might work during a Democratic or even moderate Republican administration, may have made itself seem less significant to the political dialogue after the Bush Administration moved in a more clearly conservative direction.

There is an audience for a liberal voice on the magazine rack. The reliably liberal Nation, which had a circulation of 135,349 in 2002, saw the number climb again in 2003 to 160,029. That figure makes it currently the largest of the three opinion journals we examined. (The Weekly Standard does not list its numbers with the Audit Bureau.) This is quite a rise for The Nation, which for years bumped along with circulation numbers in the 90,000-95,000 range. 20

At the other end of the political spectrum, National Review continued to hold relatively steady in 2003 with 156,157 in circulation, compared to 155,430 in 2002. It will be interesting to note, however, whether the 2004 audit numbers show a rise in the presidential election year.21

All of these numbers are likely to change, of course, as the politics do. And in theory, the re-election of President Bush may ironically lead to better times ahead for the liberal opinion magazines. But there may be a larger issue looming for opinion journals as opinion seeps more and more into mainstream journalism and point-of-view journalism becomes more common.

One might argue that in the long term a niche may develop that none of the existing opinion magazines serve. All generally feature reasoned, thoughtful analysis and opinion, but they are by and large policy magazines. They are not necessarily easily accessible to outsiders and to those not familiar with the intricacies of the Washington power game. That last is especially true of The Weekly Standard and The New Republic, which proudly consider themselves inside-the-beltway publications. The success of Fox News, wildly partisan books such as “How to Talk to a Liberal, If You Must” and “The Lies of George W. Bush” – even Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 – may suggest a market for a more colorful, accessible, mainstream approach in this field. While it may not be a welcome idea for many traditional journalists, imagine a print equivalent of Fox News or Michael Moore, something quite different from National Review or The New Republic – magazines for Rush listeners and Bush haters. Perhaps even more tantalizing, a political magazine for younger readers. (Maybe that already exists, in the form of blogging.)

It is not impossible to envision a future in the news magazine world in coming decades where the circulation of the Big Three sinks to a point where they find themselves essentially falling into the category of niche magazines. Such a fall would not be out of line with the general direction of the magazine industry – or the news media in general, for that matter – but it would fly directly against the broader, lighter content strategy that Time and Newsweek have made a point of pursuing. It could put them in something of a no man’s land – straddling between broad, mass-appeal content and small niche audience. This is the problem U.S. News is currently facing.


1. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit reports for The New Yorker and The Economist

2. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit reports for The New Yorker and The Economist

3. Cotts, Cynthia, “California, Ho!,” The Village Voice, March 24 – 30, 2004

4. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit reports for The Atlantic and Jet

5. Economic Policy Insitute, “Income Picture,” August 26, 2004,

6. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit reports for The Atlantic

7. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit reports for Time and U.S. News. Newsweek audit reports not available, figures from Publisher’s Statement.

8. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit reports for Time. Newsweek figures from Publisher’s Statement.

9. Audit Bureau of Circulation Report for The Week

10. Mediamark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates” 1995 – 2004.

11. Ibid

12. Ibid

13. Ibid

14. Publisher’s Information Bureau data.

15. Mediamark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates” 1995 – 2004.

16. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, News Audiences Increasingly Polarized, question 22.

17. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, News Audiences Increasingly Polarized, question 22.

18. National Review figures based on Audit Bureau of Circulations audit reports. Figures for The New Republic and The Nation come from publisher’s statements, audit reports not available.

19. Ibid

20. Ibid

21. Ibid

22. Audit Bureau of Circulations audit reports for Time. Newsweek figures from Publisher’s Statement.