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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

At first glance, the economic news in the magazine industry is very good. The recession appears to be over. For all of 2004 ad pages were up 3.8% and ad revenues up 11.1% for all non-Sunday-newspaper magazines reporting with the Publisher’s Information Bureau, an organization that tracks ad pages and dollars throughout the year.1 Those increases were the highest since 2000 and were helped by a strong close to the year in pages and revenues. Looking at just the month of December, ad pages were up 10% and ad revenues up 17% over 2003.2

Newsstand sales continue to be a bit of bad news in a sunny picture. Such sales, which began falling 1999, appeared to continue their drop last year. In first half of 2004 the top 100 magazines sold 36.8 million copies from the newsstand, down from 37.4 million in first six months of 2003.3

Over all, news magazines did pretty well in the 2004 economic market, according to the Publisher’s Information Bureau. The number of business and entertainment titles listing with the Bureau shrunk slightly in 2004, with business losing two titles and entertainment losing three, but the news genre actually added a title. “The Week,” from Dennis Publishing, began listing its ad-page and number data with the PIB, bringing the number of news titles to nine. And judging from its number it is experiencing significant growth with its content model, summaries of the week’s news in short, tight stories. It joins Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, The Atlantic, The Economist, Jet, National Journal and The New Yorker in our news magazine collection.

Inside the News Group

Among news magazines, the story is indeed complicated. There are vast differences in circulation and ad dollars among the members of this group, creating two different tiers (the Big Three and the rest). Different economic models are at work in each. The Big Three, with their mass audiences, have special advantages in terms of advertising – their pages get more eyes, so they can charge higher rates. The nontraditional titles charge less for ads, but also charge higher rates for subscriptions – more than twice as much in the case of The Economist. For this reason they are somewhat less susceptible to soft ad markets, though they are obviously still affected by them. There are more complicated differences as well, as this chapter will outline.

Among the nine news magazines that list with the Publisher’s Information Bureau, all had increases in ad pages and eight, all but The Atlantic, saw increases in ad dollars, in 2004. There were big differences, however, in the size of those increases. A break seems to exist in how the two tiers perform in an advertising market that is bouncing back, but not fully recovered. Ad pages for the bigger, mass-audience magazines seem to come back first. All of the Big Three weeklies saw sizable increases in ad pages – over 5% – for 2004. Most of the non-traditional magazines saw smaller increases.4

As for ad dollars, as we noted last year, the figures are notoriously inaccurate. Figured off rate cards, they usually don’t take into account discounts magazines offer to entice advertisers. The figures may be particularly deceptive for magazines from the Time/Warner empire, which offers package deals to advertisers who choose to buy pages in several magazines. Still, using this measure can be helpful in understanding the difference between the Big Three magazines and the nontraditional news-oriented journals.

All of the Big Three saw double digit increases in advertising dollars in 2004, with long-struggling U.S. News leading the way with an increase of 21%, from $202 million in 2003 to $245 million in 2004. U.S. News also experienced the largest jump in ad pages, a 16.7% increase. The numbers were a significant break from the past, in which U.S. News has seen ad pages and ad dollars declining, and could signal a change in the magazine’s fortunes if it continues.5

Change in Ad Dollars and Pages, Select Magazines
2003 vs. 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Publisher’s Information Bureau

But those numbers may be a bit deceptive. U.S. News is starting from lower numbers, which makes its increase look larger if growth is figured by percentage. It is true, for instance, that U.S. News added 355 pages of ads in 2004, more than Time and Newsweek, which added 244 pages and 143 pages, respectively. But because the magazine had hundreds fewer ad pages than Time or Newsweek, its percentage increase looks more dramatic than it actually is as, one can see from a look at the ad pages for the three together.6

Ad Pages in News Magazines
1988 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Publisher’s Information Bureau annual reports

If one were to add The Week to the ad-dollar and page figures, that magazine would have been the winner far and away. According to the PIB, the magazine, which targets younger readers, saw a very significant 25% increase in ad pages in 2004 over 2003 – to 523 pages from 417. It also saw an incredible 66% increase in ad revenues, from $6.5 million in 2003 to $10.9 million in 2004.7 Those figures would still place the magazine at the bottom in terms of ad pages among news titles, but its dollar number would move it ahead of National Journal. Next year, if the magazine is still listing with the PIB, we will include it in the charts in this section. If the numbers are correct, they suggest that the magazine may have found a home in the news field, and perhaps with the demographic that news outlets across all media are eager to target, 20- and 30-somethings.

