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Opinion Titles

Opinion Titles

Heading into 2007, the biggest issue for the opinion titles is the big political story from last November — the switch in the party control of Congress. The Democrats’ winning of the House and Senate creates an interesting dynamic not just in political power but, if history is any guide, also in the readership of the opinion journals.

As we have noted in this report in past years, the fortunes of such magazines tend to go up and down in an inverse relationship to the fortunes of the political parties they favor. So the good times for the GOP in recent years helped the readership of the left-leaning Nation grow to record levels, just as the first few years of the Clinton Administration led to a big spike in readers for The National Review.

That pattern suggests that there will be some drop-off in readership in leftist publications as angry Democrats feel some satisfaction, and an increase in right-leaning magazines as formerly content Republicans get their ire raised and are eager to read critiques. And more center-left titles like The New Republic, often focused on policy suggestions, could see a bump from Democrats looking for ideas on how to govern.

For 2007, though, the political landscape suggests a host of provisos for those truisms. The Democrats control Congress, but President Bush is still ensconced in the White House. Many Republicans, meanwhile, while they dislike the Democrats, are less than pleased with Bush, according to polls, and those mixed feelings may still make them less likely to pick up a political journal. The increasingly unpopular war in Iraq could cause people to grow more engaged in politics or push them away from it.

And, of course, the political backdrop of 2007 is likely to be the coming presidential race, which is wide open with no obvious heir apparent in either party for the first time in decades. Intriguing candidates and/or internal party squabbling could steer more readers to the opinion journals.

A look at the 2006 circulation figures for those magazines demonstrates the trend of complicated reverse party trends of the group. The left-tilting Nation continued to grow slightly and lead the pack. The conservative National Review lost some readers though it was not too far behind. Meanwhile, the New Republic, not really at either ideological pole, was essentially flat, and far behind the other two.1

There was also a big development with the New Republic just before the report was released. TNR was sold in February to Winnipeg-based CanWest Global Communications, a Canadian newspaper publisher that had already owned 30% of the magazine. Immediate terms of the deal were not available, but the company announced one big change immediately. The 93-year-old weekly would begin to publish every other week, “while almost doubling the number of pages.” That follows a noticeable thinning of the magazine in recent years.

It is important to point out that circulation isn’t as critical a measure for those magazines as it is for others. The opinion journals are ultimately as interested in the amount of political sway they hold in Washington and in who their readers are as they are in the pure the bottom line. But circulation is not irrelevant. It indicates where politically focused audiences on the right and left are going for ideas. Here’s a look at where the magazines’ circulation stands today.

Circulation of Leading Opinion Magazines
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Source: Audit Bureau of Circulation, annual audit reports and publisher’s statements

The Nation,the stalwart voice of liberalism, continued its growth in 2006 albeit at a slower rate. As of December of 2006, it had a circulation of 186,528, just up from 184,181 the previous year — an increase of 2,300, or just over 1%.2

Interestingly, The Nation’s circulation has been growing steadily since 1998. That was the year the Lewinsky scandal hit the Clinton White House, and the mainstream coverage of Clinton grew more critical. In the elections up to 2006 the Democrats remained unable to win back control of any of Washington’s centers of authority. Will The Nation’s readers lose interest now that the Democrats are back in power?

There may be some reason to think so. Consider the jump the National Review saw leading up to the 1994 mid-term elections. The conservative periodical went from 163,000 in 1992 (the year Bill Clinton was elected) to 269,000 in 1994. But after the GOP took control of Congress in that election, the Review’s circulation dropped back to 242,000 in 1995, then to 206,000 in 1996, then to 171,000 in 1997. By 1998 it was actually back to pre-1992 levels at 160,000.

One reason The Nation might be different is the change in the media environment since then. Not only is the political landscape considered to be more polarized now, but the Web in some ways feeds that polarization with sites — especially blogs — devoted to particular points of view. The opinion journals know this and have taken advantage of it, making their home pages the place to go for commentary.

Both The Nation and National Review have Web-only content to draw readers looking for a left or right view of the news.

And National Review, the conservative movement’s traditional conscience, saw its circulation drop in 2006, perhaps feeling the pull of the President Bush’s slumping poll numbers. The title’s December 2006 circulation of 152,603 was down 8,000 from 2004’s 160,896 — or more than 5%.3

The magazine’s success is worth pondering. The rise may have had something to do with the start of Bush’s second term and interest among conservatives about where he would try to take the country. It could be that disappointment or confusion over the war in Iraq, and the splintering of Bush’s coalition, led conservatives to search for more voices. Or it could be the open field and the battle for the party after he leaves office.

The obvious question now is whether the Republicans losses in the midterm elections of 2006, and the subsequent usual calls for soul-searching, will translate into even more readers for the National Review. It too has parlayed its Web site into a force in online political debate — more so than The Nation — which may also help explain the magazine’s ability to buck the larger political trend and add subscribers during a time when historical models suggest it would not.

Meanwhile, the New Republic continues to plug along with about 60,000 in circulation. After a drop from roughly 86,000 in 2002 to 61,000 in 2003, the magazine has stayed relatively stable. It gained a few more readers between December of 2005 and December of 2006, going from 61,055 to 61,628.4

Looking at the magazine in recent years, even the occasional reader might notice the issues are getting thinner. The 2006 issues averaged just over 37 pages each. Going back to 1998, the average was just over 45 pages. That’s a decline of 21% over that period.5 While good economic data aren’t available on the opinion titles, such a thinning would suggest that the New Republic has hit some economic turbulence. And the loss of readers certainly hasn’t helped with advertisers.

New owner CanWest is aiming to make the magazine profitable again – while publishing only every other week – and wants to redesign TNR’s Web site. The first edition of the new New Republic comes out March 19, though the impact of the buyout won’t be known for months at least.

There is, however, some hope that TNR might gain some readers back in 2007. Now that the Democrats are in control the House and Senate they have talked about moving to the center — particularly on social and fiscal issues — to consolidate power. Many of the Democratic freshmen in Washington are moderates. If there really is a more centrist Democratic voice coming out of Washington, the New Republic might benefit in a few ways. It may be the place the politically interested go to get an idea of which direction the party in power is going on various issues and it may be a place where Democratic politicians go to publish essays and op-eds. The next few years could give an indication whether the magazine’s falling fortunes have ideological or editorial roots.