Most publishers say they aren't done logging -- and to make sure that it stays that way, they are increasingly funding new research, seeking supporters outside their ranks, raiding agencies for creatives to offer their advertisers and even -- who would have thought? -- running print ad campaigns to make their case.
"We'd have to be 'Tommy' without the pinball machine to not realize that we're dealing with one of the most mercurial and transitional phases in the history of media," said Richard Beckman, president of the Conde Nast Media Group. "There's no question that over the years, the poor consumer has become bombarded with commercial messages. And the consumer reacted to this whole era of saturation. Whether that meant the 60 million of them who signed up for the Do Not Call List in the first year or whether it's the enormous TiVo penetration or whether it's living in a gated community, there's no question that the consumer is resisting."
Long live the niche
That said, Mr. Beckman went on, broad-reach magazines are indeed facing challenges as other media options proliferate. "Niche magazines that pursue their niches with uncompromising excellence," he said, "are here to stay."
Now, let's get some things straight here. Mr. Beckman is a sales executive at Condé Nast Publications, a niche publishing company. So of course he's going to be optimistic about his company's future despite ominous signs around the industry. What signs? Well, the last 18 months have seen axes fall on magazines both niche and broad, including Life, Child, Premiere, Elle Girl, FHM, Shop Etc., Teen People, Cargo, Official PlayStation Magazine, Weekend, Celebrity Living, Shape en Espanol and Shock. Newsstand sales also spent much of the last decade in decline, only recently pulling up -- to flat. Ad-page sales, when you look across the industry, are idling near zero growth. And magazines as diverse as Star, Time, Woman's Day, TV Guide, BusinessWeek, Reader's Digest and Playboy have all cut their guaranteed circulation in the past couple years.
But the media buyers and consultants who help direct billions in ad spending agree that magazines -- okay, some magazines -- truly aren't going away. "Magazines in the United States are a declining category overall," said Rishad Tobaccowala, president of The Denuo Group, a firm founded to track and exploit media trends. Falling fastest: business-to-business books, overly narrow niche plays and the generalists. Mr. Tobaccowala said Condé Nast does well not because of niches, but because it counter-programs the internet with lavish visuals, rich tactile experiences, longer articles and layouts that don't work well on the web.
Mag ads more tolerated
Research also keeps suggesting that readers enjoy magazine advertising in a way that, say, TV viewers don't. Maybe that's because it's easier to flip past an ad than skip over a commercial. In any case, fashionistas will never reject a September issue of Harper's Bazaar because it's too fat with ads.
"Will there be a weeding out?" said George Janson, managing partner and director-print at Mediaedge:cia, which represents clients including Federated Department Stores. "Without a doubt. Is that a terrible thing? Absolutely not. It will make everyone work harder and smarter to grab the consumer's attention. Strong magazine brands will prosper just like they do in other product categories."
All the chaos, innovation and shutdowns are actually distracting us from what matters, according to Andrew Swinand, president and chief client officer at Starcom USA. "We're so focused on distribution, distribution, distribution," he said. "The core if you look at the consumer is: Will consumers still read, watch, listen? This whole argument about magazines -- whether they go away, will it be on 30-stock paper or 32-stock paper -- is an irrelevant discussion. To say it's not mass, it's niche, that's the wrong discussion. People will read whether they're reading on a piece of paper or a portable liquid screen that's yet to be invented. And I don't think it matters to publishers."
Yard sale at Time
Employees at Time Inc. might find that long view cold comfort. Time Inc., the country's largest magazine publisher, has spent the last 15 months eliminating hundreds of jobs, selling 19 magazines, closing two others and, most recently, exploring "alternatives" for some Australian titles -- basically so the company can spend more on digital publishing without sapping its annual results.
The company just calls that managing change, insisting it will always buy ink by the barrel even if the fastest growth is online. "The tactile quality of a magazine, the 'for me' time that magazines represent, the ability to take it wherever you want, the ability to not have a screen blinking at you, I don't think that's easily substituted," said John Squires, the senior exec VP at Time Inc.
"Magazines that I think talk about lifestyle subjects with great photography and great service will always have a great role in the consumers' media habits," said Michael Clinton, Hearst Magazines' exec VP, CMO and publishing director. "We'll also certainly build that out to digital platforms, but what we find is that magazines have edited authority and they stimulate consumers to go and do something else.
"Bob Garfield's grandchildren will be reading magazines," he said.