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News Magazines: Embracing Their Digital Future

By freelance journalist Jane Sasseen, Katerina-Eva Matsa and Amy Mitchell of the Pew Research Center

Amid the broad decline of the magazine industry in recent years, news magazines have been among the hardest hit. That trend continued in 2012 for the six publications analyzed by the Pew Research Center, Time and Newsweek, as well as four smaller niche publications – The Economist, The Atlantic, The Week and The New Yorker.  Ad pages for the group fell by an average of 10.4% in 2012, about 25% greater than the 8.2% slide experienced by magazines over all.

Things were even worse on the newsstand. Sales of single-issue copies plummeted 16% on average for the six news titles, roughly two times the 8.2% decline in single-issue sales that the magazine industry as a whole suffered.

There was another stark reminder of the sector’s existential crisis in 2012: Tina Brown, the renowned former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker who was brought in to save Newsweek in 2010, announced that the 80-year-old magazine would cease to exist as a print publication.

With a stark black-and-white cover centered on the old Newsweek building in midtown Manhattan – a building the magazine moved out of several years ago, partly to cut costs — Newsweek put out its last print issue on December 31, 2012, and moved to an all-digital format.

With the magazine’s costs now significantly reduced – though its revenues have been trimmed as well – Brown and the internet company IAC, the magazine’s owner, are betting that the news weekly will find a more promising future online than on the newsstand.

Time is now the last of the mass-market general interest news weeklies to survive in print form.

But Time’s 2012 numbers demonstrate considerable difficulty as well. Time was the only one of the six news magazines to see all three audience measures—newsstand sales, number of subscriptions and total circulation— decline in 2012. It also registered a 12.2% drop in ad pages, not the worst of the six but also far from the best.

Among the more niche-oriented publications, no one magazine stood out for having the strongest year. The Atlantic fared best in circulation numbers but suffered steep losses in ad pages. The New Yorker, on the other hand, limited ad losses to the single digits but suffered in single copy sales.  The approaches among the four differ considerably, but they have all generally done a better job than the mass-market news weeklies of defining a clear identity and finding a loyal, albeit smaller, audience.

News magazines entered 2012 with the hope that the rise of the tablet and wider use of smartphones would provide a lifeline for their business. Pew Research Center data on how mobile devices are used for news suggest at least some return to longer-form news consumption  and of articles people had not initially set out to read. The kind of consumption, in other words, that periodicals are built around but which ran counter to much of the search-driven, quick-hit readership of the desktop era of digital news. A year later, that potential for a tablet audience for magazine content clearly exists, though it is developing more slowly than many would like. And the finances to support even a digital publication remain unclear. As The New York Times media writer David Carr put it in an essay about the difficulties Brown faced, running a newsweekly in this environment “is a brutal, perhaps unwinnable, challenge.”1 (See Digital section for more)

On top of all that, the request from the U.S. Post Office to stop Saturday delivery would bring an added headache to those magazines, including Time and The Week, structured around a Saturday delivery.

With all the grim news, one venerable magazine, the 99-year-old New Republic, launched what it hopes will be a major revival in 2013. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought the magazine in early 2012 and rehired former editor Franklin Foer in May to help revive it. Placing his bets on digital and mobile, Hughes re-launched the magazine in January 2013 with digital features to enable long-form and mobile reading. Readers can begin an article on their tablets, for example, and then automatically pick up where they left off on their laptops or smartphones. The early moves to reshape the magazine have already begun to pay off, as newsstand sales increased 53% in the second half of 2012 over the first six months of the year, according to the magazine. (The New Republic has not been independently audited in recent years.)  Currently, it has 1,866 subscribers on the iPad and 3,085 subscribers receiving the magazine via the Nook, Kindle, Google Play and the Zinio digital newsstand.2

Single-Copy Sales

A presidential election. The Summer Olympics. The Newtown killings. These are the types of events that once sent news magazines flying off the newsstands. No more. With the exception of The Atlantic and Newsweek, where Tina Brown’s often-controversial covers before the end of the print version appeared to have reaped benefits on the newsstand, the news magazines suffered double-digit declines in single-copy sales in 2012. Though these sales make up only a small portion of news magazines’ overall circulation, the figure is nonetheless seen as a more objective measure of a publication’s appeal than subscriptions, since publishers can manage subscription numbers by offering deals or discount pricing.

Time magazine saw the steepest plunge in 2012, as more than a quarter of its single-copy sales disappeared.  But neither The Week nor The Economist was far behind. The Economist suffered a 17% decline, while The Week sold 18% fewer copies in 2012.  The declines of 7% and 12% seen at The Atlantic and The New Yorker, respectively, look good only by comparison. (See data section for more

1-News Magazines’ Single-Copy Sales Plummeted in 2012

The ready availability of news is behind much of that decrease; as readers increasingly turn to digital and mobile devices, they make fewer trips to the local newsstand. In the case of Time, managing editor Richard Stengel offers another explanation. He argues that the magazine faced particularly tough comparisons in 2012, because single-copy sales the previous year had been exceptionally strong.3 The deaths of Osama bin Laden and Steve Jobs, along with Britain’s royal wedding, all gave Time’s newsstand sales an extra-large boost in 2011. Its single-copy sales that year rose 6%, even as all the niche publications saw declines and Brown was just beginning to put her stamp on Newsweek.