Among the nontraditional news titles with a time line, The Economist had the most solid 2004 with increases in ad dollars and pages. But that trend followed a few very lackluster years. In fact since 2000, when the economic slowdown first hit in the U.S., the magazine’s ad pages have declined. Its 2003 performance (2,142 pages) was the lowest it had been since 1988, the first year for which the Project gathered data. Again, this trend may have something to do with how ad dollars return to the magazine industry after a recession or during bumpy economic times – going back to the trusted big-circulation magazines first. (The same trend is seen in the news and entertainment titles.) But the magazine appears to be bouncing back now. Its 2004 ad pages rose to 2,198, a 2.6% increase over 2003. And The Economist’s ad dollars shot up a dramatic 19.2% in 2004 to $65,117,463. 8

The Economist is helped by the fact that its subscribers pay more for their magazine than Time and Newsweek subscribers pay. If you were to rip a subscription card from the Economist it would show $98 for a year’s worth of issues; for Newsweek the figure is $42. That extra $56 per subscriber isn’t enough to make up the difference in ad rates that Newsweek can charge with its 2.7 million more readers, but it isn’t insignificant either.

A magazine that truly lives by subscription dollars, National Journal, had a decent 2004 with both ad dollars and pages rising by small amounts – 8.9% and 1.4%, respectively. But the inside-the-beltway publication probably cares the least about those numbers; its annual subscription rate is $1,700. The Atlantic Monthly, which like the National Journal is owned by publisher David Bradley, saw a mixed 2004, with ad pages rising while ad dollars fell, interestingly by almost the same amount – pages up by 16.2%, dollars down by 16.9%. This obviously is about changes in the magazine’s rate structure – cheaper rates equal more ads, but less money. And Jet, aimed largely at African Americans, saw both numbers increase slightly.9

The New Yorker, whose subscriptions are also growing, may be seeing the effect of that growth. Its ad pages rose a scant 0.3%, but its ad dollars rose by more than 10%.10 In August of 2002 The New Yorker officially increased its guaranteed circulation with the Audit Bureau to 875,000 from 850,000.11 But it should also be noted that The New Yorker is owned by Advance, a very large magazine publisher, which means the unreliability of the ad-dollar figures could be magnified. Advance, which owns the Condé Nast empire, can work deals with advertisers to buy pages in many titles at once, possibly at discount rates.

Finally, the ad-dollar figures, while only rough estimates based on rate cards, paint an interesting picture of the state of the news magazine landscape. The one large advantage the Big Three have is their mass audience, which allows them to charge much more for ads. But what is the long-term effect of that mass audience’s being slowly chipped away? The ad-dollar trends on a single chart indicate one possibility.

News Magazine Ad Dollars, by Magazine
1988 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Publisher’s Information Bureau annual reports

The New Yorker, whose circulation is not even half that of U.S. News, is rapidly gaining on the bottom player of the Big Three in ad dollars.12 And ultimately the magazine’s ad success may suggest a map for other nontraditional titles.

It may be possible for the nontraditional magazines with smaller but more elite and affluent audiences to at least get near the playing field of the mass-audience titles. And the desirability of the nontraditional audiences could at some point trump the mass audience. The key here is how mass the mass audience actually is. For the time being, the difference in circulation is still so great that Time and Newsweek find themselves playing on a different field, but it may be that by chasing an increasingly shrinking “mass” audience in a segmenting culture they are putting themselves in a box.

