A busy year for AARP, America’s most-read magazine

If you’re in journalism, you want what the AARP has: off-the-charts readership and a rock-solid subscriber base. By default, 23.5 million American households receive AARP: The Magazine, the most widely circulated periodical in the country, serving what may be one of the most powerful demographics: people over fifty. AARP, with its aging celebrity cover stars, belongs on “the coffee table,” Bob Love, the editor in chief, says. (The Bulletin, its more informational sister publication—covering Medicare, Social Security, wonky stuff—is for “the kitchen table.”) With its bind to the AARP nonprofit, the magazine is not dependent on capricious advertisers—nor Facebook or Twitter—to satisfy its bottom line. Splashy it’s not, but Love calls AARP “necessarily the largest magazine on the planet.”

It’s a responsibility, Love says, that the team takes “extremely seriously.” AARP is led by two editors—both in the target age group, but with seemingly opposing sensibilities. Love was an editor at Rolling Stone, Playboy, and The Week; Margaret Mannix, the editor in chief of AARP’s digital content, had a long career with US News and World Report, where she was the executive editor. In all, AARP employs eighty-five full-time journalists, about half of whom are fifty-plus; the team puts out an average of three hundred news and feature pieces per month.

The result is a sort of hybrid combining the glossiness of People, the tips of Cook’s Illustrated, and the policy-deciphering bent of Vox. AARP runs some serious investigations (e.g., on ageism in the workplace) and delves into dark territory (loneliness, death). There’s coverage of health, wealth, and lifestyle (“Create a plan to give yourself a caregiving break”). Generally, the tone is aspirational. Queen Elizabeth models life lessons; Bruce Springsteen, Annette Bening, and Kevin Costner promise seniors that life is just getting started. (“Age brings perspective,” Shania Twain said in the February issue. “Every day I learn something new. And I plan on doing that till the day I die.”) Many of the articles are service-oriented; AARP polls readers to find out what they like. The seniors go for FAQs (what Social Security benefits look like during COVID-19) and Spotify playlists (featuring Michael Bublé, Dolly Parton, and Pitbull).

We’re not here to replicate what you can see on the news every day. There are so many other places where our demographic can consume that.

The year 2020 has been busy for AARP, starting in late January, when Mannix stopped by a colleague’s desk for a check-in. “I’ve gotta tell you something,” the colleague said. “This coronavirus really hurts our demographic.” The magazine published its first article on COVID-19 on January 22—alerting readers to the potential dangers of overseas travel. Soon came warnings about travel insurance and cruise ships. By mid-March, when states were instituting stay-at-home orders, AARP knew it was in a unique position. “We realized we had a lot of information that we had to impart to our members,” Mannix says. She and Love dedicated a team to monitoring the CDC, HHS, IRS, and other government agencies, to keep readers up to date. A section of the AARP site was devoted to covering nursing homes. Other AARP reporters wrote about stimulus bills, unemployment, and coronavirus testing; the site also posted ten-minute at-home exercise videos––“those were a big hit,” Mannix says. All the while, the staff were operating away from their office, in Washington, DC. “I think it’s harder to be a collegial enterprise when the collegiality is Zoom or Microsoft Teams,” Love says. “But everybody has stepped up.” Readership, too, has spiked; in May, the site saw more than twenty-eight million unique visitors. 

Over the summer, as Black Lives Matter protests grew, AARP covered the movement in the way it knows best, publishing listicles highlighting elderly people marching in solidarity, tips on how to have a “respectful conversation about racial justice,” and historical quotations from civil rights leaders. “We have a very strong African-American and Hispanic membership,” Love says. “We’ve always taken great care to make sure we’re representative of the entire population that we serve.” The coverage of race produces disparate results: while some articles are impressively frank (a recent feature begins, “From the moment the first abducted Africans found themselves enslaved and oppressed on America’s shores, freedom became their singular ambition”), that candor is effectively undercut by other pieces that seem to cater mostly to white readers (“check your own bias”).

With the election approaching, AARP has been hard at work on state-by-state voting guides; a campaign to support the fifty-plus vote; and interviews with the major presidential campaigns (in a recurring feature called “Where they stand”). With the interviews, Love says, the aim is to let the candidates “speak their views and let our members and readers decide for themselves.” Biden: “This president is trying to scare the hell out of people by suggesting that mail-in votes are a fraud, and indicating that your mail-in vote will not actually be counted.” Trump: “I think the mail-in is very dangerous from a country-wide standpoint. If you look at the statistics, 20 percent to 30 percent of the ballots are getting lost.” There’s no fact-checking or commentary indicating to readers who is telling the truth. (It’s Biden.) “We allowed the candidates to present their views and positions without commenting on the accuracy of their claims,” the introduction reads.

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What that means for the election remains to be seen. “We’re not here to replicate what you can see on the news every day,” Mannix says. “There are so many other places where our demographic can consume that. We focus on exactly what they’re asking and what their needs are.” The job, Love adds, “is not only to inform and entertain, but also to surprise and delight.”

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Savannah Jacobson is a contributor to CJR and a reporter and writer based in New York.

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