Still, Time’s 2012 sales are far below both 2010 and 2009, which reflects the broader long-term trend of steady deterioration.

2-News Magazines’ Single-Copy Sales Slide Over the Long Term

SEE FULL DATA SET

Subscriptions

Time also had the worst overall subscriptions numbers, which now includes both print-only subscribers and digital replica copies. (The Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), formerly called the Audit Bureau of Circulations, broke out the digital data separately for the first time in 2012.)

The total subscription figure includes print readers as well as those who get the digital replica version. (Publishers can choose whether to count “all-access” subscribers who get both as either a print or a digital subscriber; generally they are counted as print subscribers.)4 One important caveat, though, is that the AAM considers a digital replica an essentially identical digital version of a magazine’s print publication. If a publisher decides to present the digital magazine in a substantively different way – as The Atlantic did in August for its iPad version in order to include Web content for readers and give advertisers more flexibility in creating ads – then it is considered a nonreplica digital copy and not counted in the subscriber base.  Publishers track those numbers separately and they are audited by the AAM, but not counted in the main base number used to set ad rates. (See data section for more)

Within the parameters of these metrics, Time was the only one of the six publications to see a drop in subscriptions. At the mass-market weekly, subscriptions fell 1% for 2012, a telling number since, as noted above, publishers can often control circulation numbers through pricing and discount deals.

Time’s Stengel told the Pew Research Center that the magazine had concentrated more on increasing the average price its subscribers pay, rather than boosting overall numbers. “At this point, it doesn’t increase profits much when we increase subscribers,” he said, adding that Time had increased the price many new subscribers pay to $30 from $20.5

Among the other magazines, Newsweek’s subscription count was essentially flat while The New Yorker and The Economist each booked minor gains of 1%. It was The Atlantic that saw the biggest jump, at 6%. In an interview with Pew Research Center, M. Scott Havens, president of The Atlantic, attributed the jump to attention-getting cover stories that brought people to its website and then ended up subscribing.

“The magazine had a number of blockbuster covers that helped drive incremental subscriptions; we saw a noticeable uptick coming from website in the second half,” said Havens. One widely discussed cover alone, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former Obama administration foreign policy aide, attracted more than one million readers online.

The Week added 4% more subscribers to its base, on top of a 2.2% increase in 2011. Altogether, chief executive officer Steven Kotok said in an interview with Pew Research Center, the magazine has increased subscription revenues $5 million over the last two years. Those gains reflect The Week’s business model, which has been structured to rely more on subscriptions than on ads. Subscriptions now make up 60% of revenues, Kotok says, a higher share than at many magazines. (Typically, mass-market titles like Time and Newsweek have priced themselves low to attract large audience and counted on advertising to make up the bulk of revenues.)

Moreover, Kotok said that The Week was able to keep subscriber acquisition costs low by essentially outsourcing the job of finding new readers: the publication runs an array of gift subscription offers to use for friends and family. “Our main source of new subscribers is current readers turning others on to the magazine; they know better than we do who amongst their friends would be interested,” Kotok said. “We’re incredibly good at engaging our readers, getting them to pay for print, and getting them to pay for gifts.”6

3-News Magazines’ Subscriptions Showed Improvement in 2012

The vast majority of the subscription numbers at these magazines still come from print.  Digital replica numbers are a tiny fraction. The New Yorker has done best: 52,000 subscribers, or 5% of the total, get digital replicas. Newsweek was next, with 36,000, or 2.4%, of its subscribers on digital replicas.  The Week and The Economist had less than 1% each. The Atlantic reported digital replica numbers for the second half of 2012 for its Kindle Fire and other non-iPad devices, with about 6,000 readers on those devices, or 1.2% of its total subscribers. No digital replica figures are available for Time.

Those numbers do not include the larger digital audience some publications are reaching with the nonreplica digital content that the AAM does not count, however, making it hard to get a full sense of the paying readership base.  The Economist and Newsweek each broke out their own figures for 2012. In the first half of 2012, Newsweek reported that it had 12,322 digital non-replica subscribers, while The Economist had 49,699. In the second half of 2012, The Economist had 57,130 users of its nonreplica digital edition in the U.S., about seven times the number who receive the replica copy.

Perhaps clearer is the degree to which these audiences are accessing magazine content in more than one way. All of the publishers say that large numbers of their print subscribers now access mobile versions for at least some of their magazine reading. A slow transition is under way. At The New Yorker, for example, some 330,000 people have authenticated its iPad app, the vast majority of whom are print subscribers who have paid an additional $10 to gain digital access as well. “People love all-access,” said New Yorker publisher Lisa Hughes, in an interview with Pew Research Center.  “They want to be able to read on their tablets while they’re traveling, or on their phones on the subway — and they’re willing to pay for it.”

Overall Circulation

Time also struggled the most when it came to overall circulation, which is the combination of single copy sales and subscriptions—thanks in part to its decline in newsstand sales.  Time’s average circulation fell 1.7% compared to 2011. (See data section for more)

The Atlantic and The Week, by contrast, were the big winners. The strong subscription gains achieved by each helped overcome weak single-copy sales to increase overall circulation in 2012. The Atlantic finished the year with a 4.7% rise in total circulation, while The Week added 4.4% to its count.

