Magazine Circulation Slips Again

But Newsstand Sales' Declines Slowing

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NEW YORK ( -- U.S. magazines' paid and verified circulation has slipped again, declining a modest 2.3% in the first half of this year compared with the first half of 2009, according to the new semiannual report released today by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Overall paid and verified circulation fell 2.2% in the second half of last year, 1.2% in the first half of last year and nearly 1% in the second half of 2008.

Credit: AP
Newsstand sales, however, are moving in the opposite direction, slowing their declines. Newsstand sales fell 5.6% in the first half compared with the first half of 2009. That's a smaller decline than the 9.1% drop in the second half of last year and the 12.4% plunge in the first half of 2009. Before that, newsstand sales had been getting progressively worse.

Advertisers often view newsstand sales as a barometer of reader demand. You could argue that subscriptions show the same thing, because subscribers make a long-term commitment to their favorite titles, but often vanishingly cheap subscription prices make the commitment look a little less weighty than it otherwise might. Subscriptions do provide the bulk of most magazines' paid and verified circulation, but their year-long terms also mean they're not as sensitive to changes in the economy, the competitive set and other factors. Verified circulation can include copies that publishers send to public places such as doctor's office or hair salons.

Only 10 of the top 25 magazines ranked by single-copy sales posted gains in the first half of this year, according to figures filed with the Audit Bureau of Circulations: Cosmopolitan, Woman's World, First, In Touch Weekly, People StyleWatch, Weight Watchers, All You, Women's Health, Vanity Fair and Seventeen.

Although some magazines have increased cover prices, seeking more profitable circulation even if the price hikes sap the number of issues they sell, magazines' retail dollars also declined in the half. Single-copy sales generated 6.1% fewer dollars in the first half than in the first half of 2009, according to the Magazine Information Network, or MagNet, which tracks 99% of magazine retail sales in the U.S. and 100% of magazine retail sales in Canada.

Subscriptions did decline a bit for a second reporting period in a row, slipping 2% in the first half of the year after edging downward 1% in the second half of last year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations' analysis. Subscriptions typically increase a bit or hold even, so one could wonder whether there's an ebbing of interest in magazine subscriptions. But the dips are small and may just as easily reflect publishers' efforts to get better prices for subscriptions, to cut out circulation agents that act as middlemen, and to focus on the most loyal subscribers.

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