28 5.4 Major Publications in the Magazine Industry

Learning Objectives

  1. List the top three highest circulation journals.
  2. Discuss the controversial transformation of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Magazines have evolved significantly since their inception. Magazines have affected the world by bringing news, entertainment, literature, and photography to their readers. Additionally, the magazine industry has profoundly affected U.S. popular culture. As magazines have developed over time, individual publications have targeted specific groups and have found particular niches. This section explores a number of popular periodicals and their effect on their target audiences.

High-Circulation Magazines

The top 10 highest circulating magazines in the United States differ greatly in style and audience. From AARP to Better Homes and Gardens, from National Geographic to Family Circle, the list demonstrates the wide pool of readers and interests attracted to the medium. This section will explore the top three publications: AARP The Magazine, AARP Bulletin, and Reader’s Digest.

AARP The Magazine and AARP Bulletin

Some may be surprised to learn that the two magazines with the highest circulation in the United States are not ones readily available to buy at a newsstand or grocery store: AARP The Magazine and AARP Bulletin. Published by the nonprofit organization AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons), both are automatically sent to the organization’s more than 40 million members.

A bimonthly publication that is “geared exclusively towards 50+ Americans seeking to enhance their quality of life as they age (AARP),” AARP The Magazine publishes lifestyle articles and includes sections dedicated to health, money, work, relationships, and travel, among others. Its mission statement reads:

AARP The Magazine provides three editorial versions targeted to different life stages (50–59, 60–69, 70+) to empower readers with editorial written just for them. Annual editorial packages, strong service journalism, and celebrity profiles will be presented in a warm, vibrant and inviting format to encourage readers to reflect, engage and enjoy (AARP).

AARP also publishes AARP Bulletin, which is “a monthly news publication that reaches influential consumers and policymakers (AARP).” Rather than presenting lifestyle stories, this publication focuses on news stories of interest to its target audience.

AARP Bulletin chronicles and interprets important social issues that affect 50+ Americans. News, balanced analysis and concise stories, in an accessible format, motivates these influential readers to engage in public policy on health care, financial well-being and consumer protection (AARP).

Reader’s Digest

Reader’s Digest boasts the third-highest circulation among U.S. magazines. First published in 1922 as a “digest of condensed articles of topical interest and entertainment value taken from other periodicals (Encyclopaedia Britannica),” this famous pocket-sized journal was first produced on a low budget by a husband and wife team who believed the magazine would sell despite numerous rejections from magazine publishers (Encyclopaedia Britannica). They were right. Reader’s Digest was an almost immediate success and now regularly outsells competitors. The monthly magazine has subscribers around the globe and seeks to “create products that inform, enrich, entertain and inspire people of all ages and cultures around the world (Reader’s Digest).”

News Magazines

As discussed earlier in this chapter, newsmagazines became popular during the 1920s. Today, newsmagazines make up a large portion of magazine sales, with multiple news periodicals ranking in the top 30 for circulation. Over time, a number of newsmagazines have established themselves in the industry, including Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report.


Newsweek’s initial February 1933 issue was called News-Week and featured seven different photographs from the week’s news on its cover. The weekly publication currently “offers comprehensive coverage of world events with a global network of correspondents, reporters and editors covering national and international affairs, business, science and technology, society and the arts and entertainment (Newsweek, 2007).” Relying on a wide array of reporters, Newsweek also uniquely publishes a reader-penned section titled “My Turn.” The magazine has been hugely successful over the years and holds more prestigious National Magazine Awards than any other newsweekly.

The magazine has not been without its trials, however. In November of 2009 Newsweek published an article discussing Sarah Palin’s book, Going Rogue: An American Life. The cover of that issue featured a photo of Palin that had been used in an issue of Runner’s World with Palin in running attire. The words “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sarah?” were splayed across the photograph.


Figure 5.6


Sarah Palin was the subject of a controversial cover of Newsweek, published in November 2009, that earned the magazine much criticism.


The cover caused a popular backlash, with readers calling it sexist and unfair. One reader suggested that Newsweek would never print a photograph of Barack Obama in such attire. In response, Newsweek published a photo of President Obama in his swim trunks in its following issue, although this photo was smaller and on an inside page rather than on the cover.