Newsweek was able to hold circulation steady despite a small drop in single-copy sales. Since newsstand represented less than 3% of Newsweek’s total circulation, it was able to balance out those losses with the tiny gains recorded in its much larger subscriber base. After nearly a decade of declining circulation, that was enough to give the magazine a tiny bump up in its final months as a print publication.  The Economist and The New Yorker each saw flat circulation despite a 17% and 12% drop, respectively, in single-copy sales.

4-The Atlantic and The Week See the Biggest Overall Circulation Gains

For the big magazines, at least, this flat circulation still leaves them far below past highs.  In 2003, total circulation for the six news magazines was 9.3 million. One decade later, it stood at roughly 7.7 million, including the million and half readers who stopped getting Newsweek in print at the end of 2012 and may or may not migrate to the digital version or to a print alternative like Time.

Ad Pages

The news magazines’ difficult advertising climate, a fact of life since 2004, continued throughout 2012. Despite hopes early in the year that an improving economy would lead to a revival, advertisers did the opposite and accelerated their shift out of print.  Combined ad pages, the more accepted advertising measure than ad dollars, for the six publications studied here declined 10.4% in 2012, nearly double the 5.6% drop suffered in 2011.7 That compares to an 8.2% drop for the magazine industry over all. (See data section for more)

News magazines have been particularly hard hit by the enormous rise in competition from Google, Yahoo, Facebook and other websites, says Ken Doctor, a former Knight-Ridder executive and author of “Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get.” “News magazines were once a great place to reach an educated, upscale slice of the audience, but with all the digital targeting available through other sites today, advertisers don’t need a magazine brand to do that anymore,” he said. “They are just one of many competitors who can reach those affluent readers.”8

The Week took the biggest tumble among the six. Its new publisher, Michael Wolfe, who arrived from Men’s Journal in January 2012, has been unable to turn around a slide in ads begun in 2011. The Week suffered a 24.5% drop in ad pages, far more than any of the other news magazines and roughly double its 12.9% drop in 2011. A big factor in the drop, says Kotok, is that the magazine is often an “add-on” buy, rather than a must-have publication for many potential advertisers. As ad budgets have been squeezed, smaller noncore publications get dropped.9

That is a key reason why The Week has shaped its business model to rely more heavily on subscription revenues rather than advertising. While The Week, like other publications, is working to replace its lost print ads with digital ads, Kotok argues that the subscription-based strategy means that the impact of the ad page slide is lower than at other publications. In a comment that mirrors some of what Pew Research is seeing in the newspaper industry, Kotok said, “We will see growth in Web and tablet ads, and we’ll do all we can to get that to equal the drop in print. But we’re not betting the farm on that happening.”10 (See Newspaper chapter for more)

6-News Magazines Lost Ad Pages in 2012

Ad page declines at Time, The Economist and The Atlantic, while less severe, still hit double digits as advertisers shifted to digital. Only The New Yorker managed to keep its ad page losses to single digits. Hughes said the relatively moderate fall reflected the magazine’s unique positioning and brand, which draws a loyal, affluent readership. Paradoxically, she also credits The New Yorker’s strong digital growth over the last two years with helping maintain its print ad strength. The magazine now has an ability to offer advertisers “truly integrated deals,” she says, ad packages that combine print with tablet, web and iPhone ads. “That wasn’t something we could do before. It’s helping drive all our larger revenue deals,” she added.11

Newsweek provided the one bit of good news for the sector: its ad pages rose 5.5% as advertisers began to give Brown’s redesigned magazine a new look after the turmoil of the previous two years. Still, that was more a reflection of the fact that the magazine had nowhere to go but up rather than anything more broadly positive about the magazine or the sector. And it was nowhere near enough to gain back what Newsweek had lost following a slide of 19.8% in 2010 and a 16.6% drop in 2011.

Those declines represented a low point in what was a continual secular decline for the better part of a decade. At their peak in 2004, the six news magazines brought in about 10,000 total ad pages. They have fallen to 5,800 today.

7-Ad Pages Continue to Fall for Major News Magazines

SEE FULL DATA SET

News Magazines’ Shift to Digital & Mobile

The still-sluggish economy accounts for some of the 2012 declines in advertising and circulation seen in 2012. But the rapid shift of news consumers and marketers to digital has played an equal, if not greater role in those declines.

The news magazine genre in general had difficulty establishing itself as a go to place in the desktop era of digital news where the desire for up-to-the minute information diminished the appeal of the more analytical, long-view journalism in the weekly magazines. Nevertheless, the magazines have continued to work toward developing their websites, and more recently to developing content for smartphones and tablets, where longer-form reading shows signs of resurgence.

The total Web audience for these magazines extends well beyond subscribers to their print or digital titles. And four of the six titles increased their Web audience in 2012.

As befits its status as the mass-market audience leader, Time boasts by far the largest online readership, with an average of 7.7 million unique monthly users in 2012. That was essentially flat compared with the prior year, however. The Economist, which makes only limited content available free to nonsubscribers on its website, showed minimal gains.  The others all showed considerable strength: The New Yorker grew 80% and The Week picked up 71%, while the combined Newsweek/Daily Beast and The Atlantic each rose by about 50%.

