State of the News Media 2016
News Magazines: Fact Sheet
Last updated June 2016
News magazine circulation continues to shift from print to digital, although the extent of this trend is inconsistent across titles. Overall print, single copy sales fell another 3% in 2015, but across the 14 magazines studied here, the figures ranged from a 37% loss to a 65% gain. In the digital realm, both single copy sales and subscriptions showed growth, but the true strength of that growth is hard to gauge as much of it is tied to new accounting rules as well as greater use of platforms that bundle access to multiple magazines, which may be more of a financial benefit to readers than publishers. What’s more, the industry has stopped publicly releasing yearly ad page sales, which makes it very difficult to assess its financial state. At the same time, though, most of the magazines studied did see year-over-year gains in their web traffic figures.
News magazines were also the focus of several headlines in 2015. After purchasing the New Republic in 2012, owner Chris Hughes put it back up for sale in January 2016; it was purchased in February 2016 by Win McCormack. In August 2015, Pearson sold its 50% stake in The Economist, making the Agnelli family the largest shareholder. Rolling Stone continued to face fallout from its 2014 story on rape at the University of Virginia, which was dubbed the “Error of the Year” for 2014 by The Poynter Institute. An external review of the editorial process involved in the story led Rolling Stone to retract the article in April.
Single Copy Sales
Across news magazines overall, single copy (i.e. newsstand) sales decreased slightly, about 3%, in 2015 from 2014 levels, or a decrease of about 1,300 average sales per magazine.1 This continues the small downward trend of recent years, suggesting that the steep declines in the early part of the decade may have slowed.
This small decrease, though, obscures the upheaval some magazines faced. National Review showed a precipitous 37% drop in newsstand sales, after a 9% drop in 2014. The Week saw a similar decline – down 35% in 2015, and Wired declined 25%. Of the 14 news magazines tracked in this analysis, four declined by 10% or more, and eight outlets were down overall. The two magazines that lessened the blow to the industry overall were New York Magazine, up 44% in 2015, and The Nation, up 65% (though in the case of The Nation, this is from a small circulation base).
Although single copy sales are down slightly as a proportion of overall circulation (5% compared to 7% in 2014), they serve as an important barometer of a magazine’s editorial appeal, since they are not influenced by discount programs and promotions the way subscription circulation is.
Subscriptions continue to comprise nearly all of news magazine circulation and generally remain stable thanks in part to discounts or special offers. Overall, subscriptions to news titles were down slightly (2%) to an average of about 880,000 in 2015.
However, some magazines experienced larger declines. Despite their increase in newsstand sales, The Nation’s 2015 subscriptions declined 12% in 2015, continuing a trend from the previous year in which subscriptions declined 18%. Time’s subscriptions also shrank – by 8% in 2015.
Total circulation, defined as the combination of single copy sales and subscriptions, saw the same slight decrease in 2015 as subscriptions – 2%, to an average circulation of about 923,000. Furthermore, all but four of the 14 news magazines studied experienced overall circulation decline.
These declines were somewhat greater for magazines with circulation above 900,000 than with lower-circulation magazines. High circulation magazines experienced an average drop of 3% of circulation.
The Atlantic saw the highest increase in circulation, expanding slightly by 2% in 2015.
It is difficult to track the number of digital magazine sales consistently over time. The emergence of new delivery platforms such as Next Issue Media’s Texture (previously just Next Issue) and mobile apps, and the introduction of new accounting rules by the industry to adequately measure sales on those platforms, result in imperfect year-over-year trends.2 Despite inconsistencies these changes can create, the data presented here are drawn from the audited data that the industry relies on for its metrics.3
Careful analysis of the data available suggests growth for the news magazine sector. Sales of digital copies of single issues increased by an average of 30% in 2015 to more than 12,000 average sales per title. As a result, digital single copy sales now account for nearly three-in-ten of all news magazine single copy sales.
Several publishers in particular stood out for growing their number of digital single copy sales: New York Magazine saw 64% growth in 2015 on about 17,000 new sales, Bloomberg Businessweek grew by 54%, and Rolling Stone showed 35% growth on just over 8,000 new sales on average. Vanity Fair, Time and Fortune also saw about a 30% increase in digital single copy sales.
However, some of this growth is due to the expanding popularity of all-access programs such as Texture, Readly or Magzter Gold, in which users pay a monthly fee to gain access to digital issues of participating magazines.4 Across all titles that report all-access program numbers for the entire year, sales from these services account for over 95% of digital single copy sales. For instance, almost 100% of New York Magazine’s digital single copy sales were from these programs.
News magazines experienced a more modest increase in digital subscriptions than they did with digital single copy sales. In 2015, the average number of digital subscription sales rose 6% to an average of about 36,000 per title. Nonetheless, digital subscriptions still comprise just 4% of overall subscriptions.
Digital subscription growth was driven largely by a greater than 60% increase for both The Atlantic and for New York Magazine, as well as a 57% increase for digital subscriptions to Bloomberg Businessweek. At the same time, though, some magazines experienced a decline in digital subscriptions. It should be noted, however, that there is some indication that these changes may be due in part to how app subscribers are counted.
