Magazine Circulation Flat, Despite Soft Newsstand Sales

Digital sales are small but growing part of the industry

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Average magazine circulation held steady in the second half of 2012 versus the year-earlier period as increases in print and digital subscriptions offset declines in single-copy sales. The figures were released today by the Alliance for Audited Media (formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations).

Digital replica editions, often hailed by publishers as the potential savior of the industry, represent a small but growing part of magazines' circulation, more than doubling in volume to 7.9 million copies, or 2.4 percent of total industry circulation. (In the first half of 2012, digital copies accounted for 1.7 percent of all circulation.)

Newsstand sales continued to be the industry's weak spot, declining 8.2 percent. Single-copy sales only represent 9 percent of circulation, but they've traditionally been seen as an important barometer of consumer wantedness, although that attitude has waned somewhat as the affects of the recession and shrinking number of shopping trips has cut into magazines' retail sales opportunity.   

There were a few bright spots on the newsstand. Meredith’s Family Circle and Hearst's Woman's Day grew single-copy 21.6 percent to 636,363 and 14.4 percent to 426,304, respectively. (One likely factor was that the magazines decreased frequency in 2012, with the result that each issue stays on newsstands longer). Hearst’s Food Network Magazine increased its single-copy sales 10.4 percent to 483,773.

The three biggest digital sellers, according to AAM, were Game Informer, with a massive 2.3 million digital copies sold, followed by Maxim (259,529 copies) and Cosmopolitan (254,751). This was only the second AAM report in which digital sales were broken out into their own column.

Some of the weakest numbers in the second half of 2012 belonged to celebrity weeklies. Life & Style saw its total circulation drop 18.4 percent, OK! Weekly fell 14.4 percent, and In Touch fell 14.3 percent. Star and Us Weekly did slightly better, with circulations declining 4.9 and 2.2 percent, respectively. And People, the category leader and typically its strongest, was the only magazine in the category to see its circulation rise, by nearly 2 percent, despite a 12.2 percent decline in newsstand sales.

Mary Berner, the president and CEO of MPA, the Association of Magazine Media, said the numbers don’t tell the whole story, noting that while digital editions still made up a small percent of overall circulation, only 65 percent of magazines reported their digital statistics.

“I think you’ll see tablet adoption snowballing,” said Berner. “It went from nobody having tablet editions to almost 100 percent in less than 18 months. The data hasn’t actually caught up to what’s happening.”

As for newsstand sales, Berner said, “it’s question of coming up with strategies that help the retailers position magazines [on the newsstand] and also to give the consumer something that makes sense.” The MPA is in the process of organizing a category-wide promotion around food magazines that will launch later this spring.

From a parent company perspective, results were similarly mixed in the second half of 2012. The biggest U.S. publisher, Time Inc., was up in total average circ by 0.3 percent to 32.9 million. Hearst's circulation was the highest in its history at 30.7 million, up 2.3 percent over 2011, despite single copy sales slipping 1.9 percent. Rodale’s total paid and verified circulation rose 1.2 percent, with newsstand sales also down (a decrease of 1.5 percent). At Condé Nast, total circulation was off 2.2 percent, but total subscriptions rose 1.6 percent while digital subscription were up 253 percent.

@adweekemma Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.