We can now confirm which marketers are to blame for magazines' lackluster start to the year: food, drug and auto advertisers.
Whether the second quarter is going any better in those categories depends on the magazine.
The fitfully improving economy had suggested to publishers and other media that better business was on its way in 2012, but growth has been unevenly distributed and sometimes hard to detect.
Magazine ad pages fell 8.2% in the first quarter year-over-year, according to new figures from the Publishers Information Bureau.
Among magazines' 12 biggest ad categories, 10 bought fewer pages, the figures show. Auto ad pages were down 35.8% from first-quarter 2011, for example. Also down were food (17.8%), retail (7.4%), drugs and remedies (7.3%) and direct response (6.6%). Auto's pullback translated into a 765-page reduction, the largest decline by that measure, followed by 420 pages for food, and 283 for drugs and remedies (full chart below).
The only two categories to increase magazine ad pages were apparel and accessories, at 6.3%, and toiletries and cosmetics, at 2.5%, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.
The automotive category remains weak in the second quarter, at least for many mass-market, broad-reach magazines, according to Dick Porter, exec VP and president-media sales at Meredith , a publisher whose titles include Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal.
"You're just not seeing as many launches," Mr. Porter said. "Any launch that 's coming probably isn't trying to sell as many units as they used to. And you're seeing the shift from broad to targeted advertising. If they're doing broad, TV is doing that role."
Magazines with relatively focused audiences are likely to capture the most auto advertising in print, according to Mr. Porter. For example, he said, food performed well for Meredith in the first quarter and continues to do so. "Maybe it is about reach and efficiency and moms," he said. "That's our wheelhouse, and we're doing well today in that category."
Meredith said today that it is increasing the paid circulation guarantee at Eating Well magazine to 600,000 from 500,000. It raised the rate base from 350,000 in January.
A lot is riding on the second half of the year for publishers."When it comes to recessions, print is sometimes the last guy to feel it -- because we have the longer lead times -- and sometimes the last to swing out of it," Mr. Porter said. "So I do think it will be interesting to see [quarters three and four]. We're still in a fragile economy, most people think."