Magazine Spotlight: Smithsonian

Advertisers, when evaluating magazines these days, are talking more and more about "wantedness," using metrics like average-price-paid and involvement indexes.

Smithsonian, which covers the world of the arts, history, culture, and science while drawing from its famous Washington, D.C.-based museum namesake, is one of those that scores high on such measures. It also delivers a sizable circulation of over two million--reaching a total audience of 7 million plus, according to Spring 2004 MRI data.

That audience also represents a dedicated, invested subscriber base, allowing the magazine to boast of the sort of reader loyalty that helps during a tough couple of advertising years. Unlike many titles, Smithsonian derives more than half of its income through subscription fees (with a subscription price of $34, few discounts available).

Smithsonian, approaching its 35th anniversary, has been revitalized in recent years under Editor-in-Chief Carey Winfrey. Winfrey arrived at the magazine nearly three years ago with big shoes to fill, as he is only the third person to hold that position in the magazine's 34-year history, and his predecessors logged 10 and 20 years, respectively.



Winfrey, whose career has taken him from positions as a reporter at the New York Times to editing stints at the now defunct Cuisine Magazine and American Health, and even a tour running Columbia University's Magazine Journalism program, does not shy away from admitting that Smithsonian is highbrow stuff, targeted to an older reader--the kind of reader that Madison Avenue too often shies away from.

"You have to have lived a little to read this magazine," he says. And you have to be willing to invest some time. The magazine frequently includes 4,500-word pieces, such as recent articles on growing coffee in the jungle or the great diamond hoax of 1872.

According to MRI, Smithsonian delvers a dual audience with an average age of 53. While its readers have a high income (median income is more than $60,000 for women, $70,000 for men), it is not always the easiest sell.

"It is a challenge to sell a magazine whose median age is older than the buyer," says publisher Amy Wilkins.

Adds Winfrey: "As the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, older readers over 40 have more disposable income, are very savvy and sophisticated. Advertisers have been gradually waking up to that fact."

Wilkins says that instead of focusing on age, she is able to sell the Smithsonian reader's depth of interests and experience. "We have more post-graduate degrees than any other magazine. Plus, given their education, income, and propensity to explore, the magazine's audience is ideal for travel and financial services advertisers.

That's not to say that Smithsonian hasn't needed some freshening up. Over the last three years, Winfrey has pushed to make the magazine less staid and more relevant, with fresher historical pieces that are tied into what is going on in the world.

"This has always been a magazine that has prided itself on timelessness, but it needed to be a bit more timely," he says. "The challenge was to do it in a way that did not upset the loyal readers who liked it just the way it was."

That has meant running historical-based features with a 21st-century hook. Recent stories have covered the British experience in nation-building in Iraq and Marco Polo's travels in Afghanistan.

In addition to the magazine's hefty features, regular sections include This Month in History, where the book usually goes back through the decades to highlight key historical events; "Phenomena and Curiosity;" and People File, among others.

Starting in January, the book is planning to run a regular feature commemorating the magazine's 35-year anniversary. There is also talk of TV programming related to Smithsonian, particularly given the growing popularity of similarly themed networks like the History Channel and the Discovery Channel.

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