Rolling Stone and the New Republic: Do the Numbers Tell You Anything?

By Jack Limpert

Editing a magazine you get a lot of feedback: “I hate that cover.” “The stories are too long.” “You never write about….”  I listened to all the comments but then looked at the numbers for something more definitive.

“How did the issue do on the newsstand?”

“What’s happening with the renewal rate?”

Do such numbers shed any light on what’s happening at Rolling Stone and the New Republic?

The most important number for an editor—the way to really assess the health of the magazine—is the renewal rate. How many subscribers each year renew their subscriptions? If the number is up around 85 percent that’s good. It means that if you have 100,000 subscribers—about what the Washingtonian had—and 85,000 subscribers renew, you only have to find 15,000 new subscribers and we got that many from the blow-in cards in the 50,000 newsstand copies we sold each month.

But if the renewal rate is 60 percent, you have to find 40,000 new subscribers. That’s expensive—probably lots of direct mail—and the editors better look for ways to get more subscribers to renew. If the renewal rate is under 50 percent, the editor better be looking for another job.

Unfortunately, magazines won’t disclose their renewal rate. So you have to look at circulation numbers and try to draw conclusions.

Why did Rolling Stone run its gang rape story? Desperate for attention? For readers?

Ed Kosner, former editor of Newsweek, New York, and Esquire, says, “Legacy journalism is being driven crazy by digital journalism and in desperation abandoning the sound practices that led people to trust these publications over the years.”

Another editor with a good track record says: “My guess is that it wasn’t panic so much as just eagerness to publish a hot story. A few years ago, Rolling Stone got a lot of attention for a story about fraternity hazing at one of the Ivies. Like the UVa story, it was sensationalist and based largely on one sketchy source although the story included more rounded reporting. College kids—fraternity excesses, drinking, hazing, sex—that’s Rolling Stone’s sweetspot. The UVa story was just too good.”

If you look at Rolling Stone’s circulation, the total numbers—and probably its subscriber renewal rate—have held up very well. In 2005 its paid circulation was 1,476,907. This year paid circulation is 1,470,183.

But newsstand sales are down. In 2006, newsstands sales averaged 135,446 an issue. In 2011, the newsstand average had dropped to 93,122. This year the print magazine newsstand average is 53,339, plus 18,656 digital copy sales, for a total of 71,995.

Enough of a newsstand drop that they couldn’t resist running that “Special Report: Sexual Assault on Campus” cover line?

As for the fallout, note that Jann Wenner isn’t firing any of his editors, probably because he green-lighted the article and he’s hardheaded enough to realize that, yeah, we didn’t handle that very well, but look at the conversation we started and the ink we got.
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Do numbers help explain what happened at the New Republic?

First, paid circulation numbers by year:

2000 – 101,651

2001 –  88,409

2002 –  85,069

2003 –  63,139

2004 –  61,675

2005 –  61,771

2006 –  61,024

2007 –  59,779

2008 –  65,162

2009 –  53,485

In 2010 the New Republic stopped being audited by BPA—switching your audit firm often is not a good sign. The magazine then was audited by AAM. Here are the 2013 AAM numbers:

Paid print subscriptions – 36,630

Verified subscriptions (essentially free subscriptions) – 3,524

Single copy sales – 3,792

The AAM numbers for the first half of 2014:

Paid print subscriptions – 30,914

Verified subscriptions – 1,976

Single copy sales – 1,904

Digital subscriptions – 6,635

From 2000 to 2014, the magazine’s circulation dropped from 101,651 to 41,429 and stayed above 40,000 this year only by giving away 1,976 copies.

In March 2012, Chris Hughes bought the magazine. He seemed poised to invest in it but then, quoting the New York Times:

“In December 2014, shortly after the magazine’s centennial celebration, editor Franklin Foer, and literary editor Leon Wieseltier, were ‘driven out’and dozens of other staff and contributing editors resigned when a new chief executive, Guy Vidra a former Yahoo! employee, described the new direction of the magazine as a ‘vertically integrated digital media company.’”

Journalists have been close to unanimous in condemning the changes—the cut in print frequency from 20 to 10 times a year, the move from Washington to New York, the clumsy way in which it was announced that Foer and Wieseltier were out, leading to mass resignations of the Washington staff. But if you talked with MBA types who mostly look at numbers, they probably would say that the magazine’s editorial staffing was too large for its circulation and its editors seemed more loved by other journalists than by its readers.
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Where do the New Republic’s readers live? The May 26, 2014, issue had 35,681 paid subscribers:

4,831 lived in New York.

4,737 in California.

1,886 in Massachusetts.

1,884 in Illinois.

1,559 in Pennsylvania.

1,431 in Texas.

1,366 in New Jersey.

1,341 in Washington state.

1,307 in Washington, D.C.

The smallest numbers?

38 – Military or civilian personnel overseas.

40 in Wyoming.

49 in North Dakota.

65 in South Dakota.

87 in West Virginia.

90 in Alaska.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this evaluation of magazine health. I’ve never seen an examination like this before. This may not be for your blog, but I’d like to learn, from somewhere, more about the science of click measurement. If an article gets 150,000 “clicks,” how many people actually read the article? If a pop-up ad makes me wait 15 seconds before continuing to the article, but I click X to close it, or I don’t but also do not click through the ad for more information…. “Washington’s Best Restaurants” and “Washington’s 50 Best Doctors,” even decades ago, were still Washingtonian features designed to get (non-digital) clicks, no? But you probably had a good idea that a subscriber or reader actually read certain articles, and the ads surrounding them, because they paid money or in reader surveys you asked them. I don’t yet see how “going for clicks” has changed much over the past 100 years. A modern problem seems to be how to make sense of huge numbers paired with short attention spans, and what to bill or pay for the value of ads where we all try to block pop-ups, or we open up 10 tabs and the PC freezes and we never get to 7 of our clicks.

  2. Mark Frankel says:

    Thanks for the smart analysis. One note: once you get down to a circulation range of 35,000 copies, you’re really talking about a successful newsletter rather than a popular mass-market magazine.
    Also, who knew South Dakota was such a hot bed of liberalism, compared to its northern cousin?


  3. “In December 2014, shortly after the magazine’s centennial celebration, editor Franklin Foer, and literary editor Leon Wieseltier, were ‘driven out’and dozens of other staff and contributing editors resigned when a new chief executive, Guy Vidra a former Yahoo! employee, described the new direction of the magazine as a ‘vertically integrated digital media company.’””
    I disagree. Read: http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/12/04/changes-at-new-republic/19907409/

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