A Brief History and Outlook of Magazine and Newspaper Publishing

I entertain a high idea of the utility of periodical publications: insomuch that I could heartily desire, copies of magazines, as well as common gazettes, might spread through every city, town and village in America. I consider such easy vehicles of knowledge, more happily calculated than any other, to preserve the liberty, stimulate the industry and meliorate the morals of an enlightened and free People.

George Washington, 1788


Periodical publishing—in the form of newspapers, journals, magazines and newsletters—has served as a catalyst for shaping culture, fueling political movements and enabling segments of society to identify themselves around common interests and shared perspectives. From a business perspective, periodical publishing has been defined by the ever-evolving interaction of editorial content, reader interest and a revenue model capable of supporting the publisher-subscriber relationship.  

The perennial challenge has been to retain and expand readership while developing a sustainable income stream through subscription fees and advertising revenues. Complicating this challenge is the fact that none of these factors is static. As readership evolves, editorial content must change to maintain relevancy. Content and readership then determine the types of advertisers that are attracted. And the advertisements themselves serve to further reinforce the relevancy of the publication's brand to its readers—sometimes as much as the editorial content.  

Perfecting the content-readership-revenue formula has always been a daunting task—never more so than in recent years as technology reshapes the publishing landscape. On the other hand, new methods for leveraging transactional, demographic and psychographic data offer tremendous opportunities to publishers who seek to better understand their subscribers. In fact, the ability to use this data is the one of the publishing industry's greatest hopes for success in an evolving multichannel world.    

A Brief History of Magazine Publishing  

Historians generally credit The Gentleman's Magazine, founded in London by Edward Cave in 1731, as the first modern magazine. In fact, it was Mr. Cave who coined the term "magazine," borrowing from the French word magasin, which means "storehouse." The Gentleman's Magazine was published continuously for nearly 200 years.  

Cave's category-defining concept consisted of a monthly digest of news and commentary on topics of interest to educated Londoners. From poetry to commodity prices, he brought diverse editorial topics together under a single publishing brand. Delivering the original content of multiple contributors, The Gentleman's Magazine also included articles from other periodicals as well as letters to the editor. Mr. Cave's venture is remarkable not only for its ingenuity, but for the way it presaged the modern magazine industry: editorial content selected on the basis of relevance to a particular audience. Equally important, Mr. Cave made a living doing it.  

Benjamin Franklin was ready to publish America's first magazine, General Magazine, in 1741 when American Magazine beat him to the honor by a mere three days. (Fierce competition in the magazine business is apparently nothing new.) U.S. publishers leveraged the reduced costs of printing and mailing and began to produce affordable magazines with larger audiences in mind. Over time, more new magazines were conceived and published, taking one of two strategic approaches to readership: 1) publishing general interest magazines intended to attract a mass market; and 2) seeking out narrowly defined audiences that shared a common interest.  

By the mid-19th century, successful magazine titles including The Economist and The Atlantic began publication, and they continue to attract subscribers to this day. Publishers began to offer new family-oriented magazines—women's publications aimed at helping them as homemakers and magazines for boys intended to shape their character proved to be popular—as well as magazines dedicated to emerging technology like Popular Mechanics.  

The Saturday Evening Post is credited with being the first successful mass market magazine. It was first published in 1821.  The Post was the first to use artwork as the dominant element on the cover, most notably the idyllic paintings of Norman Rockwell, first appearing in 1916. The magazine's content and illustrations imbued its readers with a sense of self-identification with the mainstream American ethos. In other words, it helped to introduce branding into the publisher-subscriber relationship. Similarly, one of the most iconic magazine brands of all time began publication around this time—National Geographic. The mere presence of an issue of National Geographic in living rooms and parlors across America made a statement about a family's intellectual interest in the larger world around them.  

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, as production costs continued to fall, more titles and larger circulations resulted, making magazines an ever-larger part of American culture. New genres of magazines began to appear. News magazines such as Time and photojournalism magazines including Life began publication. While thousands of new titles failed, many enjoyed sustained success.  

Culturally, a number of powerful forces led to this increase in magazine circulation in the U.S. Increased per capita literacy and education levels created a net gain in readers. Household income and disposable income rose steadily prior to the Great Depression and after World War II. The expansion of mass media in the form of radio and television served to whet the public's appetite for more news and information, and the magazine industry benefitted accordingly. And as American society began to segment itself around political issues, gender roles or special interests, the magazine industry responded by creating more titles appealing to narrower, more targeted audiences. As one example, subscribers to Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report could generally be categorized, respectively, as more politically liberal or conservative.  

