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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

After years of stability, the news magazine genre may be on the cusp of significant change. Recent years have witnessed two trends. Nontraditional news magazines, titles other than the Big Three news weeklies (Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report), have been experiencing circulation growth. At the same time the traditional titles have witnessed stagnant and declining audience numbers. And together those trends may finally be beginning to lure new, more direct competitors to the Big Three magazines into the market. The publisher David Bradley is eyeing a move into the news weekly market with an entry reportedly built somewhat on the model of The Economist, one of the nontraditional news magazines enjoying circulation growth.

That doesn’t mean the news sector is going to be turned upside down overnight, if ever. Any new competitor starts from zero in circulation and has to build a reputation with readers. The traditional news magazines start any contest with millions in circulation, long histories and, one would imagine, a certain amount of loyalty from subscribers. They are able to charge higher ad rates because of their subscriber bases. They have staffs they’ve built over time and brand names that sources know and identify with. Those things will be critical to the traditional titles in staving off the challenge of any newcomer.

Beyond the issue of fighting off challengers, however, the news weeklies seem to be stuck on something of a troubling course. As they try to hold onto their mass audiences by broadening and lightening content they face two logistical problems. First, in their efforts to chase the mass audience, they may be pushing away more serious hard-news devotees. Second, as they broaden their content, they are ultimately pushing against a much larger trend in the media overall, namely targeting and specialization. The approach the traditional titles are pursuing seems to follow the model of the television network, a medium that provides a wide range of content but doesn’t really stand out in any one area. In other words, if one is looking for celebrity news or health news or science news, what is the expertise that the news weeklies provide? These topics have traditionally been made cover stories because of their ability to bring new or different audiences to the pages of the news weeklies. But newsstand sales are declining across all magazine types. And as niching and specialization grow, it seems less likely that readers will turn to Time or Newsweek for stories on things like sleep deprivation or even the summer’s biggest movies.

And as we wrote in the 2004 Annual Report, there does appear to be a growing national market for more serious news coverage and for elite media that cross platforms – cable, newspapers, magazines, etc. These outlets, which include magazines like The Economist and The New Yorker, seem to recognize this trend as well. They advertise for themselves on other elite media outlets. It is not uncommon to see ads for The New York Times on BBC America television or offers for The Economist in the Times, or ads for the Times on The Economist’s Web site. The big question for these new elite media is whether their audience is large enough to support more titles and voices.

For news magazines in particular the question is whether the elite audience is interested in a revitalization of the traditional news weekly format, or more comfortable with turning to the nontraditional titles already in existence.

For all the news magazines, however, the biggest long-term problem may be one of demographics. Their audiences are graying across the board. How do they bring in younger readers who are interested in the news, but who do not normally turn to magazines for current events coverage and context?

The answer is probably complicated. Studies show this younger audience is the most comfortable with using the Internet to get news. It is also the audience that was raised with 24-hour news networks. Some of the problem with attracting these readers may indeed be the fact that the print medium is not one they’re comfortable with. But it could be that the content is pushing them away, or at least not inviting them in. Reaching this audience will take effort, and probably a new approach to the news magazine model. It doesn’t seem that bigger photos or lighter coverage is drawing them into the traditional books, and text-heavy reported pieces don’t seem to be bringing them to the nontraditionals either. And this audience has come of age in a time when the lines between opinion and straight news have become blurred – the age of talk radio and debate-show television – so a formula for reaching them might involve more opinion-tinged writing.

That seems to be the way much of the news media is going in the beginning for 2005. One thing the year 2004 seemed to show, in everything from documentary film to book publishing, is that there is a mainstream market in the American public for argumentative current-events coverage. In an election year, the Blue America (liberal) versus Red America (conservative) discussion may have been beaten into the ground and it be indeed may be overly simplistic, but box office receipts and book sales seem to show there is at least a nugget of truth to the idea. The challenge for magazine publishers may be how to capitalize on this trend and gather more readers while still creating true, honest journalism.