By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
The top 10 magazine companies in 2003 were the same as in 2002, though there was some shuffling among the ranks. Hearst, which publishes Cosmopolitan, Esquire and O, and Advance, the owners of Condé Nast, which publishes Allure, GQ, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, switched spots in the pecking order, with Advance climbing to second. But in the end every company in the magazine game is playing on a completely different field from the number one company. Time/Warner is the largest media company in the country by far, owner of 32% of the magazine revenue among the top 10 magazine companies. In fact, Time/Warner alone made much more in magazine revenue in 2003 than the next two companies, Advance and Hearst, combined. 1
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Source: Advertising Age, Chart: 100 Leading Companies
The peculiarity of magazine industry ownership noted last year still holds true, and will for the foreseeable future absent some large merger. The biggest of the big media companies are largely forgoing magazines as potential outlets. Of the top 10 media companies overall, only Time Warner has invested seriously in the business, and that is largely an accident of history. The company is rooted in magazines; Time Inc. was started in 1923 as a magazine company, and then expanded into cable with HBO. That said, after mergers with Warner and later AOL, today only 15% of Time Warner’s media revenue comes from magazines. The multimedia giant Disney is a player in the magazine game, though in revenues it places only at number 20 among magazine companies. And while the media heavyweights Viacom and News Corp. do publish magazines, they don’t even come close to making the top 25 magazine companies by revenue.2
As noted last year, the biggest media companies generally steer clear of magazines and the biggest magazine companies generally steer clear of the news genre, with of course the exception of the biggest, Time Warner. Newsweek, the number two news magazine by circulation and ad pages, is owned by the 15th largest magazine company, The Washington Post Company. U.S. News and World Report, the number three news magazine, is owned by the 25th largest magazine company, Zuckerman Media Properties. Neither of those two companies is a magazine company per se. The Washington Post Company has its hands in many media, but is most heavily invested in newspapers, though it made an interesting play for online readers with its purchase of Slate at the end of 2004. And Zuckerman owns one newspaper and one magazine – the company was reportedly in hot pursuit of New York Magazine, which Primedia sold in 2003, but it didn’t get it.3
What does this state of ownership mean for the news sector? One impact, historically, is that it has worked against innovation. Neither the Washington Post Company nor Zuckerman has been interested in creating new titles in news. They already have players in the game, and considering their small footprint in the industry they haven’t appeared interested in committing the serious money it would take to put forward a new magazine.
Time Warner is the medium’s 800-pound gorilla. In theory it is well positioned to try to innovate and remake the news magazine. It certainly has advantages: a special knowledge of how the industry works, a vast stable of writers and editors and a fat checkbook. The company is also showing an interest in launching new titles. After a few years of weathering the economic storm, and the absorption of AOL, the company for two years now has been entertaining new ideas focused on news niches. In the past year it has revived and re-launched Life as a magazine inserted into 12 million Friday newspapers around the country, including some big dailies like the LA Times, the Daily News in New York and the Baltimore Sun.4 It isn’t yet clear if the plan is to spin Life off as a newsstand title if it gains traction. But for whatever reason – perhaps unease about cannibalizing Time’s readership or simply more interest in other, more profitable areas – the company seems uninterested in trying something new in news aimed at new demographics.
News magazine owners have yet to take decided action in the medium that seems to be the future of the news media, the Internet. But as the shape of news media convergence gets clearer a definite pattern is developing. The big names of the old news media, newspapers and television, are also the big names in the new environment. All good-sized metropolitan daily newspapers are on the Web. The big names, like The New York Times and The Washington Post, have become large-scale national Web sites, nytimes.com and washingtonpost.com. The broadcast networks are all represented in the top 20 most visited Web sites. But the news magazines have yet to take off on the Web. And magazine owners have not yet expressed great interest in it beyond the efforts of some of the bigger owners to establish a presence for their titles there. In fact, the Washington Post Company, in a push for a bigger presence on the Web, did not expand Newsweek online, rather in late 2004 it bought Slate – a title that was born on and exists on the Web.
It may be that news magazines will be the exception to the rule on the issue of Web convergence and that the fast-moving world of the Internet doesn’t jibe well with the traditional, more thoughtful magazine sensibility. It’s also possible that for the news weeklies in particular, the Web is an odd fit. The medium’s specialization of content stands in direct contrast to the news weeklies’ move toward broader subject matter. The Web has proven helpful to some outlets, though. The Nation reports that its free Web site has proved “an invaluable source of paid subscriptions to the hardcopy magazine.”
Interestingly, a few of the more successful commercial startups on the web – those launched without old-media roots – call themselves “magazines,” outlets like Slate and Salon. But they do not fit with the traditional magazine model of new content every week or month. They are updated more regularly, or as news happens. If these kinds of Web sites end up being the model for magazines on the Web, it is possible that the true innovation in the magazine sector will jump right over the old print form of the news magazine and take place on line. Smaller owners could compete more easily in a world without the costs of paper and mailing and might be more able to try new ideas. It is not clear, however, how these small owners could pay for the newsgathering they would need to compete with older established titles. Slate, underwritten by Microsoft, was just sold to the Washington Post Company, and Salon is struggling to stay afloat.
Outside of the Big Three, ownership in the magazine world looks a bit more diverse, and there are opportunities for others to get into the field. The New Yorker, which has increasingly waded into the more “newsy” side of content, is owned by the magazine industry’s second-largest player, Advance. That ownership has given the magazine some of the same advantages Time has: the ability to sell ads to an entire raft of books rather than simply one title and even the ability to consolidate things like office space – not a small concern in New York City. These advantages may be yielding dividends to the magazine, which, as we noted in the audience and economics sections, is thriving. Still, it is hard to see the New Yorker ultimately as a model for innovation in the news sector. It seems unlikely that other publications would turn to the magazine’s approach of lengthy pieces that rely on a few extremely well-paid writers and skilled editors. It’s also difficult to imagine there being an audience for another magazine following this formula. There is nothing, however, to prevent Advance from launching another news magazine – other than the sheer cost, of course.
David Bradley’s efforts (see Content), if they follow the track of the successful Economist, could yield a more substantive change to the field. If the numbers Bradley is crunching yield a successful revenue model, particularly one that relies on chasing a smaller, more boutique audience, it wouldn’t be surprising to finally see ownership in the news genre start to look different in the years to come. The magazine industry lives by riding the current wave of success. The players in the industry watch to see what happens and move when they see someone has caught a wave – like the rise of entertainment/pop culture and “new economy” titles in the 1980s and 1990s. But someone has to be first to take the risk and find the wave.
For the moment, however, ownership among the news titles looks as stable as ever. There does not seem to be even the faintest chance that Time Warner will unload its namesake magazine anytime soon. The Washington Post considers Newsweek a critical part of its brand exposure, particularly overseas, where the newspaper carries less weight. And Mort Zuckerman, who has held U.S. News through a long down period, has shown no interest in selling it now that ad dollars seem to be creeping up and circulation has ceased dropping, at least for the moment.
Thus, any serious change in ownership in the news sector is probably going to have to come from outside the current owners.
1. “100 Leading Media Companies,” AdAge.com, August 2004. Companies are ranked by their total media revenues collected in the United States in 2002. The list is available at http://www.adage.com/page.cms?pageId=1084.
4. Figures from Life magazine. http://www.life.com/Life/lifeabout.html