The positive growth of magazine readership in the first 70 years of the 20th century was to some degree mitigated by rising postal rates. Rates had been steadily climbing throughout most of this time, but rose even further with the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 and the many rate increases it permitted, making the economics of magazine publishing ever more challenging, even before the challenge of the Internet loomed on the horizon.    

A Brief History of Newspaper Publishing  

The history of what might be considered the modern newspaper era dates back to Renaissance Europe where handwritten newsletters circulated among merchants, passing along information about military and economic issues as well as human interest stories.  

The first printed forerunners of the newspaper—in the form of news pamphlets or broadsides—appeared in Germany in the late 1400s, following Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press and movable type. In the English-speaking world, the earliest predecessors of the newspaper were corantos—small news pamphlets produced only when occasioned by a newsworthy event occurred.  

The first consecutively published English newspaper was The Weekly Newes in 1622. America's first newspaper—Publick Occurrences—appeared in Boston in 1690. Published without royal authority on an irregular schedule, it was quickly suppressed, its publisher arrested, and all copies ordered destroyed.  

The first continuously published newspaper in America was the Boston News-Letter, begun by postmaster John Campbell in 1704. That same year, the first paid newspaper advertisement in America appeared in the News-Letter—an announcement seeking a buyer for a Long Island estate. By the eve of the Revolutionary War, more than twenty newspapers were being published in the colonies. Colonial newspapers played a crucial role in shaping public opinion that eventually resulted in independence from England. The relationship between the means of production—the printing press—and the printers who published them, led to the use of the term "the press" to describe practitioners of journalism.  

By the end of the war in 1783, the new United States boasted some forty-three newspapers. The press continued to play a major role in the politics of the new nation, with newspapers representing a wide spectrum of opinion and influencing the outcomes of elections and legislation. The nation's founders, regardless of political party, understood the value of a free press and enshrined that freedom in the Bill of Rights.  

Advances in printing and papermaking technology fueled an expansion of newspaper publication and the emergence of the "Penny Press." It was now possible to publish a newspaper that could be sold for only a penny per copy. By 1837, Benjamin Day's penny newspaper the Sun, was the most successful penny newspaper in New York with a circulation of 30,000, making it the world's largest newspaper. The affordability and availability of newspapers and rising literacy rates complemented one another, creating a flywheel effect that made newspapers a ubiquitous part of American culture.  

U.S. newspapers also benefited from two factors in the early life of the new nation: lax copyright enforcement and the Postal Act of 1792, which stipulated "that every printer of newspapers may send one paper to each and every other printer of newspapers within the United States, free of postage." Periodical publishers freely shared content derived from other sources in order to satisfy the hunger for news and information across a fast-expanding western frontier.  

The industrial revolution impacted the newspaper business, enabling both the numbers of papers being published and their paid circulations to rise. The 1850 census identified 2,526 newspaper titles, many of them featuring, for the first time, illustrations made from engravings based on drawings or the new technology of photography. The Civil War created previously unknown demand for timely reporting of news as well as images from the battlefields.  

As the nation continued to grow in territory and population, the number and circulation of newspapers kept pace. Through the turn of the century, two World Wars, the Great Depression and many other events, the newspaper established itself as means of communication and a ritual of daily life. It also gave rise to the modern advertising industry.  During this time there were numerous advances in technology and communications.  Press wires, use of color, digital printing, and many other advances changed the industry.   

Newspaper circulation and advertising revenues hit their peak during the 1970s through early 1990s. The declines that began in the mid 1990s corresponded with emergence and adoption of the Internet as a supplemental or primary source for news for millions of Americans.  

As with magazines, the digital revolution greatly impacted newspapers, from both an editorial and advertising perspective. Editorially, readers and subscribers were freed from having to subscribe to an entire issue of any given publication, or even to pay for a subscription at all. The largely free news, features, and topically organized content, undermined the need for subscribing to an entire newspaper. Virtually every newspaper had to seek out ways to offer both print and digital versions. As news cycles accelerated, it became harder for printed editions—based simply on the time it takes to compose and print an issue—to deliver the most recent news, while online news sites and cable news networks were perfectly positioned for this steady stream of breaking news. Some newspapers eventually made the decision to go all-digital, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Christian Science Monitor.  

A number of related factors also negatively impacted ad revenues: declining circulation numbers decreased rate base; marketers sensing the need to diversify their media spend, reallocated dollars from printed newspapers and magazines to digital media outlets; and ad revenue from classified ads—once a highly profitable section of most newspapers—lost, collectively, nearly a billion dollars a year to websites like Craigslist and eBay.  

