Back in Circulation

Combing through a century of magazine statistics

National Press Building Newsstand (Library of Congress)
National Press Building Newsstand (Library of Congress)

The goal of any publication is to reach as many readers as possible—something the first editors of The New Yorker realized, upon publication in 1925, when they saw that their magazine had as much appeal in Des Moines or Louisville as it did on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Circulation is everything, yet only now are historical subscription and newsstand data being tabulated and studied in a comprehensive way.

Brooks Hefner, an associate professor of English at James Madison University, and Edward Timke, a media studies lecturer at the University of California–Berkeley, have undertaken the Circulating American Magazines Project, an effort to catalog circulation numbers for hundreds of American periodicals dating as far back as 1868. Using money from a $50,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant, Hefner, Timke, and a team of researchers have been combing data at the Library of Congress, hoping to digitize their findings by the summer of 2018. Circulation numbers reveal interesting facets of the magazine business—sales have almost always been higher in the winter—but also suggest something about demographic and cultural shifts. Pulp magazines, for example, exploded in Nevada in the early 20th century, likely because of the influx of working-class men to the sparsely populated state. Redbook’s numbers spiked from 75,000 in mid-1935 to nearly 116,000 by the summer of 1937 after the magazine switched from illustrated covers to photographs. Blue Book Magazine saw a similar bump when it started serializing Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. Timke says that media scholars, statisticians, and curious members of the public will be able to use web tools to map different magazines against each other over time, run graphical heat maps, and analyze queries on subscription or newsstand sales.

Hefner and Timke have analyzed data only through the 1940s, so there’s much more yet to do. Studying recent numbers would help quantify the decline in the magazine business with the advent of the iPad and digital media—the decline in the business, say Hefner and Timke, not its death. Even if it takes another form, they say, the magazine will survive. “Magazines build communities of readers across time and space,” Hefner says, “and I think that’s really powerful.”

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Gwendolyn Purdom is a freelance writer in Chicago.


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