Readers are liars—and thieves: Auckland researchers show the enduring appeal of magazines with waiting room study

When it comes to magazine readership, some titles have pass on rates in the teens, meaning that one copy of, for example, Woman’s Day, is read by multiple people. The ‘reading-it-in-the-waiting-room’ factor is often talked about as a major reason for that, and even if they’re reading an older issue, which they often are, it still counts. But why are waiting rooms filled with crappy old magazines? Thankfully, a team of Auckland researchers have discovered the reason: thieving patients.

Professor Bruce Arroll, PHD candidate Stowe Alrutz and statistician Simon Moyes decided to look into the serious matter of “patient complaints about the oldness of most magazines in practice waiting rooms” and published the results in the light-hearted Christmas special of BMJ, a weekly peer-reviewed medical journal that was previously known as the British Medical Journal (past research has included whether James Bond’s drinks were shaken because of an alcohol-related tremor, why Rudolph’s nose was red and many others). 

To do this it took 87 magazines (this number was based on “how many magazines the investigators could rustle up from family and friends”), stacked them into three mixed piles, gave them a number, placed them in the waiting room of Arroll’s South Auckland practice and monitored them. 

The titles included: “… non-gossipy magazines (Time, The Economist, Australian Women’s Weekly, National Geographic, BBC History) and gossipy ones (not identified for fear of litigation). Gossipy was defined as having five or more photographs of celebrities on the front cover and most gossipy as having up to 10 such images.” 

It made sure the magazines weren’t taken by staff by threatening them with the death penalty. 

“This warning was given to ensure that everybody understood the serious nature of the study. If the death penalty had been invoked we would have sought retrospective approval by an ethics committee (and New Zealand judicial advice).” 

The results were enlightening.

47 of the 82 magazines with a visible date on the front cover were aged less than 2 months. 28 of these 47 (60 %) magazines and 10 of the 35 (29%) older magazines disappeared (P=0.002). After 31 days, 41 of the 87 (47%, 95% confidence interval 37% to 58%) magazines had disappeared. None of the 19 non-gossipy magazines (the Economist and Time magazine) had disappeared compared with 26 of the 27 (96%) gossipy magazines (P<0.001). All 15 of the most gossipy magazines and all 19 of the non-gossipy magazines had disappeared by 31 days. 

As the researchers concluded: “General practice waiting rooms contain mainly old magazines. This phenomenon relates to the disappearance of the magazines rather than to the supply of old ones. Gossipy magazines were more likely to disappear than non-gossipy ones. On the grounds of cost we advise practices to supply old copies of non-gossipy magazines.”

And we advise some form of public shaming for those caught stealing magazines, a la Larry David. 

At a time when the numbers around magazines aren’t always too positive, the fact that people are willing to steal them will no doubt be seen as an endorsement of the enduring appeal of this media. And it could equally be seen as proof that, as George Gallup showed way back in 1928, readers claim they want hard news but actually love the fluffy stuff.  

As he discovered: 

  • People are liars. “The person who believes he has read all of the front page may not have read a fourth of it,” he wrote.
  • Nobody likes serious news nearly as much as they report on questionnaires. Gallup’s interviews reported that front-page stories were actually no more popular than small features in the back of the paper.
  • The most-read thing in the newspaper wasn’t news at all: It was the front-page cartoon by J. H. Darling, read by 90 percent of men compared with just 12 percent reading the day’s local government news.
  • For women, the most-read parts of the newspaper were “style and beauty pictures.”

How little we have changed. 

Now we wait patiently for next year’s study on the levels of bacteria on newspapers in the staff room. 

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