8-Time Captured Most Online Traffic in 2012

SEE FULL DATA SET

With 31% of Americans adults owning a tablet and 45% owning a smartphone, news publishers focused even more in 2012 on mobile, where they are also counting on tablet apps to help convert nonpaying website readers into paying digital subscribers.12

 For now at least, magazine reading is a relatively small part of how people use these devices. Some 11% of smartphone owners read magazines on their phone weekly, as do 22% of tablet owners, according to Pew Research Center data from the fall of 2012. But news in general ranks near the top of their mobile activity with 64% getting news on their tablet at least weekly and 62% on their smartphones.13

Even more promising for magazines is the type of reading and news consumption that is occurring.  Fully 78% of tablet news users read in-depth articles at least sometimes on their device.  Moreover, most of those consumers, 61%, said they read two to three articles in a sitting, while 17% read four or more. A vast majority, 72%,- said they often read in-depth articles they did not set out to read, or what is known in the media as serendipity.14

It is still early and it remains far from clear if mobile can ultimately provide the revenues needed to revive the industry. But news publishers, hopeful that it will provide a lifeline, intensified their efforts to develop tablet and smartphone offerings for readers and advertisers alike.

Time, for example, created a mobile-only product to track the presidential conventions.15 The New Yorker launched a full iPhone app for the magazine, and the Atlantic Group, the parent company of The Atlantic, designed its new business news site, Quartz, with the tablet audience in mind.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Time’s Stengel. “It’s about finding the right tool. I don’t want to read the same thing on my iPad as I do on my phone or on paper. Tailoring the content to each audience will be the secret to success for all of us.”16

If they crack that code, news magazines also hope that tablet advertising in particular could eventually make up a more substantial share of revenues. (Smartphone ads, on the other hand, carry rates even lower than browser-based Web ads.)  On the downside, though, device makers like Apple and Google take a cut of each mobile ad dollar. (See Digital chapter for more)

For now, though, digital revenue over all, let alone that coming from mobile platforms, remains small.

Most news magazines do not break out such revenues separately, but industry leaders say the trends mirror those of the broad industry. Investment firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson  (VSS) estimates that overall spending on digital platforms in magazines increased 22%, to $1.3 billion in 2012. The total includes digital and mobile advertising revenue, as well as content spending, such as subscriptions, apps and other services. That figure is expected to grow more than double, to $2.9 billion, by 2016.

9-Magazines’ Digital Revenues Continue to Grow

SEE FULL DATA SET

Despite those gains, however, digital is still far from balancing out the broader slide in print revenues. VSS estimates that overall revenue for consumer magazines fell 2.7%, to $19.82 billion, in 2012, due to declining print advertising and circulation.

And, even after four years of double-digit growth, digital spending will still bring in a relatively small share of the consumer magazine revenue: VSS projects it will tally just 14.5% of total revenue by 2016, compared to 6.6% in 2012.17

10-Digital Remains a Small Part of Total Magazine Revenues

SEE FULL DATA SET

If all six magazines studied here face similar challenges, the strategies they have laid out to address the evolving news space vary considerably. Their approaches to the fast moving mobile space, in particular, are different.

Newsweek

The end was, perhaps, inevitable. Despite efforts to save Newsweek by merging it with The Daily Beast website under Tina Brown’s editorial direction, the revamped magazine never took hold. Much of that was pure economics. As Brown pointed out in an interview with New York Magazine, printing costs alone ran $42 million.18 At the same time, the magazine essentially gave up trying to build the Newsweek brand online, a strategy other news publishers consider critical to survival in the digital future. Instead, Brown merged it into the less well-known Daily Beast site. Readers and advertisers alike, struggling to understand where the magazine was headed or what its online brand stood for, remained wary.

In the New York interview, Brown blamed the “zeitgeist” for the magazine’s downfall, but she had trouble coming up with an editorial voice that resonated with readers. As she’s done throughout her career, Brown featured splashy covers meant to create buzz, but as often as not, they fell flat. An adulatory cover on Barack Obama as “The First Gay President” by star blogger Andrew Sullivan was seen as somewhat silly,19 while a few months later, a highly critical cover on President Obama by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, “Hit the Road, Barack,” was widely scorned as error-ridden and little short of embarrassing.20

Even without the editorial struggle, Newsweek’s fate may have been sealed with the sudden death in April 2011 of Sidney Harman, the businessman who had bought the magazine from The Washington Post for $1. Harman died soon after partnering with Barry Diller, who had backed Brown in creating The Daily Beast; his family declined to continue investing. By the spring of 2012, the two publications, often referred to as News Beast, were fully combined under the sole control of IAC, Diller’s online media company. The magazine’s mounting losses and weak prospects proved too much. Losses in the IAC division that includes Newsweek hit $53.5 million in 2012, more than three times the previous year.21

The year-end closure led to another round of layoffs, with Brown keeping only the smaller staff needed to put out The Daily Beast and the digital version of the magazine, rechristened Newsweek Global.  Justine Rosenthal, the executive editor of Newsweek, was named editorial director of the Newsweek Daily Beast Company, while Tunku Varadarajan moved from executive editor of Newsweek International to become editor of the new Global publication (The Daily Beast announced in March 2013 that Varadarajan was leaving his post).  Deirdre Depke was named the editor of the Daily Beast website. 22

Other senior staffers, such as managing editor Tom Watson and features editor David Jefferson, left.