With the uncertainty in measuring digital circulation data, more insight may be gained from metrics that assess attention to news magazines in the digital realm. Online traffic data from comScore show how effective news magazine sites are at drawing in visitors and keeping their attention. (For this analysis, Pew Research Center analysts worked directly with comScore to identify and remove from the sample web entities whose traffic shifts over time were the result of changes in how those entities are measured by comScore, rather than organic changes in audience behaviors. Additionally, The Nation and Businessweek were not included in this analysis because they did not have year-to-year trendable data.)5
These data show that, overall, more people are visiting news magazine sites in 2015, but they are spending less time there than in 2014.
For the 12 news magazines studied, the average number of monthly unique visitors increased between the fourth quarter of 2014 and the fourth quarter of 2015 to an average of about 13 million monthly visitors per site. Of the 12, seven experienced traffic increases of at least 10% year over year.
Alongside these overall increases, there is a clear shift in how people are accessing these sites. Mobile traffic increased for ten of the 12 sites, while desktop traffic increased for just five.
But these traffic gains do not seem to be leading to more engaged readers. Overall, just five of the 12 sites studied experienced growth in the average monthly number of minutes per visit from their audience.
As with the number of unique visitors measure, differences emerge when looking at average monthly number of minutes per visit by device. For five of the 12 sites, average monthly time spent on the site by desktop users increased between 2014 and 2015. The same was true of mobile for just two of the sites.
Information on the financial health of news magazines is difficult to come by, but several trends across the industry overall speak to the market in which these news magazines operate.
Advertising spending at consumer magazines continued its downward trend in 2015, according to Kantar Media data. Magazine publishers faced a 5% loss in advertising revenue in Q3 2015 compared with Q3 2014, which was also 5% lower than the same period in 2013.
Anecdotal evidence show some of the effects this decline could be having on news magazines. In 2015, Atlantic Media (publisher of The Atlantic) stopped publishing a print edition of the National Journal (the digital edition is still published). Other magazine publishers faced layoffs or restructuring, including Rolling Stone and Conde Nast – publisher of The New Yorker, Wired and many other magazines.
Publishers have used a variety of alternate tools to raise revenue. Some have tried to raise revenue with paywalls, which limit the amount of content a visitor can read without subscribing. After The New Yorker reintroduced its paywall in November 2014, it experienced an increase in subscriptions. And some magazines have struggled with the rise of ad-blocking software, which many publishers fear could shrink online ad revenue. In response, Wired and Forbes erected so-called ad-walls, which attempt to convince users to turn off this software. Others, such as The Atlantic, have found success in sponsored content.
Given their newness, the revenue impact of all-access programs like Texture, Readly or Magzter Gold remains unclear. Although individual publisher relationships may differ slightly, these programs generally share revenue with publishers based on the amount of time users have spent with each publisher’s content or the amount of content consumed (Magzter Gold also incorporates magazines’ subscription prices). As these services become more popular, the shift to the all-access model could foster increases in both reach and revenue, but it could also lead to a cannibalization of subscribers as long-time readers cancel their subscriptions and adopt this software.
- Includes 14 news magazines focusing on business journalism, politics, culture or technology. These news magazines are: The Atlantic, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Economist, Forbes, Fortune, The Nation, National Review, New York Magazine, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Time, Vanity Fair, The Week and Wired. Auditing data comes from the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM). In previous years, the analysis also included Newsweek and The New Republic. Newsweek has not been audited since 2013, and The New Republic was not audited in 2015, so neither is included here. ↩
- Two main factors can be attributed to the fluctuation in year-over-year digital magazine sale trends: changes that publishers made to their distribution strategies and updates to AAM’s circulation categories and auditing rules. First, starting with 2014 data, AAM began counting digital copies from all-access programs as single copy sales, under a test period agreed to by both publishers and advertisers. These copies were only counted if a reader paid for the program and then requested or “favorited” a specific magazine. This will be measured differently starting with 2016 data, but those changes are not reflected in this fact sheet. The second factor involves publishers making changes to their distribution plans, a process that can affect the total number of magazine sales in any given year. For instance, in 2015, at least one news magazine publisher (The Atlantic) updated its app to bring it into compliance with AAM auditing rules, according to a representative from the magazine. This allowed The Atlantic’s app circulation to be counted as part of its overall digital number and helped contribute to some of the magazine’s digital subscription growth. Inquiries by the Center to other news magazine publishers were not returned. ↩
- The data for news magazines described here is based on figures reported by publishers and audited by AAM in the “digital issue” circulation category. This category is included in AAM publisher statements. Copies that are categorized as “digital issue” typically feature the same advertising and editorial content as the print edition, although the content may be augmented with hyperlinks or additional media.
Some magazines also report another kind of digital circulation, which AAM calls “digital nonreplica.” Generally, this type of circulation represents editorial and advertising served on paywalled sites and apps and has been shortened or fundamentally altered to better suit the digital platform. In our sample of news magazines, only The Economist and The Nation report digital nonreplica circulation. ↩
- For more information about the revenue model of these all-access programs, see the Magazine Economics section. ↩
- comScore Media Matrix Multi-Platform and Desktop only, minutes per visit and unique visitors, October-Decemeber 2014 and October-Decemeber 2015, U.S. Data provided by comScore includes both desktop and mobile traffic via websites and, where available, associated mobile apps. ↩