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AD AGE SPECIAL REPORT;MAGAZINES;IN GENERAL, WHERE ARE THE READERS?;LIFESTYLE CHANGE MEANS GROWING INTEREST IN NICHE TITLES, LESS IN BROAD OFFERINGS

By Published on .

Goodbye, Life. Hello . . . Combat Handgunner.

As the reader and ad-page totals of many big-circulation, general-interest magazines continue to stagnate or slip, the number and size of highly specialized titles are still growing at a healthy rate.

Launches of mass-appeal books are few and far between today, but new magazines on everything from snowboarding to the Civil War appear frequently.

This proves that publishers have known for a while what a recent study by a magazine-industry title confirms: Readers consider magazines the most dispensable form of communication.

As a result, a title had better appeal directly to an individual's narrow field of interest if it wants to get his or her attention.

A QUESTION OF TIME

With consumers having less time to themselves, they're more interested in indulging in their personal interests.

"People are being bombarded with more and more options, but they don't have more and more time," says Roberta Garfinkle, senior VP-director of print media for McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York.

"If they are going to do something superficial, it might as well be fun," says Gene DeWitt, president of media-buying service DeWitt Media, New York.

Accordingly, one reason so many niche magazines are a big hit with readers and advertisers is because their missions are "clear, simple and desirable," Mr. DeWitt says. "When you have a special-interest magazine, it's pretty clear what you are about."

On the other hand, he says, "It's hard to even define a general-interest magazine anymore. What it means to me is broad reach and appealing to a wide spectrum of people."

A buy in TV Guide, Reader's Digest, People and National Geographic could reach virtually every magazine reader in the country, Mr. DeWitt says. But, he adds, "It's probably been 20 years since anyone used magazines as a mass-reach medium."

And the biggest losers have been the newsweeklies, he says: "The news magazines have been floundering for years. A year or two ago, we were trying to think what the purpose of news magazines was and we couldn't come up with one."

CONSISTENT CONTENT

While a Vanity Fair can-and does-cover everything from politics to homicide, The New Republic and True Crime can consistently appeal to people interested in those subjects month after month.

"Niche magazines are very, very valuable and it is clearly the most important development" in print publishing, says Abe Peck, chairman of the magazine program at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "We like to think that more people are interested in the news of the world than in basement handicrafts," but that isn't neccessarily the case.

"There seem to be tastes for everyone . . . Take a look at [a newsrack] and the richness and the strangeness of the culture becomes apparent," Mr. Peck says.

Indeed, Meredith Publishing Group has achieved considerable success with niche titles like American Patchwork and Quilting, even as its bigger books Better Homes & Gardens and Ladies' Home Journal continue to thrive, says President Christopher Little.

NEW ECONOMICS

The consumer appeal of special-interest titles has revamped the economics of magazines.

The cost of building and maintaining a large circulation also has contributed to the dearth of new general-interest titles and the declining reach of extant ones, Mr. DeWitt says.

"Twenty years ago, the big magazines were surviving on cut-rate circulation and in today's business climate, you just can't do that," he says.

Furthermore, observers note that direct-marketing costs to potential subscribers have escalated, and newsstand slots are scarce.

The latter factor means news dealers are more interested in titles whose sales they can accurately predict.

That can, however, become a double-edged sword. A retailer may dump a magazine that predictably sells only two or three issues a month in favor of a title that has up-and-down sales but a higher profit potential, Mr. Little says.

"I think that the change in retailer attitude and the emergence of new wholesalers may make it more difficult for the proliferation of these niche magazines," says Mr. Little.

CHOPPING UP ADS

As readership gets chopped into up into smaller and smaller portions, so too, do the ad dollars.

"The amount of money being spent in magazines isn't growing at the same rate the number of titles is growing," Ms. Garfinkle says.

"What it means is that we are able to better, more effectively target our perspective consumers [but] the same amount of money is being spent," she says.

But Ms. Garfinkle believes that just because there are more magazines doesn't mean there are more readers.

"A lot of the larger titles are cutting their circulations because it is getting harder and harder to attract readers," she says. "Everybody who cares to read a magazine already is."

For a new title to succeed, "it comes down to the point where you have to replace something else," Ms. Garfinkle says.

But will that something else be other magazines?

"All the research I've seen indicates that time is being taken out of TV viewing, not out of reading," Mr. Little claims. "As network TV's share goes down, bigger books are getting more competitive [for an advertiser] to reach that mass audience."

Mr. Little is "cautiously optimistic" about the future of print-particularly titles for women-for mass-reach.

He notes that prescription and non-prescription drugs have moved into the medium and believes computer marketers may soon arrive as well, in the same way automobile marketers did when it became clear that women were making more car-buying decisions.

In the end, points out Mr. Peck, "Every media generation has predicted the death of the previous dominant media, but there just seems to be more and more stuff."

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