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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In November of 2006, Time magazine promised to trim its advertising rate base – the amount of paid circulation its promises advertisers. While it seems like a promise that would work against a news outlet, the strategy is becoming more common at newsweeklies.

Ad rates — the set fee advertisers agree to pay — are based on a promised circulation number for each issue. If a magazine promises too much, it has to spend money in discounted subscription pricing and heavy promotion to get to the promised number. When the give-away numbers get high enough, the magazine loses money over all.

Time’s plan was to cut its circulation number from 4 million to 3.25 million in 2007, making its subscriber list more exclusive, more devoted to the magazine and, it hoped, more attractive to advertisers.

How did Time fare in reducing its reader base in 2007?

It did not take long for the dominant news magazine to keep its promise and for the cuts to manifest themselves in an actual circulation drop. The last issue in December 2006 had a paid and verified circulation of 4 million. The first issue in January 2007 had a paid and verified print circulation of 3.4 million.

The suddenness of the change suggests how easy it was for Time to lop 600,000 in circulation off its guarantee to advertisers. That only hints at how much work, and money, Time might be spending in circulation promotions and discounts to live up to those guarantees.

The ease with which the magazine dropped almost a seventh of its audience raises the question of where the loyal base circulation number is for Time – as well as for its closest competitors, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report.

Newsweek did little at first. Its only official announcement was it would not be making any changes. But in November 2007, without much fanfare, it quietly slashed its rate base as well, down to 2.6 million from 3.1 million – a cut of 500,000 readers. That represented a 16% drop.

U.S. News and World Report, for the time being, has decided to hold steady.

Newsweek’s move was so quiet that at first the magazine did not acknowledge that it was making the cut, but advertisers confirmed in the trade press that Newsweek had informed them about it. The magazine still has not discussed the move publicly. Certainly, however, Time’s cuts gave it room to remove costly circulation while remaining a clear No. 2.

By the end of 2007, it appeared that Time and Newsweek circulation numbers had played out as planned.

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations report for 2007, Time’s circulation held steady at 3.4 million after its initial cut. Similarly, Newsweek’s November rate base cut kept circulation at 3.1 million at year’s end.

U.S. News and World Report’s circulation remained essentially flat, as it has over the past three years, hovering around its rate base mark of 2 million (2.038 million, from 2.036 million in 2006).

The robust growth seen by the other weeklies in 2006 more or less continued. The Week added 36,000 readers, finishing with 480,084 in circulation, but its growth has slowed somewhat – in 2006, the weekly gained more than 75,000 readers.

The Economist grew circulation by 81,000 to 720,882. In 2006, it added 70,000 to end with a circulation of 639,205.

Jet’s circulation of 943,702 was up 42,000 from the 2006 total of 901,594.

The New Yorker, which hit an all-time circulation high in 2006 with 1.067 million, held on with only a fractional drop in 2007, to 1.062 million.

The Atlantic, which in 2007 cut back publication from monthly to 10 times a year, increased circulation to 431,625 from 404,688 in 2006, up almost 27,000.

What we have seen since the beginning of this report is a struggle by the big news magazines – particularly Times and Newsweek — to hold onto readers. In 2007, readers deserted again. The question is how much lower do the magazines let those numbers fall?1

The answer isn’t clear, but one thing is – the magazine landscape is still shifting.

Who are the Readers

In 2007 the audience of news magazines held its age but got richer.

The median age for readers of the seven news magazines we examine (see Sidebar) was 46.3 years old, according to reader surveys by Mediamark Research. That ties the all-time high set in 2005.

In 1995, the median age of readers was 41.1. The climb to 46.3 is a steep increase in just 13 years. And news magazine readers would actually trend older if it were not for Jet, targeted at African American readers, and The Economist, with their younger readership, holding the number down.

The population over all, however, has aged at even faster rates than magazines. Thus, the gap between the ages of magazine readers and the general adult population was not as wide as it was in 2005.

Average Age of News Magazine Readers
Compared to U.S. Population, 1995-2007
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MediaMark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates”

The flip side is the relative affluence of news magazine readers, which also has been rising steadily. The median income of readers of the magazines we study is $71,612, a step above last year’s $70,409. That is also substantially more than the average income of all magazine readers in a Mediamark Research sample, which was $53,593.

Even better for magazines, the audience is getting richer faster than Americans over all. Since 1995, the median income of magazine readers has climbed more than 55%. That is slightly higher rate of increase than the 48% growth in the median income for the U.S. population in general.

Over all, more men than women read the seven news magazines we study, with The Economist and Jet at the two ends of the spectrum.

Of Economist readers, men (1.14 million) outnumber women (586,000) nearly 2 to 1, according to Mediamark Research numbers, with the median age for men at 38.7 and for women at 43.6. The Economist also is the only magazine we look at with female readers ($100,025) earning nearly as much as men ($101,771).

Jet, on the other hand, is the only magazine we study with more female readers than men – 4.9 million vs. 3.2 million. The median age of men and women, at 40, is virtually identical and, as with most other magazines, male readers have higher incomes – $43,901 to women’s $37,895.

Average Income of News Magazine Readers
Compared to U.S. Population, 1995-2007
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MediaMark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates”

Across the board, income figures are again boosted by a few key magazines with readers in much higher income brackets – The Atlantic and, particularly, the Economist, which has a median income that rises into six figures.

The big three newsweeklies are all bunched relatively close together in Mediamark’s age and income data. Time’s average readership age of 45.8 is slightly younger than that of Newsweek (46.9) and U.S. News (48.8). Newsweek’s readers, meanwhile, are a tad wealthier, with a median income of $69,100 – Time’s is $67,284 and U.S. News’ is $64,288.

Median Age of Readers by Magazine
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MediaMark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates”
Median Income of Readers by Magazine
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MediaMark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates”

The New Yorker and The Atlantic sit above the big three newsweeklies in both median age and income. The median income of the New Yorker’s readership is $78,815 and the Atlantic’s is $80,012. The Atlantic has the oldest readership of all the news magazines we look at, with a median age of 51.4 years. The New Yorker’s median age is 50.4 years.

The Atlantic saw some worrisome numbers in 2007 – its median reader income fell from $83,984 and its median age rose slightly from 50.3 years. The magazine did make some changes in late 2007. It quietly cut the number of issues it publishes from 12 to 10 a year, and, accordingly, dropped the Monthly from its name in December. It also is searching for a new publisher to replace Elizabeth Baker Keffer.

The Economist, again, is the exception in the reader survey data. Other than Jet, it is the magazine with the youngest readership that we examine, with a median age of 41, but it also has the highest median income at $101,221.

Those numbers, combined with The Economist’s growing circulation figures, make the magazine a growing and seemingly formidable challenger to the dominant news magazines.2


1. All circulation numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations

2. Mediamark Research, “Magazine Audience Estimates” 2007.