Survival and the Future of Print Publications
Comments on the industry’s precarious future
By Publisher Jim Pasero
So how does a magazine make it to its tenth anniversary issue, especially when one out of
two magazines never see their second issue? It’s a miracle.
It’s a miracle because 1) as we will mention in greater detail below, the industry of
generic news magazines is in serious decline, and 2) the entire print industry in America
and beyond is being devoured by the Internet. And that is worrisome. The Internet, for all
its strengths, is not a source for good journalism, rather it feels more like Talk Radio gone
mad. A little of it goes a long, long way.
Several times in the last few years we have researched other magazines to examine our
long-range financial prospects. Despite the hundreds of magazines published in America,
finding a comparison to BrainstormNW magazine has not been simple. BNW is not a
regional news magazine in the sense that Time magazine, Newsweek and U.S. News &
World Report are national news magazines, because our editorial content is more eclectic.
Which was fortunate for us, because the economic models for these national news
magazines is collapsing. Overtaken by the Internet, they are shadows of their former
selves, kept financially afloat by parent companies not wanting to surrender the prestige
and brand of these well-known publications.
The economic model for print newspapers is not as dire as news magazines, because most
papers are still somewhat financially successful. But the line on the financial chart for
traditional newspapers goes aggressively down.
The closest match we could find were national “thought” magazines such as The Weekly
Standard, The Nation, The New Republic, and The American Spectator. The comparison
wasn’t perfect, because all four of these magazines are national. Their editorial focus is
concentrated on politics and ideas, where BNW, because of its smaller market, has a more
eclectic editorial focus combining lifestyle coverage with politics, business and ideas.
However, despite the difference in market size, BNW compared somewhat favorably in
circulation numbers with these national magazines: 25,000 for BNW versus 60,000 for
The New Republic, 60,000 for The American Spectator and 195,000 for The Nation.
Now comparing BNW to a national “thought” magazine may be a bit self-serving.
However, after 10 years of publication, we’re entitled to some self-congratulatory
comments. Anyone who has ever seen Oregonian editor Sandra Rowe speak publicly
knows that she too is fond of self-compliments.
One reason BNW compares favorably to national “thought” magazines is because our
influence as a cultural leader in our region is often greater than our circulation numbers
would suggest, allowing us to continue to stay in business and struggle with a sometimes
daunting business model.
Today, all quality print publications struggle with their business model. The New York
Times has 18 million readers a day, but 17 million of them are reading the paper free on
the Internet — not a good model.
The Bancroft family recently sold Dow Jones (The Wall Street Journal and Barron’s) to
Rupert Murdoch because the nation’s best paper was financially underperforming. The
Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The
Dallas Morning News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and countless other respected daily
newspapers have made dramatic staff cuts to stay profitable.
Our research of comparable business models led us to C-Span founder Brian Lamb’s
network show, “Q & A”, where he had recently interviewed a group of editors and
publishers, including Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, Katrina vanden Heuvel of The
Nation, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. of The American Spectator, and Peter Beinart of The New
Republic. You can’t argue about the influence of these four publications. The American
Spectator, under Tyrrell’s leadership, led the assault on Bill Clinton during his
presidency, and The Weekly Standard, under Kristol’s guidance, gets a lot of the credit
for pushing America into war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Magazines with that much
influence have to be money makers, right? You would think so, but you would be wrong.
Of these four leading “thought” magazines, three of them operate as for-profit magazines:
The Nation, The New Republic and The Weekly Standard. The American Spectator is
published as a nonprofit magazine.
The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel discussed the magazine’s financial situation with
Lamb. The Nation began publishing in 1865. So is it profitable? “We’re for profit, though
we’ve made a profit for only two out of 142 years, but we’re working on it.”
The two years that the liberal Nation magazine has made a profit are recent. “It’s a
terrible thing to say,” said vanden Heuvel, “but George Bush in the White House
certainly animated subscriptions.”
The Nation is kept afloat by a circle of patrons who subscribe to the publication at rates
10-100 times higher than the average subscription. That patron circle is led by actor and
liberal activist Paul Newman.
The Weekly Standard, the world’s leading neo-conservative publication, though for
profit, also loses money. Kristol told Lamb that he and Rupert Murdoch meet once a year
to go over the magazine’s financial statements. “We try to take our losses seriously,” said
Kristol, conceding that the owner of NewsCorp covets the publication’s influence and
But is Murdoch getting his money worth? Kristol pondered the question. “I don’t know,”
he told Lamb. “I’ve often wondered about this … I do think that one thing you can do
when you have a magazine is that you provide a critical mass. You bring people together.
You recruit young people, and people stimulate each other.”
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. publishes The American Spectator as a nonprofit publication,
which has caused him grief, lots of grief, especially when his most prominent donor,
Richard Scaife, was helping fund the Arkansas Project through the magazine’s
foundation. The Arkansas Project funded journalists in the 1990s who were investigating
Clinton’s background. The White House struck back at The American Spectator with
vengeance for the magazine’s political work. Tyrrell talked to Lamb about “how the
government tried to run us out of business … how we were dragged before grand juries.”