With declining subscriptions, new sources of competition, shrinking ad revenues and increased costs of production, the newspaper industry has witnessed numerous closures, acquisitions, mergers and bankruptcies. In response to the high cost of journalists and newsrooms, and in part because of some many competitors emerging on the internet, many papers have trimmed editorial staffs so severely that some observers believe there is a lack of high quality journalism—historically a crucial component of the informed public and democratic society that Washington and the other Founders envisioned.    

Technology: Complement or Competition?  

Technology's impact on the publishing industry has been an exponential one. The printing industry evolved from the letterpress and Linotype to phototypesetting and offset printing, followed, in turn, by high-speed web presses and full digital production. Paralleling the improvements in the means of production were the advancements in technology used to manage and increase subscriptions.  

Most notably, computerization enabled circulation directors to record, store and analyze subscriber data as never before. Merge-purge processing to remove duplicates in circulation promotion mailings could do in a short time what was virtually impossible in the pre-computer addressograph era. Computers handled data so efficiently that it became possible to store more information about each subscriber. This enabled strategies for understanding and modeling current subscribers in order to reach new ones, ushering the publishing industry into the database marketing era.    

The Role of Database Marketing  

Database marketing, in some ways, predates the computer. Benjamin Franklin certainly had a list of subscribers, records of payment and renewals, and he likely sought ways to leverage the profile of the typical subscriber to solicit new ones. Fast-forward to the early 1900s—the days of great publishing names such as Hearst, Meredith, Scripps and Gannett. As direct marketers, they began to analyze massive amounts of non-computerized data to identify ideal prospects for receiving subscription promotion offers. This data eventually migrated to computers that were becoming more powerful while becoming less expensive (Moore's Law). More subscriber data could be stored, analyzed and modeled than ever before. Large publishers began to build—and continue perfecting today—in-house database management and predictive modeling departments, augmented by the services of external third-party providers.  

Database marketing principles that have historically informed the publishing business include, but are not limited to, such guidelines as:  

  • Subscribers are more valuable than non-subscribers.
  • Active subscribers are more valuable than expired subscribers.
  • Some active subscribers are more valuable than others.
  • Subscribers to a given magazine share many demographic, psychographic and geographic characteristics, but have important differences as well.
  • Future subscribers tend to resemble current subscribers.
  • The makeup of a subscriber base can be altered over time by shifting editorial content and circulation promotion strategy.   

Concurrent with advances in technology, single-copy sales at newsstands and stores declined dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s and are still falling today. The need for publishers to increase subscriptions to replace single-copy sales led to a host of tactics including price-cutting, trial subscriptions, soft offers and the use of third-party agents like Publishers' Clearing House. While these tactics helped increase or slow the decline of rate base, to the extent these programs were utilized, they also diminished the direct relationship that magazines had long enjoyed with their readers and the perceived value of their content.   

Despite declines in direct-to-publisher (DTP) subscriptions and increased reliance on agent-sold subscriptions, there are promising new approaches to improving the quality of subscriber bases, predicated upon a return to the importance of the reader's direct relationship with the publisher. A data-driven, integrated approach to editorial content, subscription promotions and cultivating a title's brand can improve a publication's revenue dynamics—namely, impacting how much and how quickly subscribers are willing to pay for subscriptions and how likely they are to renew.    

Publishing's Digital Future  

It is widely recognized that the Internet has been highly disruptive to the publishing industry and thus blamed for a decline in total circulation, subscriptions, readership and revenue. Many publishers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, uncertain of how to make the transition to the Web, began moving their editorial material online without a proven strategy for revenue generation. Most put the bulk of their content online free of charge in order to avoid "missing out" on the vaguely defined opportunities of the Internet. Others tried paywalls that ended up driving readers to competitors' sites where the content was free. Further complicating matters was the entrance of new sources of competition. Every major broadcast and cable network made its move to the Web, effectively creating online publications that became new sources of competition for readers and advertising dollars.  

Digital consumption of news, information and entertainment profoundly impacted newspaper and magazine readership, especially among younger audiences, beginning with Generation X in the 1990s, and continuing with Generation Y/Millennials today. Even the broad generalizations about how older adults consume printed versus digital media are being revised as their reading habits begin to resemble those of the next generation. Many young people have become increasingly detached from cultural institutions, including longstanding magazine and newspaper titles, preferring instead to focus on being socially networked with friends. And the transition from dial-up Internet access to broadband fueled an explosion of video content led by YouTube. (According to Nielsen, YouTube reaches more US adults ages 18-34 than any cable network, with over a billion unique interactions each month.) The tendency to surf and scan digital content rather than read printed material was thus further transformed by a growing consumption of video content.  