Newsweek Global will continue as a paying publication; the company hopes that subscribers will continue to read it on tablets and other e-readers. For now, the Daily Beast remains a free site with some Newsweek content. In December 2012, the company said that it is considering a metered pay wall to charge readers for Daily Beast content as well.23

That’s not the only challenge the website will face. Brown will have to contend with the loss of Sullivan, the prolific blogger whom she had wooed from The Atlantic. Sullivan announced in January 2012 that he was separating from Newsweek to set up his own independent site. In a closely watched experiment, he, too, has set up a metered pay wall — one of the few bloggers with a strong enough following to attempt such a move. 

Time

It was the first mass-market news magazine launched in the U.S., a model for Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and countless others around the globe. Now, it is the last to remain in the U.S., but victory probably rarely feels this pyrrhic. Aside from declines in print circulation and ad pages, Time also saw online readership stall, according to Nielsen Netview. After jumping from around 5 million unique monthly visitors in 2010 to 7.7 million in 2011, they were essentially flat in 2012. (See Digital glossary for more on online rating services)

To bolster those numbers, Time is investing heavily in beefing up its digital offerings. In October 2012, Time switched its website and other platforms to a technology known as “responsive design” which automatically adjusts content to the size of a user’s screen. The magazine also redesigned the various iterations of its site so that readers see the same content and have the same user experience, whether they check in on an Android smartphone, a full-sized iPad, or a desktop screen in the office. By making readers’ experience on Time.com and its mobile apps more engaging and easier to navigate, Stengel says, the hope is that they will come more often and stick around longer.

The content Time runs on its various platforms is also increasingly differentiated. While some longer, traditional magazine-style pieces run only in print, the website typically runs a far larger number of stories, with much more focus on aggregation, curation and basic explainers such as ”What’s the Fiscal Cliff.” It takes advantage of the high quality screens and unlimited space to run ten times more photos in the tablet version of its ”Lightbox” feature than can run in the magazine. Eventually, says Stengel, Time will create different stories just for smartphones, focusing on even shorter pieces and curation.24

Further mobile-only offerings are coming, too. Editors are now working on a separate Time-branded mobile destination for smartphones that will be released later in the year, he adds.

All that will help, but given the environment, it won’t be enough to offset the slowdown in print revenues. In early January, the magazine announced that it would publish just 48 issues in 2013, or 3 fewer than in 2012, to bring costs in line with lower revenues.25 The magazine also cut six positions as part of broader layoffs at parent company Time Inc., the magazine publishing unit of entertainment giant Time Warner.26

In an ever-more crowded market, where vast amounts of news is readily available free, the question is whether Time remains distinctive enough.

“Time’s fundamental problem is that the topics it talks about can be found in many places; whether they are bringing to them a sufficient aggregation of voices to differentiate themselves is in significant doubt,” says Doctor, the former Knight-Ridder executive.27

Time Inc. does not break out separate revenues for Time magazine. But the company over all continues to be hard hit by the downturn of the magazine industry. Revenue at the unit fell 7% for the full year, to $3.4 billion. The chief culprits: Lower domestic subscriptions, weak ad demand and a drop in worldwide newsstand sales. Adjusted operating income fell even further: for the full year it was down nearly 20%, to $463 million.28

In mid-February 2013, Time Warner entered into discussions to sell the majority of its magazine unit to Meredith, but according to news reports, Time would not be included in the sale.29 A few weeks later, Time Warner and Meredith ended the negotiations, because of concerns over the fate of four of Time Inc.’s magazines-Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune and Money. At the same time, Time Warner announced it would spin off Time Inc., the publishing unit, into a separate publicly traded company.30 These developments followed a In late January restructuring in which Time Inc. cut 500 jobs — nearly 6% of its global staff – as part of a mandate from Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes to shave $100 million from the publishing unit’s annual costs.31

The Economist

Like most of the sector, The Economist finished the year with a drop in single-copy sales and a slight gain in print circulation. But for the British news weekly, the real circulation news was elsewhere. Perhaps more so than any of the other news publication, it is has moved aggressively to build up its digital subscriber base as it shifts its paying readers away from print.

Out of total global circulation of 1.6 million as of September, 140,000 customers – roughly 9% — bought digital-only versions, according to financial reports released by The Economist Group in September 2012. About 25% read both print and digital editions.32

Responding to questions in a recent “Ask Me Anything” session on the social news site Reddit, Tom Standage, The Economist’s digital editor, said of its print circulation, “We think this is the top, and we expect it to decline.”33 He said, however, that he believed that overall circulation would continue to grow as digital made up an ever-larger share of the total. “Our aim is to deliver our content in whatever form our readers want it,” Standage said. “We are not wedded to print.”34

The Economist’s high-end pricing strategy is one reason it can afford to make that shift more quickly than others. The magazine’s positioning as a smart, analytic read for the global business crowd allows it to target a much narrower niche — and charge its readers far more – than its American rivals. Moreover, it gets the same high premium whether or not readers get a physical magazine. U.S. readers pay $127 a year for either a print subscription or a digital subscription; access to both costs $160. That compares to just $30 that Time brings in for an all-access subscription. About half the publication’s readers – both in print and online – are American.