Time has remained an influential publication during the decades since its inception. Today, the publication prides itself on its “rare convergence of incisive reporting, lively writing and world-renowned photography,” which combined have earned it the praise of being “journalism at its best (Time).” The magazine is divided into four main sections: Briefing, The Well, Life, and Arts. Briefing includes concise stories on major news events in the United States and other countries. The Well section features longer articles, including the cover story and articles on world and business. Life contains stories on health, science, technology, and the environment. Finally, Arts consists of reviews of theater, film, literature, music, exhibits, and architecture. Like Newsweek, Time has won numerous awards and prides itself on being “the guide through chaos” in an era of information overload (Time).

U.S. News & World Report

Created through the merger of a newspaper and a magazine, U.S. News & World Report has gained great prestige over the years. In 1933—the same year that Newsweek debuted—journalist David Lawrence began publishing a weekly newspaper called the United States News. Six years later, he founded a weekly magazine titled World Report. In 1948, the two weeklies merged to create the new U.S. News & World Report. The magazine’s focus is similar to those of Time and Newsweek, but U.S. News & World Report concentrates more on political, economic, health, and education stories, perhaps in part because it is based in Washington, DC. Although for most of its long history the magazine published weekly, in 2008 it announced its transition to a monthly printing schedule, vowing to concentrate on its website.

The magazine is perhaps best known for its annual ranking of U.S. colleges. This ranking began in 1983 and has since evolved to include newsstand books of America’s Best Colleges and America’s Best Graduate Schools. Since the ranking system began, students turn to the publication for information about the strengths and weaknesses of institutions of higher learning.

Women’s Magazines

Female readers have been important to the magazine industry since the early 19th century, initially because women were not traditionally part of the workforce and were believed to have more leisure time to read. This lucrative market has only grown over time. In an increasingly online era, many magazines have sought ways to expand their scope to reach a larger audience. Yet others, such as Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and Better Homes and Gardens, have maintained their original scope and have still managed to turn profits. These three periodicals are part of the “Seven Sisters,” a group of magazines traditionally targeted at women.

Ladies’ Home Journal

Ladies’ Home Journal began in 1879 as a column for women published in the Tribune and Farmer newspaper. The wife of the publisher was not entirely impressed with her husband’s column and so began writing it herself (Aliperti). The column grew in popularity so rapidly that, by 1883, Louisa Knapp Curtis had published her first major supplement called the Ladies Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper. Today, the publishers of the Ladies’ Home Journal state that it is “a unique lifestyle magazine dedicated to the millions of American women who want to look good, do good and feel great (Meredith).” Ranked twelfth in circulation, the magazine presently has a readership of nearly 4 million (Echo Media).Ladies’ Home Journal focuses on style, health, relationships, and food. Perhaps its most recognizable feature is a column titled “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”, which made its debut in 1953. The regular column features stories of real-life couples struggling in their marriages, offers advice from marriage and family therapists, and projects the outcomes.

Good Housekeeping

In May of 1885, Good Housekeeping began publishing with the intention of providing “information about running a home, a broad range of literary offerings, and opportunities for reader input (Library of Congress).” Fifteen years later, the magazine founded the Good Housekeeping Research Institute. The research institute includes a product-evaluation laboratory where a staff of scientists, engineers, nutritionists, and researchers evaluate a wide variety of products. The magazine then reports their findings to its readers to “improve the lives of consumers and their families through education and product evaluation (Good Housekeeping).” The magazine describes itself as:

Devoted to contemporary women. Monthly articles focus on food, fitness, beauty, and childcare using the resources of the Good Housekeeping Institute. From human interest stories and social issues to money management and travel, the magazine will encourage positive living for today’s woman (Good Housekeeping Magazine, 2010).

With over 4.6 million readers, Good Housekeeping currently ranks ninth highest in U.S. circulation (Echo Media).

Better Homes and Gardens

Making its print debut in 1922, Better Homes and Gardens entered the industry later than its counterparts. Currently, the magazine is ranked fifth in circulation in the United States with a readership of more than 7.6 million (Echo Media). Since its inception, the publication has focused on home and gardening style and decorations. Its positioning statement reads:

For the woman who reads Better Homes and Gardens, home is where she creates her life story. It’s her haven, where she raises her family, entertains friends, and celebrates life’s big—and small—accomplishments. It’s where she indulges her dreams and builds a world of her own. Home is her emotional center—it’s where life happens. Better Homes and Gardens recognizes this and inspires her with infinite possibilities for creativity and self-expression. Each issue delivers smart, approachable editorial on design and individual style, decorating and gardening, food and entertaining, and personal and family well-being. Better Homes and Gardens helps her bridge the gap between dreaming and doing (Meredith).

