Purchases of U.S. magazines at newsstands and other retail outlets fell 9 percent in the second half of 2009, a slight improvement from the 12 percent year-over-year decline in the first half of the year.
Those figures released Monday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations show how the weak economy continues to batter the magazine industry at a time when consumers have plenty of free reading alternatives available online.
Newsstand and other single-copy retail sales are important for publishers because they charge more per copy than they do for subscriptions, which fell 1.1 percent in last year's second half. Magazines generally give a discount to those willing to subscribe in order to boost the overall circulation they can promise advertisers.
Magazines have been enduring one of the worst advertising slumps in memory. The number of ad pages sold by U.S. magazines tumbled nearly 26 percent last year from 2008 levels, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.
In October, Conde Nast Publications announced it was closing Gourmet, the nation's oldest food magazine, along with three other money-losing titles. The latest circulation drops do not even include such titles because Monday's report is based only on 472 magazines that still publish and that provided comparable figures to industry auditors.
Although the Internet has been taking more of people's time for years, overall magazine circulation — single-copy sales plus subscriptions, including free ones — had been holding relatively steady until the recession intensified.
After remaining relatively flat in the first half of 2008, overall circulation fell about 1 percent over the next two periods. That drop grew to 2.2 percent in the second half of 2009, for a total circulation of 328 million for the 472 magazines in the report.
The 1.1 percent decline in paid subscriptions in the second half reduced their total to 279 million copies. Single-copy sales totaled 35.7 million in the period.
The shaky economy is certainly a factor in circulation declines, said John Harrington, an industry analyst with Harrington Associates. But he added that some publishers and retailers have started to worry the recession has done permanent damage.
"Magazines are always an impulse item," he said. "People, immediately when the economy sunk, became much more careful in their shopping habits, and that may have resulted in permanent changes. It'll take a little while longer to determine that completely."
Another factor is that publishers have been cutting back on heavily discounted circulation. As the cost of mailing magazines climbs, publishers figure it isn't worth the cost of printing extra copies. A recent report from the USC Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism found postal subsidies, which covered 75 percent of the cost of mailing periodicals in 1970, now cover only about 11 percent of the cost.
Not every magazine suffered. A few big names managed to grow their newsstand sales, including Vanity Fair (up 5.1 percent, to 421,833) and Oprah Winfrey's magazine, O (up 5.8 percent, to 662,304).
Still, there were some dramatic declines. While Good Housekeeping's total circulation was roughly flat, its newsstand sales sank more than 30 percent, to 395,289. People magazine, the No. 2 consumer title behind Cosmopolitan, saw newsstand sales drop 10 percent, to 1,325,330.
Psychology Today was the biggest gainer in single-copy sales among magazines with circulation of 100,000 or more, climbing 12.2 percent to 102,890.
Cosmopolitan was the newsstand leader at 1,753,368, reflecting a 1.4 percent drop. The magazine with the top circulation overall was AARP the Magazine, with 24,371,637, up 0.1 percent from the year-ago period.
Vanity Fair is published by Conde Nast, Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping are published by Hearst Corp. and O by Winfrey's Harpo Productions in a partnership with Hearst. People is published by Time Warner Inc. Psychology Today comes from Sussex Publishers. AARP is the magazine distributed by the nonprofit group for people 50 and over.