The Economist Group, which owns The Economist along with several other publications, does not divulge the magazine’s results separately. The company as a whole, however, remains in better shape than Time Inc. or the IAC unit that contains Newsweek. It reported revenue up 4% for the six months ending in September, to about $270 million. Operating profits were up 11.5%, to $46 million.35

Digital is growing fast: While print ads across the company slid 14% in the first half, revenue from digital advertising and other nonprint marketing services were up 27%.

To continue to draw online readers and build its brand further, the magazine has also shifted to a more digitally driven marketing strategy. In November 2012, the magazine hired a new agency to create a digital strategy in North America; in the future, traditional advertising will flow from that digital strategy, rather than digital playing second fiddle to print. The shift came after extensive research, according to Dayna DeSimone, the director of brand communications in the Americas for The Economist. In an interview with AdWeek, she said that while print was still “incredibly important” to the brand, the move reflected how “customers are using the digital channel for news information and ideas.”36

The New Yorker

With its depth of reporting, longer reads and intellectual pedigree, The New Yorker stands apart from the other publications studied here. It has carved out a unique niche for itself, one that appears somewhat more impervious to the difficulties rattling others within the sector. With print circulation up slightly and ads down far less than others, it turned in one of the better performances of the year.

In addition to its roughly one million print subscribers, publisher Lisa Hughes said in an interview with Pew Research Center that the magazine had found tens of thousands of new readers on the iPad. Hughes has also increased subscription prices substantially to make up for lost advertising revenue. Two years ago, a magazine subscription cost $39; now, readers pay $69 for an all-access subscription or $59 for either print or digital. With nearly one-third of print subscribers paying extra for the digital access, that helps bolster revenues. “Our circulation revenues are material and growing,” she said. “We care a lot about finding new readers and making sure we’re charging them the right price.”

Mobile is a top priority, as it is throughout Condé Nast, the privately held magazine giant that publishes The New Yorker. After becoming the earliest of the publisher’s magazines to move onto the iPad in 2011, The New Yorker was the first to launch a slimmed-down version for the iPhone in August 2012.37

The move is partly targeted at a younger, hipper audience than is typically drawn to The New Yorker. The iPhone app was launched with a splashy, tongue-in-cheek video featuring the stars of two hit TV series, Jon Hamm of Mad Men on AMC and Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the 20-something Girls on HBO.

While much of the magazine’s content remains behind a pay wall, The New Yorker has also created a much fuller, more active website in the last year. It is frequently updated with content that goes well beyond what is in the weekly magazine. Its writers now regularly contribute to expanded channels on politics, news and culture. In July 2012, it created a new humor channel (or section of the website) built around political comedian Andy Borowitz.38 His popular blog, The Borowitz Report, has now moved to The New Yorker’s site. In addition, a new business channel was launched in February 2013 and another devoted to science and technology is coming in April 2013, the next stage in ambitious plans to continue expanding the magazine’s digital audience. “We decided that this was a serious business for us,” said Hughes. “It was the moment to invest in NewYorker.com; to build it out and make it a real game changer.”39

Those moves appear to be paying off. Its monthly unique visitors grew 80% in 2012, and have more than tripled since 2010, according to Nielsen Netview.

The Atlantic

For several years now, The Atlantic has been the breakout star within the news category. Thanks to an aggressive digital-first strategy, which prioritized expanding the magazine’s reach and readership online rather than protecting the legacy print magazine, The Atlantic has made a much more successful conversion to digital than most magazine publishers. It has added new vertical channels such as The Atlantic Cities, The Sexes, and the news aggregator The Atlantic Wire. Its parent company, The Atlantic Group, also launched Quartz, a business site targeted at global executives, in the fall of 2012.

Those moves have not only paid off in the digital world; they have also helped burnish the magazine’s overall brand. Readership is up in both mediums. Thanks to a big jump in subscriptions, The Atlantic’s overall circulation rose 4.7%, the biggest gain among the news publications studied here. And online traffic for its main site leapt 52%, according to Nielsen Netview. The Atlantic also boasts 30,000 paying subscribers through the iPad, Kindle and the Nook.40

That growth has not come without problems: much of its strength in digital advertising has stemmed from being a leader in so-called native ads, the online equivalent of advertorials, in which advertising material is presented much like a site’s own stories. In January 2013, the magazine came in for scathing criticism when it ran a highly promotional native ad written by the Church of Scientology and its marketing staff appeared to be censoring negative comments.41 Havens quickly pulled the ad and the company says it has developed new standards for such ads.

The Atlantic has also done a better job than most at diversifying its revenues. It has rapidly built a successful events business, leveraging its well-known brand name to become a marquee player. It expanded its widely attended fall policy conference in Washington to include a New York offshoot in 2012, and draws a lineup of heavy hitters for the Aspen Ideas Festival it hosts jointly with the Aspen Institute in June. With growth of 30% annually in recent years, events now make up about 16% of revenues; that could increase to 18% or 20% next year, says Havens.

Developing more paid content opportunities will also be a key focus in 2012. The Atlantic is moving into e-books and, in addition to its own material, it might collaborate with long-form digital sites such as The Atavist or repackage material in the public domain, Havens said. He also plans to experiment with a metered pay wall on its website. The moves will allow The Atlantic to take advantage of micro payments and further reduce its reliance on advertising.

