Magazine industry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The magazine industry was one of the major disseminators of information, cultural material, and entertainment before the advent of broadcast media. During the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it has had to readjust its methods to compete and integrate with television and the Internet. Through specialization and fast technological printing processes, magazines have continued to lure paying customers, both readers and advertisers.

The publication of American magazines began in 1741 in Philadelphia, when Andrew Bradford’s American Magazine and, days later, Benjamin Franklin’s General Magazine were published. By the end of the eighteenth century, about one hundred magazines were providing information and entertainment to the populace in and around Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.Magazine industry

These earlier periodicals catered to a rather elite readership inasmuch as literacy was largely the province of the educated, financially better off segment of society. The early nineteenth century produced scholarly journals such as Boston’s The North American Review, which was modeled after the British publications Quarterly and Edinburgh Review. By 1831, Godey’s Lady’s Book carried articles relating to women’s fashions and issues of morality and taste. Its circulation reached an impressive 150,000. Harper’s Magazine (founded in 1850) published serialized novels by the English writers Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and George Eliot, often paying them more handsomely than did its English counterparts.

Competing for Readers

By the time of the U.S. Civil War, magazine publication had expanded. Low postal rates allowed for wide distribution of periodicals throughout the ever-expanding nation. With growing competition, some publishers reduced the price of their magazines in a bid to capture a wider audience. The more expensive magazines such as Harper’s Magazine and Scribner’s Magazine sold for 25 to 35 cents a copy, which was a considerable sum at the time. Harper’s Magazine, for instance, had an annual subscription price in 1870 of $4. An advertisement in the magazine cost $1.50 per line per insertion on an inside page and $2.00 per line on the outside cover. McClure’s Magazine, published in 1893 by Samuel S. McClure, went on sale for only 15 cents a copy. The success of McClure’s Magazine prompted other magazine publishers to lower their prices: Cosmopolitan dropped its price to 12« cents, and Munsey’s Magazine dropped its price to 10 cents. The magazines’ lower prices increased their readership between 1893 and 1899, and circulation grew from 250,00 to 750,000 readers.

Improvements in production methods and wider use of photoengraving processes to produce illustrations made mass production cheaper; advertising revenues increased with the periodicals’ wider distribution. Increased advertising revenues made it possible to sell magazines for less than they cost to publish. The advent of easier-to-produce color illustrations made magazines more attractive, leading to even greater circulation. During the 1890’s, the newly developed multicolor rotary press made color printing easier and cheaper. In addition, Advertising industry;magazinesadvertising agencies had grown in size and capabilities; their inventive copywriters, artists, and page designers presented their business clients’ products in visually appealing and stimulating formats. Photography and the use of the halftone block created timely images of news events and other contemporaneous visuals that captured the interest of the reading public.

Even after automated processes were available, women’s magazines continued to print hand-tinted fashion illustrations. As many as 150 women had to be hired to do the tinting, an expensive proposition, but there was a strong audience for such visual embellishment throughout the nineteenth century. Women’s magazines with illustrations debuted and thrived; among these successful publications were Ladies’ Home Journal (1883), Ladies’ Home Companion (1886), Vogue (1892), and McCall’s Magazine (1807). Although Good Housekeeping (1885) was not quite in the same category as these fashion magazines because it was geared toward homemakers, it still had a strong appeal to women readers.

The Impact of Advertising

Many early American magazine publishers resisted advertising, patterning their periodicals after the more literary or scholarly British periodicals. The appearance of consumerism was thought to be crass and contradicted the image they wanted to convey. By the twentieth century, however, businesses of all types were acutely aware of the need to stand out from the competition, and one of the best ways to do so was to advertise their products to the widest possible audience. Thus, the demand for advertising venues increased dramatically, and the expanding circulation of magazines, especially to bases of committed subscribers, further motivated businesses to offer top dollar to advertise in these periodicals. Some magazines gave in quickly to the enticement of increased revenue from the sale of advertising space. They used the money to produce more copies with as much or more content as before and to generate greater profits.

Others, however, such as Reader’s Digest[Readers Digest]>Reader’s Digest (founded in 1922), held off until mid-century before succumbing to the lure of advertising. For years, Reader’s Digest boasted that it contained no ads; it could afford to resist as long as it did because of its huge, devoted readership. By 1922, The Saturday Evening Post had built its circulation to more than 2 million readers, and its advertising revenues had reached more than $28 million. It initially charged relatively low advertising rates, but as its circulation and popularity increased, so did its rates.

Verification of Circulation

It soon became apparent that a magazine’s circulation was important in determining both the kinds of advertising the magazine could publish and the rates it could charge. As a result, advertisers needed a way to verify magazines’ circulation figures. An impartial resource was needed to research which magazines people were reading, how many people were reading each particular magazine, and what specific topics and formats held their interest. The first organizations to track this kind of information were a market research organization established by the Curtis Publishing Company in 1911 and the Audit Bureau of Circulation, which was founded in 1914.

Most magazines published in 1900 devoted about 50 percent of their content to advertising, much of which was clustered in the back pages so as not to interrupt the magazines’ unpaid content. By 1947, 65 percent of the average magazine’s content was advertising. Colorful, sometimes intriguing or humorous ads were scattered throughout magazines, interrupting the flow of essays and fiction.

Drawbacks of Advertising

The content of most magazines is written either by freelance writers, whose main allegiance is to their own research, intent, and style, or by salaried staff writers, who are bound to adhere to the standards, philosophy, and purposes of the magazine’s publisher and owner. On occasion, an article or story gets published that creates a backlash among readers or causes advertisers to feel their products were denigrated in some way. When that happens, the business department of the magazine often hastens to rectify the situation, reassuring the readership that no insult was intended and the advertisers that no harm was done. Especially when an offended advertiser provides a large portion of the periodical’s budget, the magazine must strive to avoid losing that business as a client.

