Recent bulletins from the magazines' front lines have brought horrible news. For the first six months of 2012, single-copy sales fell at 21 of the top 25 U.S. titles measured by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Some titles fluttered; others plunged. "Like newspapers, magazines have been in a steady slide," David Carr sighed in The New York Times on Monday, "but now, like newspapers, they seem to have reached the edge of the cliff."
By this point we do expect the news to be challenging. But even from the sidelines, the carnage gives me pause. I spent more than 15 years as a magazine editor before heading online and turning to branded content at iCrossing, the digital ad agency whose owner, Hearst, claims many of the country's biggest titles. Only recently have I had enough distance to notice that I can't recall any detailed, specific discussions with my colleagues about audience data.
That's odd, given that magazines must be about the purest type of branded content on the market. Cars, banks, fashion labels -- these brands can build their identity through the branded content they publish online or post in social media. But a magazine isn't a car. Its brand identity is its content. These aren't discrete concepts supporting each other. They're indivisible.
In magazines, anything I'd ever assigned or written thrived (or didn't) according to how it fit the brand. I'd always consciously thought of magazines as publications and mostly subconsciously thought of them as brands, but these parts of their identity were really on equal footing.
Brand marketers research their audiences exhaustively until they understand them instinctively. So it's strange to remember how magazines I've known kept their editorial and advertising sides operating not just separately, as they should, but entirely divorced from each other, with each side in near-denial of the other's existence. I can't think of one editorial staff meeting with an ad or marketing director downloading the latest changes in our reader profile: where our audience lives, how old they are, what interests them now that didn't a year ago.
Any journalist worth their salt would rightly wax apoplectic if a sales team tried to exert pressure on what to write about. But as the editors manage their brand's content and identity, the entire editorial staff should be strategizing about their consumers as thoroughly and instinctively as their colleagues who sell ads or conduct market research. This audience data is abundant in magazines' media kits -- editors can find it if they're curious -- but do magazine editorial staffers ever meet with their ad and marketing teams?
I recently asked editors in my social networks for a show of hands. Predictably, some bristled. "Never done it myself. Probably should be glad for that ," one business-media writer sniffed. Another noted that he'd experienced such discussions with varying frequency at several women's titles in the past, but not at Wenner Media, where "edit and advertising were never allowed to meet." One freelancer at a Conde Nast magazine says he recently found himself, to his horror, explaining the audience's median age, income and education to his own editor.
And one online editor at a popular business magazine argued that sales teams would benefit as much as editors from reviewing their title's brand identity. "They had no idea what our site was about, or how it fit with the magazine's overall vision," this editor said. "The ad side's misunderstanding of what I did was frankly scary, since they're the ones nominally keeping me in a job."
If I have any cautious optimism for magazines, it comes from their increasing willingness to innovate as brands. It's not just the Wireds and Cosmopolitans of the world; look at The New Yorker, spinning off its columnists and cartoons into marketable contests, podcasts, apps and other extensions. Its single-issue sales may be worrying, but not its ethics: no New Yorker writers have been harmed in the making of this branded content.
The gyrations of the magazine industry aren't good for its practitioners or its readers. In a punchdrunk market, any formal advertising-editorial schism seems absurd. Magazines need every tool they can get. If you're an editor whose staff doesn't meet with the sales and marketing teams to study your audience, this might be the time to implement a disruptive practice. Your colleagues on the other side of the aisle just might have some invaluable information to share.