Draft Magazine Finds Answers in Bottom of a Pint Glass

Niche Title Drawing in Subscribers and Advertisers in Glum Market

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- More than two dozen magazines have ceased publication since last March. Ad pages and subscribers are heading for the exits. And most publishers will tell you "Everything's just fine" even though they're carrying a sign declaring "The end is near."

Draft fashions itself less as a minutely dedicated foodie magazine and more of a lifestyle companion.
Draft fashions itself less as a minutely dedicated foodie magazine and more of a lifestyle companion.
And then there's Austin Wilson.

"Right now, we've kind of got a limitless demand," said the publisher of Draft magazine. "We could go out now and have a million subscribers. It's just a matter of advertisers keeping up."

If that doesn't sound like something most publishers would dare dream about saying this side of 2007, it's probably because Mr. Wilson's malt-and-barley-centric magazine is in a unique spot.

Perhaps beer is simply one of America's most ironclad institutions, or perhaps more people are turning to the bottle for answers, but whatever the cause for Draft's ability to stay above the sinking suck of magazine attrition, Mr. Wilson will likely raise a glass to it.

First publishing venture
Draft is Mr. Wilson's first venture as a publisher. A self-described beer "fanatic" and dissatisfied corporate attorney, he took the consummate "do what you love" axiom of career advice to its hilt, launching the magazine at a 2006 beer festival in Denver. Since then, Draft has managed to crack 200,000 paid subscribers. It also has a newsstand circulation of 70,000 at a cover price of $4.99.

But it's not just the size of the audience that has advertisers interested. According to MRI, 95% of the magazine's subscriber base are males with a median age of 42. They play in a household income range of about $85,000, 38% higher than the national average -- higher even than Maxim and Playboy.

To that end, Draft fashions itself less as a minutely dedicated foodie magazine and more of a lifestyle companion. In fact, it insists it "attracts more-established individuals who have graduated from loutish behavior," and ranks its demographics on par with titles like Outside and Esquire.

"It's a necessity by virtue of what we're talking about," explained Mr. Wilson. "You play the word-association game with beer -- you think of sports, you think of entertainment, you think of travel. We're speaking to beer's role as social glue."

Right for the times
Samir Husni, the chair of the University of Mississippi's journalism department and president of Magazine Consulting & Research, a firm specializing in new magazine launches, takes Draft's lifestyle bent further, citing the magazine's progress as a product of socioeconomic concern.

"In uncertain times like these, people start cocooning with the group they most identify with," he said. "Beer is seen as a working man's drink, and who is hurting more than anyone but the working man?"

"We've seen plenty of magazines that have tried to be everything to everyone," he said. "And now they're part of the catastrophe."

Brad Adgate, director of research at Horizon Media, said Draft's strengths lie in its narrow audience: "Like 'Cigar Aficionado' for beer," he said.

"They're going after a different kind of audience, not really in the expected 21-34, beer-guzzling range, but more a refined taste," he said, adding that the magazine respects the "people who know the difference between a lager and a pale ale" and reciprocate that respect with a "growing loyalty."

'Coming out of left field'
Mr. Adgate expects a large segment of endemic advertisers to continue to come forward, but points out that the bigger names have equity in lesser-known microbreweries and might begin to put some stake into the title as well.

Mr. Wilson pointed out that his inexperience in the game may be as much a help as a hindrance. "We're kind of coming out of left field," he said. "We're doing things a little differently than normal. Half the time I don't know if what I'm doing is right or not."

And because it's a small start-up, it runs a lean operation -- no bloated staff shuttling around in town cars. While Draft's business side is scattered across Chicago and New York, Mr. Wilson maintains a half-dozen-large editorial staff in Phoenix, complemented by a "broad network of writers," many of them just beer aficionados.

Yet more than a few things have fallen right for Draft. Their pages are replete with ads from crafters and microbreweries that are flourishing in their own right. And while more-established magazines are cleaving their print calendars and shearing their budgets, Draft is contemplating increasing its yearly output from six issues a year to 10 by next year.

Extending its presence
But just as many magazines have come to find out, all of that can very easily turn up for naught. In that sense, the magazine is trying its hardest to ensure that its beginner's success with print carries over into the digital arena. So far, that means regular blog updates, online features on sustainability and eco-awareness. And, yes, Draft has a Facebook page. And it Twitters.

It's also extending their presence past editorial. Draft has a raft of brewing events on tap, with more than a dozen throughout the year. They range from the obvious -- beer festivals and PR pushes tied to the Super Bowl -- to the not-so-obvious -- tying in with NPR and PBS for a fundraiser that included a dinner hosted by archeo chemist Patrick McGovern and which paired Dogfish Head's line of "Ancient Ales" with historically appropriate dishes.

To be sure, Draft's success owes much to its subject's impermeability in American culture, and a lot to deft timing of a certain kind of hops renaissance.

"There's this phenomenal growth of interest in craft beer," Mr. Wilson explained. "You can walk into a liquor store with $10 and walk out with some of the greatest product available -- it's very recession-proof."

"Beer is just a happy place to be right now," he said.

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