NEW YORK -- For anyone who doubted the role of weekly newsmagazines in today's media environment, latest newsstand circulation figures should resolve all questions: Time and Newsweek, both up 80 percent; U.S. News & World Report, up 42 percent.
The figures, reported Friday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, put the three newsweeklies among the biggest gainers for all magazines in terms of newsstand sales, a closely watched indicator of a magazine's vibrancy.
Not surprisingly, most of the surge came in the weeks just after Sept. 11, when readers clamored for news of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath, and sales have fallen off considerably since then. The figures are averaged over the six months ending Dec. 31.
"The newsstand response in the weeks after Sept. 11 mark the most extraordinary newsstand period in Newsweek history, and I've been here since the time dinosaurs walked the earth," Rick Smith, Newsweek's chairman and editor in chief, said in an interview.
Magazines don't generally report month-to-month figures for newsstand sales, but Smith said current sales are still above average. And while not all of those new readers remain with the magazine, Smith said the tremendous surge in interest provided a boost to Newsweek's franchise.
"There's nothing an editor likes more than to see lots of people sampling the magazine, and the businessman in me says the more they sample the magazine the more they'll read it," Smith said. He estimates the magazine gained 150,000 readers over the past six months.
Time publisher Ed McCarrick said his magazine's sales are still "trending higher than normal," although he also declined to say exactly what current newsstand sales were. He said the amount of new subscriptions from cards inserted in magazines sold at newsstands, another important indicator of reader interest, was five times higher than normal.
"News is our business," McCarrick said. "As horrific as the tragedy of 9-11 was, the editors of Time have done a wonderful job writing about it and analyzing it, and if you ask whether we've benefited from it, the answer is yes."
McCarrick said Time sold 3 million copies of a special supplemental issue that went out immediately after the attacks, compared to 156,000 that Time sold of a typical issue in the same period six months ago. Other newsmagazines also put out special issues.
Unlike newsstand-driven magazines like People, single-copy sales usually make up a small portion of a newsweekly's total circulation, but the figures are closely watched as an indicator of reader interest.
Bill Holiber, publisher of U.S. News & World Report, said his magazine had a huge response from newsstand readers wanting to subscribe in the months after Sept. 11, about 10 times as many as usual. But he said newsstand sales are now back down to normal levels.
"Overall we're seeing good signs on the subscription side since 9-11," Holiber said.
Despite the welcome surge in newsstand circulation, however, newsweeklies are still suffering amid the same advertising downturn that has been plaguing all media.
Newsweek chairman Smith said newsstand sales helped offset some of the advertising decline, but not all. "We sell the magazine $3.95 at a time, and it takes a lot of those to offset the disappearance of a single page of advertising," which goes for about $100,000, he said.