Reading this list of the top 25 magazines makes me feel wildly out-of-touch. I haven't opened any of the top 10 magazines in a decade. I had no idea Game Informer was such a juggernaut. I though Family Circle was a cartoon. And I would've guessed that Esquire and GQ were bigger than Maxim.
But perhaps the out-of-touch feeling is just misplaced nostalgia for the magazine age. Those numbers are actually sort of unimpressive. The top two magazines in the country are AARP's in-house publications, with a verified circulation of almost 23 million. The drop-off from there is steep: Game Informer is third with a circulation of less than 8 million.
And "circulation," of course, isn't the same thing as "readers." Many of those magazines sit lonesome in a dentist's office or on a coffee table. Some go straight into the trash.
A lot of Web sites that I read regularly are read by many more people than any of these magazines. According to ComScore, Wikipedia had more than 80 million unique visitors in September 2013. The New York Times had more than 30 million. Gawker Media had more than 25 million.
Unique visitors and circulation aren't perfect substitutes for each other, of course. But it's not obvious that circulation, which doesn't measure people actually reading the product, is at all superior to unique visitors, which overwhelmingly measures people reading the product.
It's a reminder of the media's odd predicament in the digital age. The magazine era carried a clear business model: People paid for your magazine, and since there were only so many magazines people could afford, advertisers paid quite a lot to advertise in them, and all was well with the world. The Internet age has actually been a boon to the readership or major (and minor) media properties because it's much easier for people to discover new content and most of that content is free. But the same trends driving the increase in readership are driving the destruction of profitability.