He summed up The American Spectator’s ’90s this way: “We had been exposed to the
kind of harassment that no magazine in the last 50 years has been exposed to.”
Despite past trauma, and the magazine’s subscription numbers declining from a peak of
300,000 in the Clinton years to 60,000 today, Tyrell is still passionate about his product
and its niche. “It is important these small magazines continue to exist because they
introduce ideas and questions into mainstream journalism that mainstream journalism is
just too bulky and fatuous to take up,” he told Lamb.
For many years, The New Republic, which began in 1914, did not make money but had
its losses covered by owner Martin Peretz. Peretz owned The New Republic from 1975-
2007. At the magazine’s peak, when it was the leading voice for the “New Democrats,”
such as Bill Clinton and Joe Lieberman, the publication counted almost 100,000
subscribers. Today, circulation is half that. In response, this year The New Republic
dropped from 44 issues a year to 24.
While things seem glum in the world of print publications, not all are pessimistic. Brock
Yates, author of the movie “Cannonball Run,” decades-long columnist for Car and
Driver magazine, author of several books on auto racing, and former frequent contributor
to The Wall Street Journal op-ed page, is hopeful about the future of print publications
and newspapers, and he doesn’t believe his sentiments are based merely on nostalgia. As
he recently told BNW, “I think there will always be a place for print and it’s because of
its portability. Print can be picked up and used in a totally different way.
“Certainly if you want to find out instantaneously what’s happening, you use the Internet,
and that’s certainly true with a segment of the population. But there’s a substantial side of
the population that wants to read and spend time with printed information.
“If you like a sports columnist,” says Yates, “you don’t want to read 1,000 words of a
sports column on the Internet.”
Yates also sees the growth of the book industry as another hopeful sign. “The book
business is doing quite nicely. People want to pick up a long, interesting story, a novel,
and deal with it over a relatively long period of time.” Just ask the fans of Harry Potter.
David Olmos is less optimistic than Yates about print’s future. Olmos has in recent years
backed up his sentiments with a career move. After almost a decade as the editor of the Los Angeles Times Health section, Olmos left the paper to become director of publishing
and communications for the California Healthcare Foundation. Olmos thinks that when
newspapers chase younger readers, they are not playing a winning hand.
“I recall that in my days at the LA Times there were a flurry of projects and committees
and focus groups to figure out ways for daily papers to attract younger readers. A lot of
papers tried different approaches, but I’m not sure any of them were successful. Because
younger people aren’t willing to sit down with a newspaper; they are not interested,” says
Olmos points to the Chicago Tribune putting out a daily special edition for younger
readers. “They filled it up with entertainment, music and events, but, again, I don’t know
that it was all that successful.”
Olmos has a point. Newspapers have been “dumbing down” content for more than a
decade in a desperate chase after a younger audience. And the results are not good. An
article in the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Journalism Review, “What
Newspapers and Their Web Sites Must Do to Survive,” discussed a study done by Belden
Associates asking if younger readers were responding to newspapers’ often frenetic
attempts to get them involved with their paper’s online editions. What the study found,
according to the article, was that “only 9 percent of online newspaper readers were ages
18 to 24, and only 25 percent were ages 25 to 34 — results remarkably similar to
newsprint edition readership.”
So with a depression hanging over the shrinking industry, is print media still powerful?
“Yes,” says Olmos, “I think newspapers’ power and prestige remain pretty strong. They
maintain a lot of impact on policy and other issues. And that influence is tied to holding
people accountable, the watchdog role that papers play if you mess up.”
Olmos, like many others doesn’t believe that the Internet serves this purpose in the same
manner. “I read the San Franciso Chronicle every day. I find it essential for giving me
some idea of what the issues are in my community. I don’t know that there is another
source that so efficiently gives me that information as does the daily paper, and they have
had a lot of cuts. And, still, most of the time they are doing a pretty damn good job of it.”
But he warns that none of this should be taken for granted, especially the newspaper’s job
of playing its traditional role in informing the public. “This is all going to be threatened,”
says Olmos, “if newspapers don’t find a new business model to support their
investigative reporting. Investigative reporting needs resources, that kind of work is a
loss-leader, and to me it’s scary that that type of reporting could be threatened, because
you don’t see that kind of work on the blogs.”
Last month, the Financial Times asked Mort Zuckerman, owner and editor-in-chief of
U.S. News & World Report, and Forbes’ 188th
wealthiest American, to predict the future
of print media. Zuckerman, whose own publication is struggling financially, admitted the crucial role that newspapers and magazines play in running a democracy, but added
problematically that after awhile even wealthy people get tired of losing money.
Read also about the future of:
Telephone Land Lines,
BrainstormNW - October 2007