Industry-wide changes

In addition to these changes within standard types, an entire line of magazines has appeared on the newsstand that offer a fundamentally different approach to content and advertising, blurring the distinction between what were once seen as two completely different parts of a magazine. Magazines like Lucky, the self-described “magazine about shopping,” have spawned imitators. Hearst has launched the rather obviously titled Shop Etc. and Fairchild Publications in 2005 launched Vitals, a shopping spinoff of the men’s magazine Details. Fairchild plans a women’s version of Vitals for 2005. Time/Warner has gone even further and created a women’s magazine, All You, aimed at shoppers at the nation’s largest retail chain, Wal-Mart. The new magazine, along with articles, has ads with products aimed specifically at those with middle- and lower-middle-class incomes – and one assumes ads for products sold at Wal-Mart.

These titles join the list of lifestyle and consumer magazines that walk the fine line between content and catalogue. Magazines like Real Simple, “the magazine about simplifying your life,” and O, the Oprah Magazine, are not simply selling a lifestyle, they are selling in their editorial columns the products readers need to achieve that lifestyle. The regular “The Best” section in Real Simple is a walk through products the magazine and its lifestyle recommend. “O” gives its readers regular updates on Oprah’s favorite things, products Oprah loves – the section is a takeoff on the “favorite things” segment she does regularly on her TV show.

On the other side of the equation, companies and brands themselves have gotten into the content business. Some have launched magazines with goals less focused on award-winning content than self-promotion; Sony and Ikea are two prime examples.

These books suggest a fundamental shift in what magazines do, or the creation of a niche that is the ultimate in consumer news. Magazines have long used models, celebrities and photo shoots to get across the idea of what is “cool” and what is a “must-have.” Some magazines have ventured into including personal-shopper sections for items such as electronics. But these books go further. In a world full of products, they are devoted to being personal shopping advisers. And they have attracted readers. Their success suggests that “news you can use,” once a trend for many types of magazines, has matured to the point where it may have its own fast-growing breed.

This trend presents a quandary for the rest of the industry, particularly news magazines, which have increasingly toyed with this format. Should they absorb the changes and make this kind of thing more a part of what they do, or differentiate themselves and let individual magazines focus more on their specific missions?

Genre by Genre

Over all, every area we examine – news, business, entertainment/pop culture/lifestyle – saw increases in both ad pages and ad dollars. The business magazines, which had seen falling pages and dollars since the recession, finally saw their numbers begin to tick back up again. The revenues of the news and business titles are essentially very close – $1.8 billion for news and $1.7 billion for the business titles listing with the PIB. Entertainment/pop culture/lifestyle still leads the way by far, with $3.2 billion in revenues.13

Magazine Ad Dollars by Select Genres
1980 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Publisher’s Information Bureau annual reports
Magazine Ad Pages by Select Genres
1980 – 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Publisher’s Information Bureau annual reports

On the whole, however, the news titles had a very good year, with increases of 10% in ad pages and 16% in ad revenues. Why was the sector so strong in this environment? In part, it reflects the group’s stability and the addition of The Week to the titles the PIB lists. There were also no deaths among the news magazines listing with the PIB in 2004. Drops in pages among magazines may show up on charts, but they do not create the pronounced drop one sees when titles fold. Note above the monstrous drop the business field has suffered since 2000, when the tech bubble burst. The market’s collapse led to a drop in interest in daily market-watching and the collapse of the business magazine industry as well. The mature news sector has avoided closings and has added to the fold.

