BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Conventional wisdom holds that in an age of anxiety, mindless entertainment reigns. But the sales of magazines on newsstands tell a different story. As reporter David Carr observed recently in the New York Times, America seems to be of two minds -- one blatantly escapist, but the other loaded with gravitas. A good example of the former is US Weekly which sells half a million newsstand copies a week, but though US Weekly wipes the floor with the likes of the Atlantic Monthly, the circulation of the 145 year old Atlantic is extraordinarily spry with a 52 percent increase in sales. And magazines like Mother Jones, The New Republic and Harper's are also doing very well indeed. David, welcome back to the show!
DAVID CARR: Thanks so much for having me Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, before we make too much of this, I should probably reiterate that US sells 9 times more than the Atlantic and far outpaces the brain trust journals that I just mentioned. So this isn't necessarily a question of the smart magazines selling well, right? It's just that they're selling a lot better.
DAVID CARR: If you look at it in relative terms, these magazines are showing real increased newsstand. Does that turn them into Maxim or Sports Illustrated or other magazines that sell huge on the magazine stand? No. But it does indicate that Americans at least when they're out making a magazine purchase which is really the ultimate impulse buy -- you're walking by -- you take a look - you see something that interests you. Apparently what's interesting a lot of Americans is fairly substantial issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So what do you think seems to be going on here? Is all this impulse buying of serious magazines a manifestation of what we could call the CNN Syndrome? You know, more people tuning in when there's something to tune in for?
DAVID CARR: I think the same thing that has you hitting the remote and spending more time with the news stations indeed has you when you're at the newsstand, picking up and opening and sometimes purchasing more serious magazines.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:One of the editors that you interviewed in your story had the baldfaced temerity to suggest that these magazines are just being better written and better edited than they used to be.
DAVID CARR: I think it's absolutely true. I think times like this bring out the best in journalists. I think for much of the late '90s the work they did seemed very much beside the point. We were mostly covering how people got rich --much richer than any working journalist, of course, and you could almost see the boredom and resentment in their copy. [LAUGHTER] Now it's back in our wheelhouse, if you will, at the things we're good at, and I think that people -- if you look at the New York Times Magazine, if you look at the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper's -- I myself am finding plenty more to read than I did four years ago. I think people are stepping up to the plate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I thought it was interesting that the magazines with really long stories, like the Atlantic or the New Yorker are doing so well when magazines that offer crisper, faster, more timely treatments of the news like Time and Newsweek are experiencing some serious dropoff at the newsstands!
DAVID CARR: Part of what's going on at the weeklies is when they - their newsstand figures come out, they're being compared to the period of June through December of 2001, and that included a very seismic event, and weeklies tend to capture the most in terms of newsstand sales when the news is high tempo and very busy. Nothing has, in a sense, happened since then but it seems like a lot might happen, and people are looking to magazines that will help them see over the hill, help them anticipate what might be to come, and those are very complicated issues that are often rendered in very long form, and people seem to have the appetite for it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But my goodness, we shouldn't conclude from any of this that America is suddenly getting serious, though!
DAVID CARR:All you have to do is look at television, Brooke. [LAUGHTER] The things that are selling on TV definitely represent an emphasis on escapism, pure fun, eye candy. People, when they're turning on the television set as opposed to opening a magazine, they definitely seem to be interested in forgetting what's going on in the outside world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Right. I mean according to my rough calculation, the final episode of Joe Millionaire drew about 30 million people, and it would take the Atlantic about half a century to sell that many copies.
DAVID CARR: Well you're a much better math person than I am but I think that the idea that mass sells better than class was firmly established by P.T. Barnum and others, and, and so even though magazines don't have the, the incredibly large numbers, we're talking about a fairly rarified demographic. They represent only a slice of America, but it's a very important one, and it shows what's on top of mind of some of the more serious people in our culture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But going back to what we noted at the top of the interview, when we say that America is of two minds, a lot of times that double mind can exist within the same individual.
DAVID CARR: I think it's fundamentally a human imperative. I spent the day yesterday on a long, serious story that involved a lot of emotions and a lot of importance historical facts, and then at 7 o'clock I left here and went and watched The Donnas which is-- [LAUGHTER] an all female rock band and just jumped around and screamed my head off, and I think those two imperatives can reside in the same person.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Thanks a lot.
DAVID CARR: It's a pleasure to talk with you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Carr reports on the media for the New York Times. [MUSIC]