Has magazine readership topped out?

Has magazine readership topped out? Okay. We all know that I think journalism’s dirty little secret is that journalists don’t know how to use statistics. So it should come as no surprise that I reject the statistical basis for the argument made in this article in DM News today that “magazine readership is hitting a brick wall.”

Here is the basis for the writer’s conclusions:

Based on this statistic of magazines measured by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, U.S. magazines grew very nicely from 245 million copies in 1970 to 366 million in 1990. Then they stopped dead. The year 1991 saw 365 million. In 1992 it was 362 million. Year 2000 showed an up-blip to 379 million. But the last number we have is for 2003 — a miserable 353 million.

No matter how many new magazines launch, the number of them sold, as an aggregate, has not changed for nearly 14 years. We have run out of magazine readers, and publishers are just stealing them from each other. Keep that in mind when you rent your next list and when you settle in with a glossy, new magazine to read.

So, therefore, the “magazines hits wall” argument is for those magazines measured by ABC. What this does not account for are the (as estimated by the industry newsletter, Publications Management) over 100,000 magazines that are not audited by ABC. This does not reflect the proliferation of custom magazines that have been launched in the time frame measured, the vast majority of which are not audited. This does not reflect those institutional and association magazines that do not carry advertising and, therefore, have no reason to be audited by ABC or BPA.

So, when the writer argues the following…

The reason this should concern you is a dirty little secret the magazine industry doesn’t want you to know: We have run out of readers in this country. You may have heard about the recent, mind-blowing study by the National Endowment for the Arts in which it found that book reading has decreased 10 percent since 1982. Fewer than 47 percent read any form of literature in the previous 12 months. A similar statistic exists in the magazine world, but it is usually tucked in among other, more palatable facts. It is called the “Annual Combined Paid Circulation Per Issue,” and it hasn’t moved since 1990.

…she is totally ignoring the point that “Annual Combined Paid Circulation Per Issue” can’t be used as an argument for the conclusion that “we’ve run out of readers.” It can only be used as an argument that the “Annual Combined Paid Circulation Per Issue” of the fraction of the universe of magazines subjected to the audit hasn’t moved since 1990. Unless she can (and this is something any person who has taken a statistics course should know) display some correlation between that number and the readership of all magazines published, then, well, her argument just doesn’t add up.

  • Mark

    I was wondering how long it would be before you took that article apart.

    My New Year’s Eve suggestion is for everyone to stay away from Opry Mills and the hotel. I barely survived another Christmas living nearby. Briley Parkway was a parking lot. If you do come this way, I would recommend getting some barbecue at Scoreboard Bar & Grill. They smoke all the meat onsite, huge portions, and it’s delicious.

  • Shawn Lea

    I work in the health care field. We spend a lot of time explaining numbers to reporters in an admittedly complex field. But my favorite story is the reporter who called a small, rural hospital administrator and demanded to know why the hospital had a 50% death rate for heart attack patients. His response: “One of them died.”

  • rex

    Shawn. I have no doubt I’ll be repeating that story for years to come. Statistics humor: a new genre.

  • Mond

    Very interesting blog!