The monthly magazine is divided into six sections: Food and Nutrition, Home, Health, Family, Gardening, and Lifestyle.


First published in 1886, the female-targeted Cosmopolitan has changed dramatically over time from its original intent of being a “first-class family magazine (Mott, 1957).” In the first issue, the editor told readers that “there will be a department devoted exclusively to the interests of women, with articles on fashions, on household decoration, on cooking, and the care and management of children, etc., also a department for the younger members of the family (Mott, 1957).” Just 2 years later, however, the original publishing company went out of business, and after several publisher changes Cosmopolitan was eventually purchased by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst in 1905.

The magazine became more successful during the 1960s when Helen Gurley Brown “transformed an antiquated general-interest mag called Cosmopolitan into the must-read for young, sexy single chicks (Benjamin).” Brown transformed the magazine from the family-focused publication it was to the somewhat controversial read with an emphasis on sex, work, and fashion that it is today. The magazine describes the transformation saying:

Over the years, Cosmo has not only become the number-one-selling monthly magazine on the newsstand, but it has also served as an agent for social change, encouraging women everywhere to go after what they want (whether it be in the boardroom or the bedroom) (Benjamin).

In 1965, Cosmopolitan revamped its journal with Brown’s vision in mind. The first retooled issue had an article about birth-control pills, then a relatively new and controversial innovation. The magazine’s provocative articles attracted a large readership, but many found it offensive. Conservatives believed that the content was too racy, while some feminists thought it was too focused on beauty and pleasing men (Benjamin). Yet the publishers of Cosmopolitan believed that they were introducing a new form of feminism (Benjamin). Brown argued that “Cosmo is feminist in that we believe women are just as smart and capable as men are and can achieve anything men can. But it also acknowledges that while work is important, men are too. The Cosmo girl absolutely loves men (Benjamin)!”

Today, Cosmopolitan continues to attract readers by maintaining the same ideals that Brown put forth in the 1960s. Nearly 30 percent of every issue is dedicated to relationships, sex especially. The rest provides articles on beauty, fashion, entertainment, health and fitness, and self-improvement.

Men’s Magazines

Just as women’s magazines have existed for much of the history of the medium, over the years many magazines have been devoted to male readers. One of the most enduring and popular of those magazines is Sports Illustrated.

Sports Illustrated

When Time cocreator Henry Luce launched Sports Illustrated in 1954, his staff was doubtful about its chances. Spectator sports had not yet reached the level of popularity they have today, and the new magazine failed to make a profit for its first 12 years of publication. As television brought spectator sports to the growing suburbs, however, their popularity quickly rose, and Sports Illustrated became a success. Managing editor Andre Laguerre assembled a staff of talented, loyal writers and instituted the extensive use of color photographs, developing the basis for the format the magazine still uses.

In 1964, Laguerre initiated the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition as a way of increasing sales during the winter months when there are fewer developments in sports. Putting model Babette March on the cover in a bikini helped the magazine sell, and the swimsuit edition became an annual tradition. Filled with pictures of models in revealing swimwear, the issue generates its share of controversy but is consistently the best-selling issue of the magazine each year.

Celebrity Magazines

Despite being criticized at times for their less-than-sophisticated approach to journalism, celebrity magazines bring in enormous profits and help shape U.S. pop culture, fueling the obsession some Americans have with the mundane day-to-day details of the lives of celebrities. Three of the most prominent celebrity magazines currently publishing are People, OK!, and Us Weekly.


Since it first began publishing as a spin-off of Time magazine’s “People” section in 1974, People has been a leading celebrity magazine. The publication sets itself apart from other celebrity gossip magazines by publishing human-interest stories alongside photos and articles about celebrities. The publishers of People state that they avoid pure Hollywood gossip articles and they refuse to publish stories without some sort of verification (Moni). This editorial slant is unique among celebrity magazines, and, as such, the publication frequently receives exclusive interviews and photo shoots with celebrities. The somewhat more respectful relationship between the publishers and some celebrities has helped People become the most popular celebrity magazine in circulation, ranking thirteenth overall with a verified readership of over 3.6 million in 2010 (Moni).