“We’re seeing a transition from being a magazine with circulation and print ads to becoming a digital and events business,” he added. “The magazine still plays a huge role, but it’s not a financial role. It’s the face of the brand.”

The Week

In recent years, The Week has developed a strong niche at the opposite end of the spectrum from The New Yorker or The Economist: its tightly edited summaries of coverage aggregated from hundreds of publications around the globe offer readers bite-sized snippets of the week’s news. For busy readers looking to keep up without bogging down, it has become a one-stop shop to keep abreast of key events in politics, business, science and the arts.

That formula continues to work with readers. The Week has steadily increased its rate base, growing more than five-fold since its launch in 2001.42 Subscriptions, which include digital access, cost $59.

Heavy investments in building its digital presence have paid off as well: The publication launched its first iPad app early in the year.43 It primarily features the magazine’s print content.

The Week’s online traffic also took a big leap in 2012, rising 71%, according to Nielsen Netview. When they log in, readers find content that differs considerably from what they see in the magazine because very little of the print content shows up online. The CEO, Steven Kotok, says that 30 original stories a day go up on the site; “Our Web readers dip in during the day, often from the office. They want a quick hit,” he said. “When our print readers look at the magazine on the weekend, they want a deeper dive.”44

While those moves have been a success with readers, Kotok concedes the Web traffic is hard to monetize. “We’re not a brand that can charge for our Web content,” he said. With print ads in decline, he is looking elsewhere to diversify its revenue stream.

In 2011, the company bought Mental Floss, a trivia and news magazine targeted at younger readers. It gets 25% of its revenues recommending books and other items it sells through ecommerce.

Kotok says The Week is now using Mental Floss’s e-commerce model to build a similar book and gift business that will launch in June targeted to its own subscribers. “We don’t want to bank on turning world of print around,” he says.45

The Magazine Industry Overall

The broader consumer magazine industry lived through another difficult year in 2012, though not quite as tough as the news magazines.  Overall magazine circulation (including single-copy sales and subscriptions) stabilized, though print ads fell for the sixth year in a row. (See data section for more)

Circulation provided one small bright spot amid the industry’s continuing difficulties. Overall magazine circulation, which includes subscriptions, digital replicas and newsstand sales, was essentially flat for the second half of 2012, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.

The growing popularity of combined digital-and-print subscriptions, fueled by the rise of tablets and smartphones, appears to be one factor behind that stabilization.  Paid subscriptions, which make up 91% of total circulation, were essentially flat in 2012 at the 406 U.S consumer magazines measured by the Alliance for Audited Media for which circulation data were available for both periods.

Things continue to look grim for newsstand sales, however.

For the fifth year in a row, newsstand sales declined sharply.  Single-copy sales dropped around 8% for the second half of 2012.

11-Subscriptions Were Up, But Newsstand Sales Dropped in 2012

SEE FULL DATA SET

The circulation picture was much the same for the top 25 magazines surveyed as for the industry as a whole: 12 of the leaders experienced circulation declines in the second half of 2012. People, the ninth-largest magazine, declined the most, falling 6%, a loss of more than 200,000 copies, in the second half of 2012.

For all those difficulties, however, print is hardly dead. Only 5% of magazine publishers surveyed by the Alliance for Audited Media in October 2012 said they planned to offer readers a digital-only subscription. And only 3% of said they expected their publications to be digital-only with the next five years.46

The Trend in Advertising Pages

On the advertising front, the picture continued to darken. It was a disappointing year for many publishers, who had expected the reviving economy to lead to stronger ad sales.47

Based on the most reliable measure – the number of print ad pages sold – the industry’s multiyear slide worsened. Total ad pages for the 211 magazines tracked by the Publishers Information Bureau fell 8.2 %, to 150,699 for the year – a much sharper decline than the 3.1% drop seen in 2011.

12-Magazine Ad Pages Fail to Recover

SEE FULL DATA SET

Ad pages dropped in 10 of the 12 categories the Publishers Information Bureau tracks.

The hardest hit were automotive and food and food products, which fell 22% and 13%, respectively. Only toiletries did well, booking gains of 4%, while apparel and accessories remained flat. These categories have been growing for the past three years, but their gains are offset by the weak performances elsewhere, says Mary Berner, the President and chief executive of the MPA, the Association of Magazine Media. In the sluggish auto market alone, ads remain well below their 2006-07 peak, while a shift by food giant Kraft toward greater digital spending accounted for much of the decline in food industry ad pages.48

Magazine ad performance is off to a more robust start in 2013, Berner adds. Condé Nast reported the strongest first quarter ad sales in five years, while Hearst and Time Inc. both project 6% growth in ad pages.49

Magazine Employment

Faced with that difficult advertising climate, magazines cut jobs sharply in 2012. Employment at U.S. magazines fell 4%, more than twice the 1.7% decline in 2011, according to Advertising Age’s analysis of recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