Print subscribers, constrained by cost and time to subscribe to a limited number of magazines, are free to surf the Web and even have news and information come pre-filtered by interest and category directly to their inbox every day. They became their own content aggregators, shifting the center of gravity in the publisher-reader relationship much closer to the reader. For example, the content curation app Flipboard now boasts 50 million users who create 20,000 personalized, magazines every day— collections of content sourced from hundreds of different publications and blogs. Consequently, for some consumers the act of perusing a magazine page-by-page, discovering unanticipated articles or advertisements, has to some extent given way to content selection that aligns with their own pre-conceived interests. This shift in media consumption has even led some to observe that if people increasingly consume only what they seek and thus little or no new information or viewpoints, the general knowledge of the public will decline.   

Another important factor in the digital publishing landscape is the potential reduction in cost of digital production and dissemination of content. Printing, transportation and rising postage costs are making it harder for print publications to be profitable. But digital subscription fulfillment costs can potentially be a small fraction of the expenses involved in fulfilling print subscriptions. Digital platforms also offer publishers the opportunity to reduce the costs of new subscription and renewal promotions. While successful digital acquisition of new subscribers has remained elusive, better data and new methodologies will allow more precise targeting and retargeting of qualified new subscriptions and renewals.  For large publishers digital subscriptions may reduce cost substantially, but for some smaller publishers there are software & production charges to create native digital versions and commissions to the entities that can make their content available on devices.  In these cases, the cost of digital can be high. Instead of paying printers and the USPS, they are paying companies such as Adobe and Apple.  

Digital also has lowered the barrier to entry for anyone willing to put the time into developing or re-purposing content, thus creating new sources of competition to long-established print media publishers. This long tail effect led to the granularization of the publishing industry, in much the same way that cable television multiplied the number of channels designed to appeal to increasingly narrow interests. And like the music industry, the digital democratization of publishing has multiplied the number of competitors by lowering the barrier to entry.  

User-generated content additionally contributes to usurping the authoritative role that mainstream magazine titles once occupied. Pinterest, as just one example, enables users to share ideas on decorating or fashion that were once realms presided over by women's interest magazines. As a result, in order to stay visible and relevant to their readers, virtually every major magazine title has deployed multiple social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram and others. On the positive side, these social media platforms offer new ways to engage readers directly, learn about their interests and adapt editorial and advertising accordingly. Social media also offers some of the most targeted and affordable advertising methods for subscription promotion.  

The result of these new digital, multichannel realities is that publishers who previously had only to address their print subscribers must now meet the needs of three types of consumers of their content:  

  1. Print subscribers (many subscribers still prefer print)
  2. Digital subscribers (some digital subscribers like print too)
  3. Website and social media visitors who do not subscribe  

There is some overlap between the first two groups, in part because some publishers offer a free digital subscription as part of a paid print subscription. Digital-only subscribers make up only a small percentage of total subscribers, but are growing in number and importance. And then there are the large numbers of content consumers—numbering in the millions for some publications—who visit a publisher's website or social media platforms, perhaps even daily, without ever subscribing.  

A related behavioral tendency is that in many cases the print subscribers of a given title are relatively infrequent visitors to the title's website. They have what they need and want in the printed version and find little reason to go online. Many publishers know little about the individual online behaviors of their print subscribers, for two reasons.  They don't come to the website often; and, when they do come, they don't log-in so they are not recognized. This is not always the case, especially for small, niche titles, but is frequently a problem for many titles.  

To make this connection between print readership and online activity, many publishers have created email or text alert services where at least some information is required in order to receive the service. Other publishers are driving their print subscribers online to pay for their subscription and become registered users of the site; or perhaps enter a contest or sign up to receive a value-added resource by going online and filling out a form. Making this connection between print and digital creates the opportunity to understand, track and measure the online behavior and interests of print subscribers.  

These multiple channels of reader/subscriber engagement have created a situation in which the need for a publication to have a strong brand has never been greater. Publishers must offer a unique, compelling value proposition for each title—a brand capable of tying all print and digital touch-points together while creating a preference vis-à-vis similar competing titles.    

Tablets and Mobile  

Another factor further changed the magazine publishing landscape: mobile media consumption on tablets and smartphones. Beginning in 2010 with the introduction of the Apple iPad, exciting new opportunities opened up for publishers and readers to connect digitally. The critique of computerized content had long been that it didn't pass the test of the 3 Bs: readability on the bus, in bed and in the bathtub. But the tablet's small, flat form factor and touch-screen interface made it all possible. Publishers can now do far more than replicate print. With tablets, content has become interactive, animated, searchable and hyperlinked to external sources and online communities. Most importantly, it has become portable and always close at hand.  

