04/20/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Celebrating The New Yorker 's 85th Birthday with an Unexpected Gift

The New Yorker recently mailed me an unbelievable discount subscription offer. Typed on a yellow piece of note card-sized paper, it said:

In order to guarantee that we reach the audience we are meant to serve, the Publisher has authorized us to offer The New Yorker to selected professionals for only $0.54 cents an issue.

It finished like those invitations to fancy parties, "This offer is non-transferrable."

It sounded like a distressed ship signaling for help, so I dialed the customer service hotline to learn more. The representative at Condé Nast's subscription offices in Boone, Iowa confirmed the offer was indeed from The New Yorker, whose editorial and advertising offices hug Times Square in New York City. I hung up, wondering what to make of it.

On February 21, 1925, Harold Ross launched The New Yorker. The cover price then was $0.15. In 2010, it's an incredible steal for me to pay in the ballpark of what an issue cost eighty-five years ago. But is that good for journalism? Shouldn't a magazine that gives writers acres of editorial real estate and pays top dollar for muscular stories have the confidence to charge a premium price for what it bills as a "collection of intelligent, funny, and penetrating voices?" I expect this kind of giveaway from a checkout line glossy like Life & Style, but not from the gold standard of storytelling. Couldn't they have at least rounded up and charged a dollar a pop?

Obviously, The New Yorker isn't the only magazine wading through murky circulation waters. It's in good company, along with most of the industry, which sells magazine subscriptions at deep discounts. Econ 101 says that the lower the price, the more products sell, right?

Jack Hanrahan, editor and publisher of the newsletter, CircMatters, points out, "Magazines don't seem to follow the laws of supply and demand when it comes to selling subscriptions." His analysis of the Audit Bureau of Circulation's data shows that nearly three out of four magazines that took their price per sub copy down between 2002 and 2009 saw their subscription sales levels drop.

The New Yorker's total monthly circulation is 1,048,782. A whopping 96% comes from subscriptions. Only 4% are sold on the newsstand. That means very few of the loyal readers, who have a median household income of $161,493, pay the full cover price, $5.99, for the magazine.

My offer of $0.54 per issue is a steep 89% discount. What else can I buy for that kind of pocket change? I wondered. A quick Google search provided the answer: Mike's Chem-Dry Cleaning Services in Madison, Wisconsin, charges $0.54 cents for every square foot it cleans. I called Mike in Madison to ask him what he thought was a better value, his cleaning services or a copy of The New Yorker. Sadly, his company had gone out of business.

TNY is being singled out primarily because it sent me the unsolicited letter, but also because it's considered Mecca for writers who aspire to contribute to the rich canon and readers enamored with the prose. At a time when most magazines consider a picture caption to be long form, TNY continues to offer a safe haven for people like me who still love devouring weighty stories built with cement. With a household income far below $161,493, I am always on the lookout for a bargain, but not in this case. Policing politicians, shedding light on human injustices, and penning engaging fiction all cost money and require plenty of time. These stories have a certain editorial value that needs to be upheld. TNY is one of the few magazines that can lead the crowd in reversing the trend of publications giving away their content for little in print to nothing online.

If TNY is going to shill their mag for quarters, I'd encourage the publishers to grow their audience in a more organic, charitable way by donating copies to colleges across the country. Universities could teach English and journalism classes using the magazine as their textbook. TNY staff writers and editors would tour the college circuit and speak to the students, creating a direct literary relationship with large groups of 20-year-olds who actually enjoy reading and might become lifetime subscribers. It's a win for the schools, the magazine, and the press would eat this up. The New Yorker's real money comes from ads, at $135,263 for a single color page. In customary Condé Nast merchandising fashion, advertisers would back the added value program. (Beer companies, this is for you!)

On the subscription form, in tiny black fine print, the powers that be offer a Money Back Guarantee. "If you ever feel that The New Yorker no longer inspires you, just tell us and we'll refund the cost of all unmailed issues."

"If you ever feel that The New Yorker no longer inspires you..."

Words I never thought I'd hear. Do they know something we don't?