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By the Project For Excellence In Journalism

What were once called the big three news magazines now have a smaller footprint in American life.

The three magazines, which sold an average of nearly 10 million copies a week as a group in 1989, were on a pace to sell about 6 million in 2009.1

Other, smaller news magazines, meanwhile, expanded their readership in 2009. The big got smaller and the small bigger.

Once a news weekly that competed with Time and Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report changed its frequency and editorial focus in 2009 and experienced a sharp decline in circulation per issue.

The publication cut the number of issues it publishes from 46 a year to 12.

Arguably, the sales of each print issue might have risen, but that didn’t happen. As a monthly, U.S. News averaged 1.2 million copies sold per issue through the last six months of 2009, down 25% from the same period a year earlier when it was weekly. 2 For all of 2008 it fell 16%.3

That also meant that, even as a monthly, U.S. News was down 45% from 1999, when it sold slightly more than 2 million per issue.

Most of U.S. News & World Report’s circulation loss came from subscriptions, which fell 26% during the last half of the year.4 Its newsstand sales, however, grew by 9.6%, to 46,767, during the period, suggesting a receptive audience for its reformulated print edition, but also reflecting the longer time on newsstands.

Circulation For Select News Magazines Over Time
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Figures are full year, except 2009 data for The Atlantic, Week, New Yorker and U.S. News, which are averages for the six months ending December 31, 2009. U.S. News & World Report became a monthly in 2009.

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations, annual audit reports and publisher’s statements.

Change in Circulation, Select Newsmagazines
2007 to 2009

Magazine 2008 Circulation 2009 Circulation Percentage change
Time 3,360,135 3,329,429 -0.9%
Newsweek 2,701,893 1,972,219 -27%
U.S. News & World Report 1,583,914 1,188,933 -25%
The New Yorker 1,051,152 1,040,103 -1%
The Economist 786,977 813,240 3.3%
The Week 515,936 517,037 0.2%
The Atlantic 456,529 471,548 3%

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations is average per issue for six months ending December 31, 2009.

At Newsweek, the new editorial approach always involved a smaller audience. As part of the plan, Newsweek pared its distribution to save money and focus on an elite core of readers – giving up the aspiration of a mass-market magazine.

After cutting the circulation it guaranteed to advertisers from 3.1 million to 2.6 million copies a week in 2008, in 2009 it cut it further, to 1.9 million, and announced plans to pare it to 1.5 million by January 2010, or by more than half in two years. (Read more about the strategy of cutting circulation).

“Mass for us is a business that doesn’t work,” Thomas E. Ascheim, Newsweek’s chief executive, told the New York Times. “Wish it did, but it doesn’t. We did it for a long time, successfully, but we can’t anymore.” 5

Instead, Ascheim said the magazine would focus on highly educated, high-income subscribers. “We would like to build our business around these people and grow that group slightly.… These are our best customers. They are our best renewers, and they pay the most.” 6

The publication was well on its way to meeting that target by the end of 2009. For the last half of the year, circulation dropped 27% from the same period a year earlier – the most of any of the six news magazines – to an average of 1.97 million copies per issue. 7

Time, meanwhile, continued with a strategic shift set out in 2008 and also suffered a drop in circulation. Its average weekly circulation dipped 0.9% in the last half of 2009 compared to the same period a year earlier to 3,329,429. 8 For all of 2009, the magazine was up 0.7%.9

Time cut its guaranteed rate base in early 2007 from 4 million to 3.25 million, but has held steady since then.

In contrast, the troubles of the three larger American magazines, The Economist added circulation for the fourth year in a row. It increased its rate base by 50,000, to 764,000. Its average weekly circulation of 813,240 for the final six months of 2009 beat that handily, and was up 3% from the same period a year earlier. (The Economist’s success also contrasts with that of other business and economic publications, whose circulations are flat or falling such as Business Week, down 2% to 917,568, and Forbes, up 0.1%, to 920,873.)