Why did news experience such a large increase in dollars (16%) while pages climbed at a slower rate (10%)? News wasn’t alone in this phenomenon. Business titles had a 5% increase in ad pages, but a 13% climb in ad dollars, in large part because of where the dollars went. In weak economic times stability is a virtue, and the big titles in these sectors (Time, Newsweek and U.S. News in news; Forbes, Fortune and Money in business) all saw big increases. Such titles seem to be the first to benefit as ad dollars return after a slow economy.14

The more interesting findings, however, concern the entertainment magazines. Here the ad-page increase, 7%, more closely mirrored the ad-dollar rise, 10%. Specifically, Rolling Stone saw a double-digit increase in ad revenues, and Time/Warner’s Real Simple saw enormous growth – 23% in ad pages and 61% in ad dollars. But the biggest name in the field, People, had a lackluster 2004. It actually suffered a decline in ad pages of 2% and an increase in ad dollars of only 2%.15

After years of growth in titles, the numbers seem to indicate there is less room for new players to enter. In 2004, three entertainment titles dropped from the PIB listing (taking it from 21 to 18). And People wasn’t alone in having something of an off year. Teen People and the music magazines Vibe and Spin all saw declines in both ad pages and ad dollars. The coming years will tell whether this is something specific to the entertainment genre, such as other niches stealing readers away, or more related to the general sluggishness of the economy. 16

After a few tough economic years, ad pages look to be solidly up across the board in 2004. And apparently the news-you-can-use approach is headed for big growth in the form of shopping magazines. But there may be some reasons for concern as media convergence accelerates, particularly among mass-audience publications. The growth in the magazine industry seems to be continuing among the niched titles, which offer advertisers more specific demographic targets.

Outside the magazine world, targeting or niche strategy is also becoming more prevalent. Cable television can tailor ads for specific channel audiences, and the Internet offers new possibilities in the targeted demographic world that until recently magazines have largely dominated. As people get more and more comfortable with reading on the Web and newsstand sales continue to decline among magazines – as they did again in 2003 – the concern is that ad dollars will begin to move from print pages to computer screens.

Still, 2004 was a good year in the end. Ad revenues were up 11% and ad pages up 3.8%.

Where news magazines are concerned, the traditional and nontraditional titles are necessarily pursuing different approaches to this game.

On one hand, the move toward increased targeting seems to favor the nontraditionals, which can claim smaller, more focused audiences. The more expensive boutique titles, such as The Economist, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, seem to have a special advantage. Not only can they deliver to advertisers wealthier audiences, but those same better-off subscribers can supply a stronger revenue stream with higher subscription prices. Some ad numbers suggest they may be catching up to their mass-circulation competitors. Already The New Yorker and The Economist, which have much smaller circulations than the Big Three, are ahead of U.S. News and Newsweek in ad pages. And the New Yorker, which is nearing the significant 1 million mark in circulation, is also almost even with U.S. News in ad dollars.

For the time being, however, the biggest players in news, Time and Newsweek, with their large circulations, hold substantial advantages over the nontraditional titles in ad dollars. And they can promise advertisers something special. In a segmenting media world they can still promise a big audience of relatively well-off consumers. All audiences may be “niching” but all products are not. There are still manufacturers, retailers and pharmaceutical companies that are looking for a mass audience, and the news weeklies offer it. In fact one might argue that the mass audience they deliver is more valuable today than it was 20 years ago because there are so few ways to reach that audience today, even if it is a smaller “mass” audience. The question for the traditional news weeklies is how long their audiences will continue to be “mass” or, more to the point, considered to be “mass.”


1. Publisher’s Information Bureau data. January – December 2004 vs 2003. Excluding data from newspaper magazines.

2. Ibid.

3. Veronis Suhler Stevenson Communications Industry Forecast & Report / Consumer Magazine Publishing, p.445

4. We did not included The Week in our numbers this year because it did not list with the Publisher’s Information Bureau until late in the year.

5. Publisher’s Information Bureau data. January – December 2004 vs 2003. Excluding data from newspaper magazines.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Publisher’s Information Bureau data, 1988 – 2004.

9. Publisher’s Information Bureau data. January – December 2004 vs 2003. Excluding data from newspaper magazines.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Audit Bureau of Circulations, audit report for The New Yorker.

13. Publisher’s Information Bureau data. January – December 2004 vs 2003. Excluding data from newspaper magazines.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.