Tablets and smartphones have also fueled the growth in impulse buying of subscriptions and single issues, often delivered as apps. This has led some to herald the tablet as the savior of the magazine publishing industry. So while the majority of subscribers still prefer printed magazines to electronic versions, tablets like the iPad and the Amazon Kindle are redefining how an increasing number of subscribers purchase, consume and share magazine and newspaper content.    

The Challenging Economics of Digital  

Despite many positive outcomes, there is still a tremendous challenge in monetizing digital publishing. This is due in part to the fact that digital subscriptions account for only a small percentage of total subscription (3.5% of consumer magazines according to recent Alliance for Audited Media research). But they are growing at a rate of 36.7% while print circulation is declining at a rate of 1.7%.  Similarly, single-copy sales declined 11.1% even as single-issue digital sales soar, with remarkable increases in back-issue sales. Apple's Newsstand, Amazon and apps like Next Issue have become leading purveyors of subscriptions and single copies. And while good for maintaining rate base and dramatically increasing back-issue revenues, these factors do virtually nothing to further the relationship between the publication and the reader; and to some degree, they move that relationship in the wrong direction as the data generated by third-party digital newsstands, including the popular app Next Issue, is notoriously difficult (or impossible) to integrate into publishers' other subscriber data.  

Advertising as a source of revenue in digital publications often commands a much smaller rate than print, for several reasons, all or some of which may apply to a given situation: lower digital than print circulation; one-time exposure vs. print ads that remain until the print copy is destroyed; and the relative absence of a pass-along factor. As digital circulation increases the gap between the two price points may narrow, but the gulf between them is still quite wide, and printed magazines will continue to be a major source of financial opportunity—in terms of both subscriptions and advertising—for many years to come, even though digital advertising adds the benefits of interactive creative and the ability to connect immediately with the advertiser.  

Some of the more promising solutions involve giving subscribers the option to receive both printed and digital versions. Magazines and newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and The Economist have embraced a "freemium" model where some articles are free to the public while others require a digital subscription in order to be accessed. Most industry experts agree that the code has not been cracked in optimally monetizing digital magazines and newspapers. This is still a time of experimentation and testing of new ideas. What this means for publishers is that they must continue to maintain and increase their print subscriber base while figuring out how best to integrate print with the emerging digital opportunities.    


The final chapter in the relationship between printed and digital publications has yet to be written. Further disruptions can be expected, but along with them further opportunities. Despite the views of some doomsayers, the Internet by no means represents the end of the magazine or newspaper industries. Proof of print's vitality, even in the digital age, is seen in new niche magazine titles that continue to be launched each year. And in some cases, as with Politico, a content-driven website makes the decision to publish a corresponding print edition. The oft-quoted adage that "print is dead" is clearly an overstatement.  

Digital consumption of media can complement print by yielding data-driven insights regarding collective readership behaviors that print-only publications could never have hoped to collect. This data collection allows publishers to continually optimize editorial content for subscriber preferences as a whole.  

Each individual published title needs to  understand its own subscribers more completely and use that understanding to serve subscribers better than ever before. As publishers find ways to incentivize their subscribers to identify themselves when they are at the publisher's website the publisher can learn about the individual subscriber's interests and thus serve them better.  Also, more comprehensive and higher quality insight concerning subscribers will also be valuable to advertisers, enabling them to target and measure their media investments more precisely than ever before.  

The industry's future will be one of continual reinvention. Publishers who have made strategic pivots in content, branding and audience cultivation have proven that it is possible to succeed in a multichannel world. As publishers look into the future, they must:  

  1. Find new ways to expand subscriber base, or at least remain stable, despite increased competition and cultural change;
  2. Find ways for print and digital to complement one another to create a sense of community and subscriber identification with their brands;
  3. Enhance appeal to advertisers with the result that marketers make magazine and newspaper advertising a significant part of their ongoing media budget;
  4. Know their subscriber base better than ever before, and align editorial content with the interests of their most desirable subscribers, so that subscriber's enjoy the publication more and renew at a higher rate.  

The good news is that all four objectives are achievable. Even as some industry-wide subscription metrics are in decline, there are numerous and notable exceptions of double-digit circulation growth. Better models for identifying ideal subscribers and improved methods for reaching them, augmented by a dynamic approach to increasing the relevancy of editorial content offer new paths to success, even in the publishing industry's most challenging era.