Nearly half the titles tracked by the Audit Bureau of Circulations for the six months ended Dec. 31 reported declines. A similar picture emerged at titles tracked by BPA International.
"It's certainly the worst performance in the past 10 years and maybe the worst ever," said Dan Capell, managing director of Vos Gruppo & Capell and editor of Capell's Circulation Report.
Among the nation's top 25 circulating magazines, only three posted circulation gains of more than 1%.
"Generally, people are reducing their newsstand draw and cutting their print orders because of the high cost of paper and postage," said Susan Caughman, senior VP of consumer marketing at Time Inc.
Two of the worst performers in the top 25 were tabloids. The National Enquirer took a 14.8% tumble while sister title Star was off 10.9%, with both missing their guaranteed rate bases.
"We feel for the second half of the year, people had OD'd on O.J.," said Tony Hoyt, senior VP of publisher American Media.
Surprisingly, two of the gainers in the top 25 bracket are owned by Hearst Magazines, which as part of a companywide policy instituted with last November's issues was supposed to be reducing its rate bases by an average of 10%.
Nevertheless, Cosmopolitan was up 1.6% overall despite another 5.5% tumble on newsstands while Good Housekeeping was up 2.8% overall and 14.3% on the newsstands.
"I think it's a great tribute to the power of Ellen Levine's editorial," said Good Housekeeping Publisher Alan Waxenberg. "It's just exploding on the newsstands."
Among the other Seven Sister titles, Family Circle, Woman's Day, Better Homes & Gardens and Ladies' Home Journal were all flat, while McCall's dipped 2% and Redbook was down 6.7%.
The only other big gainer in the top 25 was Motorland, a subscription-only title that jumped 6.4%.
"I suspect we're starting to see the impact of the falloff from Publishers Clearing House and American Family Publishers," Mr. Capell said.
Magazine circulation executives said they were seeing falloffs of 20% or greater from the top two stamp-sheet agents.
Dropping Rate Bases
In fairness, many publishers-especially those with huge rate bases-have been quietly and selectively lowering their bases. TV Guide's 6.1% decline is tied to a decision to lower its rate base by 7% at midyear 1995 to 13 million in response to paper price increases.
At Prevention, VP-Publisher Ken Wallace said he has scrapped plans to institute a rate base increase in 1996 when the paper prices began climbing in 1995. Instead he held the rate base steady in the second half and began testing new price levels on the newsstands. "We were really delivering too large a bonus," he said, explaining a 5.1% circulation decline to 3.25 million.
There still seemed to be pockets of growth for many titles, such as those in the home/garden or family niche. Garden Design seems tailor made for the current circulation environment. With a high cover price of $5, the every-other-monthly title from Meigher Communications was the second fastest growing paid magazine audited by ABC, up 73.1%.
Martha Stewart Living-thanks to the minimal cost of circulation acquisition linked to an 800-number on Ms. Stewart's weekly TV show-remained red hot, up 52.8% to 1.45 million.
Family Life seems to have come back to life under new owner Hachette Filipacchi, posting a 71% circulation boost as ABC's third-fastest growing title.
The fastest growing title in percentage gains was Home Gym & Fitness, up 77.6%. That should help offset some of the softness for parent Century Publishing, whose Baseball Digest was still feeling the impact of last year's Major League Baseball labor woes. The magazine's circulation plunged 31.8% to 174,756.