MPA SUMS UP THE YEAR FOR MAGAZINES

'Pain Helps You Focus,' Says One Official

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The address at this year's American Magazine Conference by the top officers of the Magazine Publishers of America gave a
Photo: Doug Goodman
Cathleen Black: 'Pain helps you focus.'

fair snapshot of the current magazine world.

Praise for the work and connection, to borrow the conceptual linchpin from Oprah Winfrey's opening speech, for magazines' efforts post Sept. 11 was doled out amid acknowledgment of a brutal, unforgiving economic picture.

"We have to do what the students of Stuyvesant High School did," said MPA President-CEO Nina Link, referring to the New York high school mere blocks from the World Trade Center whose students published a magazine capturing the hallucinatory horror of the day. "Inspire, educate and entertain."

Easier said than done, given the state of the industry, all speakers seemed to agree.

Previous problem now 'quaint'
"When I accepted the chairmanship" of the MPA, said

outgoing chairwoman Cathleen Black, president of Hearst Magazines, the biggest problem was Y2K, which "seems almost quaint now."

Reprising a refrain she used during the last recession when she was the head of the Newspaper Association of America, she quoted an anonymous magazine CEO: "Pain helps you focus."

There's plenty of that as the magazine business is embattled by troubles on literally every front: advertising drops and circulation trouble among both subscription acquisition and newsstand sales.

'The perfect storm'
"The perfect storm," said Dan Brewster, incoming chairman of the MPA and president-CEO of Gruner & Jahr Publishing USA, reapplying author Sebastian Junger's metaphor first tacked onto the magazine

Photo: Doug Goodman
Dan Brewster: 'The ox is in the ditch and the wheels are off the cart.'

world by David Carr of inside.com in the summer of 2000.

There's also the prospect of skyrocketing postal rates, which Mr. Brewster addressed in his presentation.

He said that if the latest rate hike proposed by the U.S. Postal Service went through, it would mean a total industry cost of $450 million.

Ox cart in the ditch
Mr. Brewster, recognizing the distressed state of the Postal Service, extended a self-consciously down-home statement by Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson -- "the ox cart is in the ditch" -- by saying, "The ox is in the ditch and the wheels are off the cart."

He did not minimize the task ahead of broadscale postal reform, calling it a "monumental undertaking" complicated by the volume and diversity of the parties involved.

Photo: Doug Goodman
Lewis Lapham: 'I'm still not sure I know what I'm doing.'

"As we move closer" to possible solutions, "we find constituencies fray and fall apart."

Of two potential solutions -- privatization or extended subsidy -- Mr. Brewster did not side with either choice. He said means of alternate delivery would be explored. However, previous industry executives have noted early research on alternate delivery was not encouraging and that all previous attempts at it had failed.

Anthrax in second postal worker
Mr. Brewster's task of outlining the struggles the Postal Service has was complicated by today's news that a second U.S. postal worker had been diagnosed with a more severe form of anthrax associated with inhaling its spores. He began his speech by acknowledging the situation, and later said the Postal Service -- in contrast to his tart remarks concerning their business finesse -- was handling recent challenges very well.

So it is with the magazine world today. Events keep getting in its way.

Some levity was provided later in the morning by Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's magazine, who spoke as the first American Society of Magazine Editors master of the craft.

"To be singled out as a master of the craft," he said, "is an honor and a mistake. ... I'm still not sure I know what I'm doing." Mr Lapham has edited Harper's since 1971.

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