Magazines in 'Mortal' Danger

Bob Guccione Jr. Puts Blame on Publishers

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Bob Guccione Jr.'s history with magazines famously goes back to the time of his father, who found Penthouse. But since starting Spin and Gear, the son has emerged as a man of magazines in his own right. He took a new turn recently when he bought Discover, a title with falling ad pages and -- he hopes -- plenty of unrealized potential. He fielded five questions from MediaWorks.
Photo: Steve Azzara
Bob Guccione Jr.

MEDIAWORKS: You founded Spin in 1985 and Gear in 1998. What important changes to the magazine business have you witnessed?

BOB GUCCIONE JR.: The main changes have been the deterioration of the notion of [magazines] as a business. It seems now that publishers sell their magazines’ advertising space for ever less while production costs ever more. It seems like there's been an erosion of, just, sense.

More and more titles are congealing into the corporate pool. When that happens, in many cases some individuals can look good and further their careers by short-term gains with long-term health consequences.

It's easy to give the magazine away or to give an ad away. But it's not business. You have to bite the bullet and accept that maybe somebody won't buy your magazine for what it's worth.

The second and more insidious consideration is the erosion of journalistic value. The content, the work, the ink between the ads is meaningful. When we don’t project that as meaningful, when we're not passionate about it, when we don’t attribute to our journalism a sense of sacredness, we cannot blame the readers for holding us disposable.

This industry is ignoring its health mortally.

MEDIAWORKS: What about music magazines in particular? Spin sold in February for less than $5 million, far less than the reported $42 million you and your partners got for it in 1997.

MR. GUCCIONE: The music itself is a very lackluster and genetically weak culture. Music is built by generation upon generation. The '70s built on the '60s, the '80s came out of those together and you kept building. That cycle gets quicker and quicker. Things like video culture meant that a different set of valuations held currency, such as your looks. Rock 'n' roll was the people's music; now it can only be the beautiful people's music.

I also came of age in the late '60s and early '70s. I remember that Crosby Stills and Nash would be down the hall from Jefferson Airplane, so they’d decide to go into the studio and make an album from scratch. You had all these fantastic artists experimenting and there were this wondering, refreshing genetics happening. Now it’s so inbred that everything’s a reflection of the last reflection of a reflection of a reflection.

The manufacturers of music guess the commercial currents and play into them, which is a long way off from two scruffy bands just getting together.

MEDIAWORKS: But does that hurt readership? Rolling Stone has paid circulation above 1.3 million, Vibe reports paid circulation nearing 837,000 and Blender has fairly quickly found 693,000 paying readers.

MR. GUCCIONE: It doesn’t necessarily hurt the size of the readership -- but one doesn’t care about the culture of music, so you're no longer part of an identifying revolution.

The other problem is that the music magazines are a bit cynical. You've got Rolling Stone saying, "We’re a monopoly so what do we care?” On the other end you’ve got Blender saying nothing matters. And then there’s Spin taking itself seriously and nothing else.

When the next Kurt Cobain comes along, Blender will matter less. The artists are out there; the music magazines should be out there finding them.

MEDIAWORKS: What changes have you made since you acquired Discover, which you bought from Disney Publishing Worldwide last fall for nearly $20 million, and what's next?

MR. GUCCIONE: We’re learning the field in a sense, but based on a tremendous foundation, a very solid readership that spends hours with the magazine.

The intention is to build outward, to expand it, to cover more, but also to eradicate this preciousness that the science category seems to have about it. Science is anything which is the pursuit of truth with the attempt to prove its veracity by experimentation, from marine biology to pursuit of new diseases to archeology. All of these subjects are covered but I feel they’re covered with a sort of academic preciousness.

I want to open the windows a little wider and have this magazine explore the world philosophically, to admit it doesn’t have all the answers, to go into areas where we’re likely to come back without answers -- and not to take ourselves too seriously. We even added a humor column.

We’re doing an upcoming article about how the Vatican verifies stigmata. It’s the science of dealing with the phenomenon of the unknowable.

Science is a faith. We mustn’t forget that. We must be a little humbler. One of the columns we’re going to introduce is called "Dead Wrong" -- about when science was absolutely sure about something and turned out to be wrong.

MEDIAWORKS: Discover’s ad pages plunged 16.5%, to 256.57, last year. What happened and how can you reverse that? And nearly every ad in the April issue is a direct-response pitch selling watches or coins. How can you bring in bigger advertisers for broader brand campaigns?

MR. GUCCIONE: We bought this business because we believed it had such a tremendous upside in advertising. Our readers drink, they drive, they shave, they wash their hair, they go on trips, they read books, they go to our movies. More than 750,000 people buy it and something like 6 million read it.

Now the science category itself has terrifically low self-esteem. But the readers think a lot of us. We have 60% renewals for a first-time subscriber and 80% for the third-time subscriber. In my mind, this is a demographic you can take to advertisers.

The problem is when you put a magazine up for sale, as Disney did early last year, the ad staff leaves. The advertisers say, "If you’re selling I’ll wait to see who owns it." When new owners come, advertisers say, "Let’s see what they do."

But in 2002, Discover had $5 million net profit on advertising and packaged goods advertisers were in there. Each issue that we’ve had, we’d brought new advertisers. We’ve got first-timers like Nintendo and A.G. Edwards. We’ve broken General Motors, the History Channel, the Army, the Air Force and Lions Gate films. Disney’s ownership never had those. It’s a good sign. It’s slow but these things get exponentially better. Six months from now we'll be kind of on our way.

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