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Did Newsstand Sales Affect Time's Choice for Person of the Year?

Pope Isn't Exactly a Newsstand Barnburner, but He Does Outsell Edward Snowden

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Time's Person of the Year cover
Time's Person of the Year cover

Did Time magazine pick Pope Francis as its Person of the Year because he'll sell more magazines than Edward Snowden? That's what some media outlets and Twitter users suggested Wednesday after the new pontiff beat out Mr. Snowden for the recognition.

Business Insider, for instance, wrote:

"Snowden, who appears in only a handful of photographs, has been covered to death, and is unpopular with very many people, is not likely to improve newsstand sales, especially at a middle of the road publication like TIME. Pope Francis, on the other hand, has an ready-built audience of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, with early indications are that his popularity even leading lapsed Catholics to return to the pews, and many more people who are happy to commemorate exciting developments in the Vatican. In the realpolitik world of modern magazine publishing, these are factors that can't be ignored."

Such a narrative offers an easy explanation as to why Francis, whose tenure atop the Catholic Church has only just begun, could "beat" Mr. Snowden -- who, although controversial, set off an ongoing series of events around the world with his disclosures of U.S. government spying.

Francis has topped Mr. Snowden at the newsstand when they've appeared on Time this year. Time sold 69,919 copies of its Mar. 25 issue with Francis on the cover, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, roughly 10,000 more than the average number of single-copies sold during the first half of 2013.

In July he appeared again, selling 51,430 single-copy issues.

Meanwhile, Mr. Snowden's only appearance on Time's cover, for the June 24 issue, sold 44,310 copies.

Newsstand sales are one way magazines try to find new subscribers, of course, which is why newsstand copies still include those subscription cards that everybody complains about. And it's probably better marketing for Time in general to choose a popular figure than a polarizing fugitive.

But to think that Time would choose its Person of the Year because of several thousand single-copies is ludicrous, according to Time Managing Editor Nancy Gibbs. "Selling magazines on the newsstand is such a tiny part of our business that we would be insane if we let it influence our decisions," she said.

Time's weekly single-copy sales comprise less than 2% of the magazine's 3.3 million paid and verified circulation, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. The vast majority are subscribers.

To be sure, Time's annual Person of the Year issue is among its best-selling issues at the newsstand, even if single-copy sales have been declining steadily, following the broader trend in the industry toward newsstand declines.

Last year's edition with President Obama on the cover sold 125,011 copies, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, compared with a newsstand average of 58,796 for the second half of 2012.

The 2011 cover with a nameless protester moved 142,673 at the newsstand, compared with a single-copy average of 76,555 in the second half of that year.

Mark Zuckerberg, who was Time's 2010 Person of the Year, helped sell 161,136 copies, compared with the six-month average of 79,274.

But Ms. Gibbs pointed out that its millions of subscribers have already bought the Person of the Year issue, no matter who shows up on the cover. If Time made its big editorial decisions around newsstand, it would be "out of business fast," she said.

Perhaps newsstand really is the wrong measure, as these things go now. Pope Francis did create a tidal wave of interest on Twitter, where the tweet announcing him as Person of the Year racked up more than 17,000 retweets --the most ever for Time magazine, according to Twitter's official blog, and far more than last year's tweet naming President Obama. To date, it's grabbed about 3,280 retweets.

The Twitter outpouring was neither luck nor serendipity for Time, however. As part of this year's announcement, Time partnered with Twitter, tweeting the Person of the Year at the same time it was announced on the Today show Wednesday morning. Twitter's official account helped threw fuel on the social media fire by retweeting Time's announcement. Time did not pay Twitter for the promotion, according to a Time spokeswoman, who described the partnership as editorial in nature.

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