The Atlantic posted gains, though at a slower rate than the year before. It also increased its rate base, from 400,000 to 465,000 as its average circulation hit 471,548 for the last six months of 2009, up 3% from the same period a year before. In the first half of 2009, the magazine was up nearly 7% year to year.

The New Yorker, with a circulation of 1,044,443 for the last half of 2009, declined slightly, 1%, on top of a 2% decline the year before.

The Week’s circulation grew by 0.2% to 517,037in the last half of the year compared with the same period in 2008. That growth is lower than in previous years – it was up 4.6% in 2008.10 The Week’s management believes it is succeeding by adopting the strategy abandoned by competitors.

“The mission of the magazine is to make sense of the world when people are overwhelmed by media. Readers are busy. We are striking a chord with them,” editor William Falk told PEJ. 11

Its staff seeks each week to present a taste of the best news and commentary from other sources. The stories often contain a dash of irony, but never betray a political agenda, he said.

The results have been impressive. The Week nearly doubled its overall circulation from 2002 to 2009 and increased its rate base eight times in seven years.12

As of the end of 2009, the magazine had no intention to further increase its rate base, feeling that 500,000 was about the right size, Falk said.


Readers of news magazines tend to be both older and wealthier than the population as a whole.

According to Mediamark’s spring 2009 survey, the average age of the readers of the news magazines we studied was 48.03, compared with 45.2 for the nation’s adult population. Both figures were virtually unchanged from the year before.

These readers are also more likely to be male than female, although that varies among the magazines. One thing all the publications share is a readership with higher household income than the nation as a whole.

Demographics of News Magazine Readers

Average Household Income Average Age % Male
U.S. adult average $58,898 45.2 48
Time $74,604 47.2 51
Newsweek $80,779 47.4 55
U.S. News $76,944 51.2 58
The Atlantic $100,293 50.4 59
The New Yorker $91,359 47.8 50
The Week $150,900 51.8 53
The Economist $119,856 44.2 67

Source: Mediamark, spring 2009 survey, except for The Week, which provided its data based on a 2009 survey by another research firm, Mendelsohn.

Of the group, The Economist boasts the youngest and second-wealthiest readership, with an average age of 44 and household income of nearly $120,000. The Week was No. 1 in terms of income, at $150,900, and age, at nearly 52.

Median Age of News Magazine Readers
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Source: MediaMark Research, survey data
Average Income of News Magazine Readers
Compared to U.S. population, 2002-2009
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Source: Mediamark Research, survey data


1.In 1983, Time sold an average of 4.3 million copies a week, Newsweek, 3.2 million and U.S. News & World Report, 2.3 million, or 9.8 million a week, for an annual total of 509 million. In 2009, the three sold an average of 6 million a week when U.S. News & World Report’s circulation was averaged across 52 weeks.“ Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources,” by the Pew Research Center for the People & The Press, August 17, 2008

2. Audit Bureau of Circulations, FAS-FAX report for consumer magazines, June 30, 2008 and 2009; December 31, 2008 and 2009.

3. Audit Bureau of Circulations, U.S. News & World Report Publisher’s statement.

4. It is important to note that these figures are a per-issue average and that the total number of copies distributed each month is far less than were distributed when it was a weekly.

5. Richard Pérez-Peña, “Newsweek Plans Makeover to Fit a Smaller Audience,” New York Times, February 8, 2009.

6. Richard Pérez-Peña, “Newsweek Plans Makeover to Fit a Smaller Audience,” New York Times, February 8, 2009.

7. Audit Bureau of Circulations, FAS-FAX report for consumer magazines, June 30, 2008 and 2009; December 31, 2008 and 2009.

8. Audit Bureau of Circulations, FAS-FAX report for consumer magazines, June 30, 2008 and 2009; December 31, 2008 and 2009.

9. Audit Bureau of Circulations, publisher’s statement.

10. Audit Bureau of Circulations, publisher’s statement.

11. William Falk, PEJ interview, December 4, 2009.

12. The Week, Accessed December 4, 2009.