The Size, Role & Future of Consumer Magazines: A Blast from Mr. Magazine’s™ Past… Dissertation Entries Part 1.

February 20, 2015


Magazines, both consumer and trade, form the largest mass medium in the United States. In fact, it is almost impossible to know for certain how many different magazines exist at any one time. The Standard Periodical Directory lists 66,681 in the United States and Canada. Ayer’s Directory of Newspapers and Periodicals lists 12,010, excluding several thousand company or regional church magazines. Either of these figures puts the American magazine far ahead of any other mass medium in the country. This includes daily newspapers (approximately 1,750), television stations (850), and radio stations (6400).

A magazine is defined as a printed and bound medium that appears periodically at least four times a year. It is a publication that is intended for and available to the general public by subscription and/or through the newsstands for a stated price and meets the U.S. Postal Service requirements for second class mailing privileges. The role the American magazine plays is by far more complex, yet more flexible, than any other medium. Magazines depend on a mixture of advertising and consumer money to survive. The trend today is to reach an equal split between advertising and circulation revenues, including newsstand sales and subscriptions. Newspapers, radio, and television stations, by contrast, depend almost completely on their advertising revenues.


CV1_TNY_02_23_15Banyai.inddCV1_TNY_02_23_15Chast.inddCV1_TNY_02_23_15Mendelsund.indd The above information was written in 1983 and taken from a portion of my dissertation when I was at the University of Missouri-Columbia where I obtained my doctorate in journalism. And while the majority of the material still holds true, things have changed drastically in some areas.

Today some people define magazines differently than the original rendering. In the digital world e-zines and their cyber-content are designated ‘magazines.’ I contend that if it is not ink on paper, it is not a magazine.™ Some things do not change and that statement is one of them. Virtual content on a screen that you cannot physically touch, turn the page and then roll up and place conveniently under your arm for travel is not a magazine, with the last prerequisite being more important to people than one might think. What you see on a screen is digital content, web pages, mobile information, or anything else that it ‘actually’ is, but it is definitely not a magazine.

CV1_TNY_02_23_15Goodrich.inddWeb-1200x16381-690CV1_TNY_02_23_15Nelson.indd And while the trend in 1983 was to reach an equal split between advertising and circulation revenues, including newsstand sales and subscriptions; today things are a bit less cut and dried when it comes to advertising dollars and those precious ad pages that magazines have always depended on.

With the advent of digital, many publishers saw the future of magazine media in a land of make-believe, beyond that quasi rainbow of pixels the world had suddenly become so fascinated with. Unfortunately, their abandonment from the always-sturdy decks of print had them jumping ship before they had the complete picture. Sometimes placid waters are turbulent underneath.

CV1_TNY_02_23_15Blitt.inddCV1_TNY_02_23_15Mattotti.inddCV1_TNY_02_23_15Kunz.indd But when many boarded digital’s gangplank and strolled lightheartedly onto its bow and began to seek virtual advertising to join their journey, the dollars that had always been there before were nowhere to be seen. Hence, advertisers themselves were in a bit of a quandary. If the publishers weren’t putting the future into and onto print; how could they continue to buy space and peace of mind inside the covers of ink on paper?

So the trend for the 21st century became innovation and creativity; coming up with new and exciting ways to generate revenue and continue the singular experience that print magazines had and always would offer.

Of course recently there has been a migration back to print from the Land of Oz – or digital – whichever you’d like to call it, a migration and integration. Digital-only sites that have never been print are seeing the value and collectability of the printed word and magazines that had once been print, but folded to create pretty pages on a screen are coming home to ink on paper.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the role of magazines; they’re still more complex and flexible than any other medium out there. And they were, are, and always will be reflectors of our society by mirroring the issues that are important to us as humans in a way that nothing else can.

Case in point, this week’s covers of The New Yorker (see above) celebrating its 90th anniversary and this Sunday’s covers of The New York Sunday Magazine (see below). You have noticed I said covers and not cover, because both magazines have multiple covers for their issues this week: The New Yorker has nine covers and The New York Times Sunday Magazine has four covers. The covers alone are the best reflectors of our history, present and future.


Compare that to a page on a digital screen and think whether it would have made the same impression? Not hardly. What are the odds that the large mass of people who viewed that cover and bought that magazine from the newsstands, received it in their mail box, or had it arrive with their Sunday paper, would have all been looking at it simultaneously online? And would they have given it more than an exemplary glance before they scrolled on to something else? Highly doubtful. There is power in the printed word.

So, while the numbers may have changed somewhat since 1983, daily newspapers in the United States (1,382 in 2011), radio stations (14,728 full power stations in 2011) and TV stations (1,774 in 2011), the message of magazines and their impact haven’t.

And remember; if it is not ink on paper, it’s not a magazine™…

Watch for more ‘Dissertation Entries’ every Friday on the Mr. Magazine™ blog…
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