Can Obama Save the Media Industry?

The morning after the election, Barack Obama's supporters were not the only ones celebrating. Newspaper and magazine publishers from Los Angeles to New York had reason to be happy as well. After years of losing readers to the Internet, steep declines in advertising revenue, publication closures and round after round of layoffs, the print industry witnessed something it hasn't seen in a long time: sold-out newsstands. Throughout the country, some newsstand operators were forced to compile handwritten waiting lists for special election issues of certain newspapers and magazines like NEWSWEEK and Time. "We ran out in places and had to reorder to the extent they were available," says a spokeswoman for Hudson News, a national news retailer with outlets in 60 airports nationwide.

It's at least a temporary reversal of fortune that the print industry plans to bank on up to and beyond the inauguration. In the market for news, where the Net and 24/7 cable networks have increasingly become the first and last stop for many readers, consumers' Obama obsession is an adrenalin shot to print media's sense of self-worth and self-image. The Obama story is "something the print industry has been dying to come along," says Janice Min, Editor In Chief of US Weekly. "You can't save and treasure a PDF file off of your computer. That's the transcendence of print that everyone in print has talked about, a certain tangible quality that can't be translated online for certain big momentous events."

Like publishers nationwide, The New York Times initially underestimated the demand for its election edition. On three different occasions, including Election Day, it has had to return to the presses for a total of 405,000 copies more than its typical weekday output of 220,000 newspapers. The experience was the same in small towns, too. In New Philadelphia, Ohio, for example, the Times Reporter sold out, despite a 20 percent increase in its print run. On Nov. 5, USA Today published 380,000 additional copies, but still sold out across the country. Since then, it has printed thousands more for purchase at, where an image of the front page is downloadable for free. Sales of post-Election Day editions of the paper have continued to spike, too, says a spokeswoman. On Nov. 6 and 7, USA Today published 200,000 copies more daily than usual, or as many as a total of three million newspapers. "We have seen sales continue to spike," the spokeswoman says. "The interest in this story continues to resonate."

Naturally, Obama's hometown Chicago Tribune enjoyed the greatest windfall from the Obama gravy train. "No one could have anticipated how overwhelming the demand would be," a spokesman says the Tribune has sold 1.1 million copies of the Nov. 5 issue, or 400,000 more than a typical Wednesday edition. Lines again formed outside the Tribune this week for copies of a special section covering Obama's election night rally at Grant Park. The publisher reprinted the special section Thursday. "Everyone who wants the section will get it," says the spokesman. "It's been difficult keeping up with demand."

Magazine publishers are also benefiting from the president-elect's star quality. The Obama family is at a "juncture right now where people can't get enough of them," says Min, commenting on US Weekly's second consecutive Obama cover this Friday. Not to be outdone, People this week has back-to-back Obama covers too. Time Inc.'s Essence magazine is expecting sales of its September issue, featuring the Obama family on the cover, to be its best-selling issue of the year. Over at Wenner Media, Rolling Stone is publishing a $9.95 "bookazine" on Dec. 12 that will be a compilation the magazine's Obama coverage during the past two years. People are "interested now in reading more, seeing more and understanding more," says Eric Bates, executive editor of Rolling Stone, which put Obama on its cover three times this year. Time magazine, which has gone back to press three times to meet demand for its election issue, is also publishing a commemorative bookazine on Nov. 14. NEWSWEEK, which printed 100,000 extra copies of its election issue, hits the newsstands this week with its own commemorative issue, "Obama's American Dream."

How long can the Obama-fueled print-run last? That's unclear, but publishers are banking on increased reader interest and circulation up until the inauguration. The New York Times is hawking, for example, a reprint from the Election Day issue of just the front page; the press plates of the front page; a collection of Obama photographs and a commemorative issue of "Elections & Inauguration: George Washington to Barack Obama." The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, among others, is weighing special sections to insert in its post-Inauguration Day editions. Next week, USA Today and ABC News are jointly releasing a book and DVD titled "America Speaks: The Historic 2008 Election." Separately, Gannett's flagship is considering a commemorative edition covering the inauguration.

Spikes of this nature, while rare, aren't unique. And experts agree that even Obama's journalistic appeal won't solve print media's decline in the long term. "You see spikes whenever there's a historic event," says John Morton of Morton Research Inc., the veteran newspaper analyst. "This was probably at least the equivalent of the ones for the end of [the world] wars." Unfortunately, he notes, "it's not the golden bullet that saves the industry." The print media is still looking at the same tough economic picture, but at least Obama has brought a temporary reprieve.