Newsweek's decision to stop publishing a print edition after 80 years and bet its life entirely on a digital future may be more a commentary on its own problems than a definitive statement on the health of the magazine industry.
Magazine ad revenue in the U.S. is seen rising 2.6 per cent this year to $18.3 billion, according to research firm eMarketer. That would be the third increase in three years, driven mainly by gains in digital ad sales, though print ads are expected to be flat.
Paid magazine subscriptions were up 1.1 per cent in the first half of the year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. And while single-copy sales at newsstands are down 9.6 per cent, overall circulation - the bulk of which is in print - is steady compared to a year ago.
The water is so warm for the magazine industry that in the first nine months of the year, 181 new magazines were launched while only about a third as many, or 61, closed, according to publication database MediaFinder.com.
By several measures, the magazine business has stabilized, albeit at a lower level, since the Great Recession ended three years ago.
For some, that casts a harsher light on Newsweek's decision to abandon print - affecting the nearly 1.4 million Newsweek subscribers who get their copy each week in the mail. They say it speaks to the magazine's trouble connecting with and keeping its readers.
That brings to mind some questionable covers, like the July 2011 what-if image depicting what Princess Diana would have looked like at age 50, or last month's "Muslim Rage" cover depicting angry protesters, which was roundly mocked on social networks like Twitter.
Newsweek is using a difficult print ad environment as an "excuse" for its decision to end print runs, said Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism. He lays the blame at the feet of Tina Brown, the editor who took control of Newsweek when it merged with the news website she ran, The Daily Beast, two years ago.
"Tina Brown took Newsweek in the wrong direction," Husni said. "Newsweek did not die, Newsweek committed suicide."
To be sure, the problems were acute by the time Brown took control. Newsweek's circulation had plummeted from about 3.1 million in 2007 to 1.8 million in 2010, when The Washington Post Co. sold the magazine to stereo equipment magnate Sidney Harman for $1. Harman later placed Newsweek into a joint venture with IAC/InterActiveCorp's The Daily Beast website in an effort to trim the magazine's losses and widen its online audience.
This year, total circulation is down to about 1.5 million, less than half of what it was five years earlier, even including about 29,000 digital copies.