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Figures Tell Grim New Yorker Story

July 16, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Shortly before Tina Brown stunned her boss and the publishing industry last week by announcing her exit from the New Yorker, the magazine sent to my home a subscription offer promising "the world's best cartoons" and the best magazine "with Tina Brown as editor."

All for $19.98 a year, a savings of more than $124 off the cover price.

That steep discount goes a long way to illustrate the financial problems plaguing a magazine that lost an estimated $11 million last year.

The $19.98 price is half the New Yorker's so-called basic price of $39.95--that is, as low as the magazine can charge and still count a subscription as paid circulation under the ground rules of the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Moreover, for all the glamour and intrigue that surround the New Yorker, and for all the media attention that Brown's departure and David Remnick's succession as editor have generated in recent days, total circulation has declined from the heights reached during Brown's six-year tenure, and circulation revenue may not be profitable.

The circulation of nearly 808,000 reported by the magazine in the second half of last year was down 40,000 from the same period in 1996. In addition, numbers show that in recent years, the subscription-driven magazine has been selling fewer subscriptions at its basic price. Although the basic price rose from $32 to $39.95 between 1992 (when Brown joined) and 1996 (the last released audit), the number of subscriptions sold at full price during that same period declined to 25% from 40%.

E. Daniel Capell, a circulation expert who publishes the newsletter Capell's Circulation Report, questioned how the New Yorker's circulation can be profitable. It's "a low-priced weekly--no question about it," he added.

Capell noted that the magazine's $39.95 basic price is much lower than those of Entertainment Weekly ($51.48), Time ($59.80), Sports Illustrated ($80), U.S. News & World Report ($44.75) and People, which sells an astounding 84% of its 2 million subscriptions at the basic rate of $93.

On the advertising side, too, the numbers are sobering.

In the 1960s, the New Yorker was drawing an impressive 6,000 ad pages a year. That portfolio thinned dramatically through the years and after the Newhouse family bought the magazine in 1985.

In 1997, the magazine attracted 2,142 ad pages, a gain of 5.1% over the previous year that was in step with the industry average, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. Through June of this year, the number of ad pages dropped 2.3% (from the total in the first half of 1997), while the industry as a whole posted a 3% rise in ad pages.

Clearly, after losing the well-known Brown so unexpectedly to a new media venture with Miramax Films, Conde Nast Publications chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr. needed to assure advertisers--and quickly--that the New Yorker was unbowed. Which may explain why he was unhappy on Saturday that Michael Kinsley, the editor of the online magazine Slate who was offered Brown's job before Remnick, wished to delay final acceptance until Monday morning.

According to a private e-mail dispatch from Kinsley that slipped into wide circulation this week, Newhouse wanted to announce the new editor on Monday.

Here's Kinsley's e-mail account of a final call from Newhouse that he received in a New York hotel Sunday night, only 15 minutes after they parted company at a restaurant:

"You seem reluctant. I say, It's a big decision, but if I do it I assure you I'll be energetic and enthusiastic. He says, I'm starting to feel reluctant too. I think it would be better to call it off. No apology.

"After some stunned mumbling, I say, This is going to be embarrassing to both of us. He asks me to say that I had withdrawn my name. I say I'm not going to lie about it, but I'll decline to discuss it. He mumbles something and I mumble something and we hang up."

Enter David Remnick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (for "Lenin's Tomb") who was among the first staff writers hired by Brown six years ago and has become one of the magazine's prolific contributors. Newhouse's appointment Monday of Remnick to succeed Brown cheered editorial staffers, especially the ones who write nonfiction.

"Would I rather that the magazine was making money? Sure," Remnick said afterward. "But the losses have come down. And I hope they will come down more. It's going to take time."

Asked what Newhouse's instructions were, Remnick said: "To edit an exciting, consistent, surprising magazine that reflects both its history and the contemporary world. This is not a museum piece we're talking about here, but a vital magazine."

Where the Readers Are: According to a statement that the magazine filed at the end of last year with the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the New Yorker's weekly circulation is 807,935 and the largest number of copies (135,035) are sold in New York state; California is second (120,436). At the bottom of the list are North Dakota (777) and South Dakota (655).

* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His e-mail address is paul.colford@newsday.com. His column is published Thursdays.

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