Give or take 13,675 copies.
Chris Hughes passed over Steven Brill’s 25,000-word piece on healthcare costs in favor of an interview with Barack Obama that even Andrew Sullivan described as a “suck-up.” Brill’s story went to Time, where, on the strength of heavy promotion on corporate sibling CNN, and the ensuing controversy about Hughes’ snub, it sold well. It wasn’t a record-breaker! - covers stories on Steve Jobs, Osama bin Laden’s death, and the special issues of Person of the Year and the royal wedding did better - but the issue “sold more than double the typical number of copies,” a Time publicist chirped to the New York Times. ABC numbers are not yet available.
Hughes defended his cover choice, telling New York the Obama interview “sold at record rates on the newsstand — over five times larger than any issue in the past decade.”
This is hard to fact-check because since 2009 TNR hasn’t been audited. BPA booted the magazine that year for not paying its bill.
But from looking at the last report from BPA, which looked at the 12 month period that ended June 2009, it’s possible to estimate a number.
The newsstand average for that period was 2,008 copies, according to BPA. (The bulk of TNR’s circulation, then and now, is subscriptions, which is why you see them charging $40 for a year’s package; advertising, as we’ve noted is negligible.)
The highest seller of that June ‘08-‘09 period sold 2,735 copies at the newsstand.
Using our elementary math skills, and Hughes’ logic, that means the big blockbuster redesign issue sold, give or take, 13,675 copies.
That number might be different if you include digital single-copy sales, as well as the magazine’s current newsstand presence, which we assume is greater than it was in 2009.
Hughes’ figures might also be exaggerated. He told the Times TNR’s circulation had grown from 34,000 in March 2012 to 44,177, which if true, is, like, an astonishing, almost unheard-of circulation spike.
The reason circulation was so small by the time Hughes took over the magazine is that in 2009 budget cuts forced its then owners, which consisted of a new ownership group called TNR 2 consisting of Marty Peretz and Larry Grafstein, to cut back on print costs by renegotiating all vendor contracts and scaling back newsstand distribution. Losses were scaled back from about $5 million at the start of the decade to about a million dollars a year by the time Hughes bought it, several sources confirmed to me when I reported on TNR for M. Presumably, that has changed, and TNR now has a larger newsstand footprint.
But for most of 2008, circulation was higher than Hughes says it is now - according to BPA, overall circ started declining Dec 2008. For the entire 12-month period ending June 2009, average subscriptions was 49,760 and overall circulation was 58,165.
The last issue of Time reported to the Alliance of Audited Media sold 41,450 copies, including digital sales. Subscriptions totaled 3,245,700.
If Brill wanted to reach a mass audience, he made the right call.