Newsstand sales of mags decline

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The biannual bummer that is the Audit Bureau of Circulations report for magazines showed the same strains the industry has been facing for years: widespread circulation declines and ever-weakening newsstand demand.

As for overall circulation, 76 of the top 200 magazines posted overall circulation declines for the first six months of this year, compared with the same period last year. Only one magazine in the top 10 titles-Hearst Magazines' Good Housekeeping-posted an increase, and its was just 0.6%.

The worst news among the top tier came from TV Guide, which saw its circulation fall 13.1%. It missed its rate base-circulation guaranteed to advertisers-by almost 500,000 copies; the supermarket-checkout staple saw its single-copy sales slip 27%. Another high-profile title missing its rate base was Teen, published by Emap USA-soon to be Primedia-which posted a 10.8% circulation drop.

The teen-girl category-which exploded in recent years with the addition of hits like CosmoGirl and Teen People, and which will see Hachette Filipacchi Magazines' Elle Girl come in later this month-showed some signs of strain beyond Teen. All its top titles were down in newsstand sales, and Bauer Publishing's Twist also failed to make its rate base.

Will magazines begin to drop rate bases? It's a poorly kept secret in publishing that there are always ways to goose circulation-via hiring subscription agents, say, or snapping up subscriber lists from dead magazines-enough to make rate bases. But these tactics are expensive.

"The only way [to justify those costs] is if you've got the ad revenue," said Dan Capell, editor of Capell's Circulation Report. "Now the ad revenue is not there, so how in hell can you justify rate base [maintenance] that's very expensive?"

"If the ad pullback does continue for another year," said a veteran circulation executive, "then you've got to start seeing it." The problem is that cutting rate bases is an admission of defeat, and sows the seeds for reduced revenue expectations long-term-something few publishers would care to admit.

"It's kind of a last-resort thing, and if [the ad economy] turns around, you've wounded yourself," said the circulation executive.

Some bright spots did emerge. Next-generation women's titles-like Time Inc.'s In Style, and Martha Stewart Living-posted impressive results. O, The Oprah Magazine, the monthly-cum-cultural phenomenon, saw its circulation soar to 2.8 million only 13 months after its debut. O outsells women's magazine franchise player-and sibling Hearst publication-Cosmopolitan.

Women's health-related magazines showed strength, with Gruner & Jahr USA's Fitness pumping up overall circulation to 1.2 million and going up 7.9% on the newsstand. Weider Publications' Shape rose 9.6%, and saw its single-copy sales spike 30.5%. Conde Nast Publications' Self's gains-total circulation up 30.5%-come courtesy of a subscriber list picked up from defunct sibling Women's Sports & Fitness.

O's partner on the circ-success front-and its polar-opposite magazine-is Maxim, which beefed up its overall numbers 16.5% to 2.5 million, even as its newsstand sales declined 7.9% to 901,140.

But Maxim's adolescent growth spurt seems at an end, as Lance Ford, general manager of Maxim Brands, forecast the end of its meteoric circulation growth. "It's all part of the master plan," Mr. Ford said. "The Maxim brand is huge-there's no need to grow the circ any further."

Maxim's laddie compadres show considerable circulation strength, too. Dennis Publications' Stuff-once engagingly described as "Maxim minus the self-help stuff"-saw its circulation rise 27.9% to 976,384-despite a 19.3% fall-off in newsstand sales. And Emap's FHM-soon to be the British company's sole American consumer title-hit 821,834, while selling nearly half a million copies on the newsstand each month. FHM will take its rate base up to a million in early 2002. Stuff plans an unspecified rate base hike early next year as well, said Publisher Jamie Hooper.

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