13-Employment Still Off at U.S. Magazines

SEE FULL DATA SET

Continue reading Magazines: By the Numbers

Endnotes

  1. Carr, David. “Wondering How Far Magazines Must Fall.” The New York Times. Aug. 12, 2012.
  2. Eddleston, Sloan. E-mail to Pew Research Center. Jan. 21, 2013.
  3. Stengel, Richard. Interview with Pew Research Center.
  4. For readers of Time, The Week and The Atlantic, a magazine subscription automatically grants access to the digital content. The Economist and The New Yorker are the only two that charge print subscribers extra for access to the digital editions.
  5. Stengel, Richard. Interview with Pew Research Center.
  6. Kotok, Steven. Interview with Pew Research Center.
  7. Ad pages are considered a more reliable indication of the financial health of a magazine. The total dollar figure is calculated by multiplying the rate given on the rate card by each publication by the number of ad pages, but this is an inaccurate representation of actual ad revenue because advertisers rarely, if ever, pay the amount given on the rate card.
  8. Doctor, Ken. Interview with Pew Research Center.
  9. Kotok, Steven. Interview with Pew Research Center.
  10. Kotok, Steven. Interview with Pew Research Center.
  11. Hughes, Lisa. Interview with Pew Research Center.
  12. Trend Data-Device Ownership.” Pew Research Center. December 2012.
  13. Future of Mobile News.” Topline. Pew Research Center. Oct. 1, 2012.
  14. Future of Mobile News.” Topline. Pew Research Center. Oct. 1, 2012.
  15. Manafy, Michelle. “CNN and Time Launch 2012 Political Convention App.” minOnline. Aug. 23, 2012.
  16. Stengel, Richard. Interview with Pew Research Center.
  17. Veronis Suhler Stevenson Communications Industry Forecast, 26th Edition, 2012-2016.
  18. Kinsley, Michael. “In Conversation: Tina Brown.” New York Magazine. Nov. 18, 2012.
  19. Dickson, Caitlin. “Media Reaction to Newsweek’s Obama ‘The First Gay President’ Cover.” The Daily Beast. May 14, 2012.
  20. Newsweek’s Anti-Obama Cover Story: Has the Magazine Lost All Credibility?” The Week. Aug. 21, 2012.
  21. IAC. Quarterly Earnings.
  22. Pompeo, Joe. “Tina Brown Promotes Three at NewsBeast While Staff Awaits Word of Layoffs.” Capital New York. Dec. 6, 2012.
  23. Lee, Edmund. “Daily Beast Considers Charging for Website.” Bloomberg. Dec. 6, 2012.
  24. Stengel, Richard. Interview with Pew Research Center.
  25. Moses, Lucia. “Time Cuts Back in 2013.” AdWeek. Jan. 10, 2013.
  26. Hagey, Keach and Trachtenberg, Jeffrey. “Time Inc. Cutting Staff.” The Wall Street Journal. Jan. 30, 2013.
  27. Doctor, Ken. Interview with Pew Research Center.
  28. Time Warner Inc. Reports Fourth-Quarter and Full-Year 2012 Results.” Business Wire. Feb. 6, 2013.
  29. Chozick, Amy and De La Merced, Michael J. “Time Warner Considers Spinning Off Some of Its Magazines.” The New York Times. Feb. 13, 2013.
  30. Chozick, Amy. “Time Warner Ends Talks with Meredith and Will Spin Off Time. Inc. into Separate Company.” The New York Times. March 6, 2013.
  31. Kelly, Keith J. “Time Inc. Layoffs Hit Mastheads Hard.” New York Post. Jan. 30, 2012.
  32. The Economist Group. Interim Report 2012.
  33. Standage, Tom. “I Am Tom Standage, Digital Editor at The Economist.” Reddit. Jan. 10, 2013.
  34. Standage, Tom. “I Am Tom Standage, Digital Editor at The Economist.” Reddit. Jan. 10, 2013.
  35. The Economist Group. Interim Report 2012
  36. O’Leary, Noreen. “Atmosphere Proximity Wins The Economist” AdWeek. Nov. 29, 2012.
  37. Kafka, Peter. “The New Yorker Lands on the iPhone, With Help From Lena Dunham and Jon Hamm.” AllThingsD. Aug. 7, 2012.
  38. Bazilian, Emma. “Borowitz Jumps to New Yorker, But Promises to Remain ‘Slipshod and Innacurate.’ ” AdWeek. July 19, 2012.
  39. Hughes, Lisa. Interview with Pew Research Center.
  40. Bercovici, Jeff. “The Atlantic Will Experiment with Online Pay Models in 2013.” Forbes. Jan. 3, 2013.
  41. Warzel, Charlie. “The Real Problem with The Atlantic’s Sponsored Post.” AdWeek. Jan. 15, 2013.
  42. Peters, Jeremy W. “The News, in Bright Bits.” The New York Times. March 13, 2011.
  43. Moses, Lucia. “ ‘The Week’ Snags ’Men’s Journal’ Publisher.” AdWeek. Jan. 18, 2012.
  44. Kotok, Steven. Interview with Pew Research Center.
  45. Kotok, Steven. Interview with Pew Research Center.
  46. How Media Companies Are Innovating and Investing in Cross-Platform Opportunities.” Alliance for Audited Media. Dec. 17, 2012.
  47. Ives, Nat. “Meredith Corp., Publisher of Ladies’ Home Journal, Cuts 80 Jobs.” Advertising Age. April 24, 2012.
  48. Berner, Mary. Interview with Pew Research Center.
  49. Berner, Mary. Interview with Pew Research Center.