For magazine industry, less may be more

Time magazine's move to shed subscribers aims to shore up the publication.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor 

These days, Time magazine may not have much time for its 2006 Person of the Year – you.

A few months ago, the venerable newsmagazine announced that it will cut the number of paying readers that it guarantees to advertisers from 4 million to 3.25 million. Publicly, at least, Time doesn't care if 750,000 subscribers throw all those pesky renewal notices in the trash.

On the other hand, Time is reaching out to its most loyal readers through a beefed-up website, a new arrival date on newsstands, and a stable of spotlighted writers who fill its pages with commentary instead of traditional news reporting.

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Why the extreme makeover? While the magazine industry is doing well as a whole, Time and its rival newsweeklies are struggling to stay afloat. Gutted by staff cuts and suffering from sluggish circulation, they're trying to figure out how to avoid the grim future facing the newspaper industry.

Time's solution is to adopt the philosophy that's ruled the wider magazine industry for years: Don't try to please all readers all of the time. Instead, just make some readers happy most of the time.

"The trend in the whole magazine industry has been from the general to the special interest," says Shirrel Rhoades, a consultant and a former vice president at Reader's Digest. The result: hundreds of magazines geared toward miniature dollhouse aficionados, surfers, and owners of old houses.

While there have been some high-profile magazine failures in the last decade (including Talk, George, and, most recently, the movie magazine Premiere), the total circulation of American magazines rose to 370 million in 2006, the highest since 2000.

High-brow magazines like The New Yorker and The Economist are doing especially well, and there are some 200 more magazines about just three subjects – dogs, golf, and interior design – than there were just a decade ago.

But the circulation of the Big Three newsmagazines (Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report) was largely flat in 2006, reaching a combined audience of about 9 million. They've each lost readers over the past 20 years, despite the growth of the US population.

"The extent of their influence has declined," says journalism professor David Sumner, coordinator of the magazine program at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. "News has become more of a commodity, and it's cheap and easy to find."

As a result, the newsmagazines "are trying to reinvent themselves to compete with all the free news available on the cable channels and online," Mr. Sumner says. "They're trying hard to provide more interpretation, insight, and context, as well as soft entertainment stuff."

But cost-cutting has hobbled the news magazines. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Newsweek and Time cut their news bureaus from a combined total of 62 in 1983 to 37 in 2006. They've also drastically reduced their staffs over that time period, with Time going from 362 to 226 employees, and Newsweek falling from 348 to 165.

Advertising doesn't appear to be saving the day, financially. While statistics suggest advertising in magazines in 2006 reached its highest level in six years, the newsweeklies reported little growth in total ad dollars.

Among the Big Three, Time has been in the forefront of change with its redesign and the change in its publishing date from Monday to Friday, intended to allow the magazine to be more timely for a weekend audience. Time is also publishing more original content on the Internet and devoting extra space in the magazine to commentary.

Time declined to make any company officials available for interviews for this story, but an editor's note in the magazine said Time hoped its redesign would make it "more meaningful and more forward looking."

In perhaps its most drastic move, Time is hoping to persuade advertisers to consider its cumulative reach, including website readers and those who read someone else's copy of the print magazine.

Traditionally, advertisers focus on a magazine's paid circulation, but Time is reducing the number of paid readers it guarantees to advertisers by 19 percent. In 2005, TV Guide made a similar move by slashing its guaranteed circulation from 9 million to 3.2 million.

While it may seem counterintuitive, dumping paid readers can save magazines money by allowing them to reduce the amount they spend persuading fickle subscribers to renew. And advertisers may appreciate being able to reach a more select and loyal audience.

Newsweek, meanwhile, continues to publish on Mondays and offer a more traditional mix of stories. Writers still tie up stories with pithy conclusions, using what staffers have called the authoritative "voice of God."

Newsweek wants to report less and interpret more, says worldwide publisher Gregory Osberg. "In the past, you followed the news. Now we're getting out in front of it and providing analysis."

Along those lines, Newsweek's website may offer a more specific focus on topics like politics, technology, and healthcare, Mr. Osberg says.

As for the third-place newsweekly, U.S. News & World Report remains the most serious – or the stodgiest, depending on your point of view – of the Top 3. It continues to focus heavily on topics like international news, politics, and business. It gives scant attention to, say, Paris Hilton's latest shenanigans. In fact, an analysis of eight months of 2006 issues by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that U.S. News allocated less than 1 percent of its pages to celebrity and entertainment news; Time and Newsweek devoted 11 to 12 times as much of their space to those topics.

In regard to the future of magazines as a whole, industry insiders will be closely following the success or failure of a glossy new monthly business magazine called Condé Nast Portfolio, which published its first issue in April.

"Portfolio is being held up as the last big example of whether an old-school print magazine launch can still make it," says Matthew Kinsman, managing editor of the industry journal Folio:. "Their fate will have a lot of impact on the rest of the magazine world."

Overall, there seems to be much less hand-wringing in the magazine industry compared with, say, the newspaper business. There's plenty of speculation that your local daily newspaper could vanish in 20 years or less, but no one is saying that People, Good Housekeeping, and National Geographic will go the way of Life and Look magazines.

People move from place to place and encounter different newspapers, but magazines remain longstanding parts of people's lives, says journalism professor Sumner. "People feel more of an emotional bond to magazines, particularly if they've been long-term subscribers," he says.

Then there's the simple pleasure of reading a long, fascinating story on the couch instead of in a desk chair, staring at a computer monitor. "The portability and convenience factor will ensure that print magazines will be around for a long time," Sumner predicts.

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