Many magazines have had to yield to financial pressure from advertisers who disagree with editorial decisions of the magazines and print retractions, expunge their stable of writers, or do whatever will best appease their advertisers. Others, however, have such wide popularity and financial strength that they can afford to hold firm to their policies and insist that advertisers either accept those policies or cancel their advertisements. Still, the tendency has been for magazines, no matter their financial or philosophical stance, to try to give minimum offense to both advertisers and readers and to avoid radical departures from the middle ground of their chosen readership.


The success of women’s magazines proved that “niche” publications could be profitable. The women’s magazines themselves splintered into even more specialized publications dealing with fashion, health, sexual concerns, weddings and marriage, family and home, and, during the 1970’s, feminism. Innovative distribution of these publications in supermarkets opened yet another outlet for such magazines and increased readership and circulation.

Early men’s magazines and or those catering mostly to men’s interests, such as Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine (founded in 1840) and Popular Science Monthly (founded in 1872), always had an audience, as most of the individuals with the financial means to purchase magazines and the education to read them were men. During the twentieth century, specialization increased. Magazines geared to boys, girls, or young people of both genders were successful as the populace became more literate. Ads for clothes and accessories produced greater sales and lucrative profits for both the advertisers and the magazines.

By the mid- to late twentieth century, there was considerable diversity in specialized magazines. Indeed, general magazines were losing favor with readers, who preferred more narrowly focused publications. Although men’s and women’s magazines might still provide general information about health, fitness, fashion, and leisure activities, some magazines adopted much narrower approaches. Some men’s magazines dealt with such masculine interests as automobiles, fishing and hunting, sports, guns and knives, and outdoor activities. Women’s magazines focused more narrowly on becoming a bride, weddings and marriage, relationships, true confessions about crises in women’s lives, family life, home decoration, romance, pregnancy, and baby care. Magazines for youngsters proliferated during the mid- to late twentieth century. News magazines such as Time and Newsweek continued to be popular even after the advent of online versions of news dispatchers, in part because they developed their own competing online presence. They continued to be profitable as well, with increased advertising revenues.

Economic Concerns

New production technology developed during the 1980’s allowed magazine publishing to proceed ever faster and more profitably. As the twentieth century wound down, however, recessionary trends set in, causing advertisers to reduce their budgets to maintain reasonable profits. Publishers responded in part by introducing niche periodicals geared so precisely to a specific readership that advertisers were assured of a closely matched audience for their advertisements. The spectrum of niche publications expanded to include more kinds of comic, lifestyle, travel, music, and family magazines. Markets that had previously been overlooked or ignored, such as certain ethnic groups or esoteric activities and issues (snowboarding or electronic innovations, for example), were soon targeted by niche publications.

The leading advertisers by the beginning of the twenty-first century were automobile makers (including General Motors, Toyota, Ford, and Daimler-Chrysler), consumer goods companies (including Johnson and Johnson, Procter and Gamble, and L’Oreal USA), tobacco companies such as Philip Morris, and entertainment groups such as AOL Time Warner. The top fifty magazine advertisers spent $6.4 billion in 2002, making the business of magazine publishing an attractive, profitable enterprise. Hundreds of magazine publishers and entrepreneurs, wishing to cash in on such a lucrative business, launched magazines each year only to struggle and disappear amid the fierce competition for both readers and advertisers. As many as 50 percent of these new launches failed within one to two years.

The outlook for magazine publishing in the twenty-first century is problematic. With the growing popularity and lower cost of electronic magazines (ezines) and with the rising costs of paper, wages, distribution, and other traditional costs of magazine publishing, the magazine industry faces several concerns. It has already responded, though, by aggressively marketing itself online, and–almost without exception–every major print periodical maintains a significant Web site, which both encourages traditional print subscriptions and distributes unique content, enhancing the print publication’s revenue with online advertisements. The direction taken by the industry in the future will depend on the continuing desire of Americans for the tactile satisfaction of holding a printed periodical in their hands as opposed to the gratification some feel to have almost instantaneous electronic access to information and entertainment.

Further Reading
  • Angeletti, Norberto, and Alberto Oliva. Magazines That Make History: Their Origins, Development, and Influence. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004. Explores the strategies of the founders of eight American and European magazines to show their beginnings, evolution, and impact on business decisions and practices. Of particular interest is its treatment of Time, Life, and Reader’s Digest.
  • Daly, Charles P., Patrick Henry, and Ellen Ryder. The Magazine Publishing Industry. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997. Discusses in detail advertising, marketing, circulation, production, and editorial techniques. Examines the state of the industry during the last years of the twentieth century in terms of social, economic, and technological concerns.
  • Johnson, Sammye, and Patricia Prijate. The Magazine from Cover to Cover. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Overview of magazine publishing, analyzing industry trends, how magazines reflect and influence the world around them, and the role of advertising. Covers American magazine publishing history, case histories of selected magazines, and historical trends.
  • Renard, David, et al. Last Magazine: Magazines in Transition. New York: Universe, 2006. Discusses issues and pressures that will cause a decline in publication of print magazines and lead to two types of future magazines: those in electronic form and “style press” magazines. Chapters are devoted to each type.
  • Sumner, David E., and Shirrel Rhoades. Magazines: A Complete Guide to the Industry. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. Details magazine production processes from article conception through printing and distribution. Comprehensive look at industry trends, history, issues, and business basics. Contains lists, charts, glossaries.

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