A British-run magazine that began publishing in 1993, OK! claims to “bring you the truth and the inside scoop about celebrities (OK Magazine).” Known for its exclusive interviews that often lead to public announcements on pregnancies and engagements, OK! initially had a policy to print only positive celebrity profiles (Search). That policy changed in 2007 thanks to an erratic interview with pop singer Britney Spears, which was so surprising that the magazine decided to break with tradition and publish it anyway (Search). In 2008, Spears agreed to a second interview with the publication in which she discussed her previous behavior, leading to a more positive profile of the singer. The widely successful magazine has readers around the world along with several branch publications.

Us Weekly

Founded in 1977, Us Weekly followed the format of a bimonthly entertainment news and review magazine until 2000, when it switched formats to become a weekly leader in celebrity news and style. The publication “delivers a mass audience of young, educated, and affluent adults who are compelled by breaking celebrity news, Hollywood style and the best in entertainment (Us Weekly).” Us Weekly has become known for its fashion sections such as “Who Wore It Best?,” a reader poll comparing two celebrities wearing the same outfit, and “Fashion Police,” in which comedians comment on celebrity fashion mishaps and successes. With a circulation of nearly 2 million in December 2010, Us Weekly prides itself on being a leader in the celebrity magazine industry (Us Weekly).

Key Takeaways

  • AARP The Magazine, AARP Bulletin, and Reader’s Digest boast the three highest U.S. circulations among contemporary magazines.
  • Women’s magazines, such as Cosmopolitan, make up a large portion of the medium.


Study the top 10 highest circulating magazines, which were outlined in this section: http://www.magazine.org/CONSUMER_MARKETING/CIRC_TRENDS/ABC2009TOTALrank.aspx. Then, answer the following writing prompts.

  1. Why might these magazines rank higher in circulation than others? What themes, audiences, and differences set these apart?
  2. Is any controversy surrounding them comparable to the controversy surrounding the modern Cosmopolitan?


AARP, “AARP Bulletin,” http://aarpmedia.org/bulletin.

AARP, “AARP The Magazine,” http://aarpmedia.org/atm.

Aliperti, Cliff. “The Ladies’ Home Journal: Development under Louisa Knapp Curtis and Edward W. Bok,” http://www.things-and-other-stuff.com/magazines/ladies-home-journal.html.

Benjamin, Jennifer “How Cosmo Changed the World,” Cosmopolitan, http://www.cosmopolitan.com/about/about-us_how-cosmo-changed-the-world.

Echo Media, “Better Homes and Gardens,” http://www.echo-media.com/mediaDetail.php?ID=4227&filterUsed=FALSE;Audit Bureau of Circulations, http://www.accessabc.com/.

Echo Media, “Good Housekeeping,” http://www.echo-media.com/mediaDetail.php?ID=4155&filterUsed=FALSE; Audit Bureau of Circulations, http://www.accessabc.com/.

Echo Media, “Ladies’ Home Journal,” http://www.echo-media.com/mediaDetail.php?ID=4162.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Reader’s Digest,” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/492829/Readers-Digest.

Good Housekeeping Magazine,” http://worldmags.net/women/2022-good-housekeeping-september-2010-us.html.

Good Housekeeping, “About the Good Housekeeping Research Institute,” http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/product-testing/history/about-good-housekeeping-research-institute.

Library of Congress, “Today in History: Good Housekeeping,” American Memory Project, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/may02.html.

Meredith, Better Homes and Gardens, “Positioning Statement,” http://www.meredith.com/mediakit/bhg/index.html.

Meredith, Ladies’ Home Journal, “Mission Statement,” http://www.meredith.com/mediakit/lhj/print/index.htm.

Moni, Alyssa. “An Inside Look at People Magazine,” March 31, 2011, http://www.hercampus.com/school/bu/inside-look-people-magazine.

Mott, Frank Luthor. A History of American Magazines: 1885–1905 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), 480.

Newsweek, “History of Newsweek,” http://www.newsweek.com/2007/10/10/history-of-newsweek.html.

OK Magazine!, “About,” http://www.okmagazine.com/about/.

Reader’s Digest, “Customer Care,” http://www.rd.com/customer-care/.

Search, “OK!” http://www.search.com/reference/OK!.

Time, “National Editorial,”

Us Weekly, “Us Weekly Circulation Strength,” http://srds.com/mediakits/UsWeekly-print/Circulation.html.

Us Weekly, “Us Weekly Media Kit,” http://www.srds.com/mediakits/us_weekly/index.html.


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