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MAGAZINE EXECS GLOSS OVER OWN INDUSTRY; PUBLISHERS AGAIN END UP FIXATING ON NEW MEDIA BOGEYMAN AT '96 CONFERENCE

By Published on .

The american Magazine Conference in Bermuda last week was notable for the topic that received perhaps the least amount of attention: the business of magazine publishing.

For the fourth consecutive year, the industry's preoccupation with-and defensiveness about-new media dominated much of the formal agenda and hallway chatter. At the same time, several issues near and dear to the hearts and pocketbooks of publishers were given short shrift.

WHAT SPEAKERS WERE SAYING

The conference's first outside speaker, Sears marketing exec John Costello, spoke eloquently about the retailer's successful branding efforts but backed his points more with examples of TV ads than magazine buys. A subsequent panel on Wall Street's view of the magazine business focused heavily on the continuing value of print in the new-media age. Disney's Michael Ovitz capped the morning's general session with a futuristic-and, some say, un-realistic-view of the magazine of the future: a portable, digital device with a liquid-crystal display screen.

Of six breakout workshops that followed the general sessions, two were devoted to new media. The second day brought much of the same, with Michael Kinsley, editor of the online magazine Slate, as the featured speaker. He joked about the high number of new-media sessions and said attendees were probably "sick of hearing about journalism on the Internet."

SLICING THE AD PIE

Only on the third and final day did the agenda include key sessions on why magazines deserve a bigger slice of the advertising pie and the importance of knowing your customers.

The only topic that got as much attention as new media, though, was the presidential election, with a panel of journalists dissecting the topic on the second day and speeches by Steve Forbes and Ed Rollins on the third.

"This is the third year of [focusing on] new media," said the editor of one mass-market mag-azine who attended the conference. "Why aren't we talking about all the editors who got fired this year? Why aren't we talking about Premiere and New York? About the magazine business?" He was far from alone in that view. Said the publisher of a leading weekly, "It's a tail-dog thing."

TOUCHING ON `THE CHAOS'

In his opening remarks, Magazine Publishers of America President Donald Kummerfeld touched on several areas of concern for publishers, particularly "the chaos and consolidation occurring in newsstand distribution of magazines." Yet there were no general sessions or workshops on the topic.

Other issues of concern raised by Mr. Kummerfeld, notably "protecting commercial free speech which has been attacked by the FDA regulations on tobacco advertising," got no further discussion outside his speech. The only one that did was the debate over improving mea-surement of magazine readership, covered by a breakout session featuring key agency, media and marketer panelists.

By now, there's no doubt that new media will impact how magazines do business, and it's also a sure bet that most magazines will be able to adapt and thrive. As magazines continue to determine how the Internet is changing the communications business, it's also important for the industry to include the issue on its agenda each year. To ignore it would be foolish.

But it's also time for magazines to get back to the business of talking about magazines and the day-to-day realities facing the business. Why wasn't there a frank panel discussion with editors and publishers talking about how bottom-line pressures are affecting editorial independence? Why wasn't there a general session dealing with what magazines can do to lessen the loss that would result if strict tobacco ad regulations are upheld in the courts? Or a session on the consolidation among distributors that threatens newsstand sales and profits?

To his credit, Frank Lalli, American Society of Magazine Editors president and Money managing editor, did raise the issue of editorial pressures during his ASME overview, and unveiled a statement reaffirming the group's "standard for editorial indepen-dence."

The magazine industry is a terrific one, populated by some of the brightest minds, savviest dealmakers, most colorful personalities and most vibrant products in the business world. Splashy launches, fierce bidding wars and high-level executive shake-ups keep the excitement level high. For many publishers, 1996 is shaping up as a pretty good year, with ad pages and profits on the rise. And 1997 doesn't look too bad, either.

All of those things deserve at least as much time and attention at industry gatherings-if not more-as new media.MThe American Magazine Conference in Bermuda last week was notable for the topic that received perhaps the least amount of attention: the business of magazine publishing.

For the third consecutive year, the industry's preoccupation with-and defensiveness about-new media dominated much of the formal agenda and hallway chatter. At the same time, several issues near and dear to the hearts and pocketbooks of publishers were given short shrift.

The conference's first outside speaker, Sears marketing exec John Costello, spoke eloquently about the retailer's successful branding efforts but backed his points more with examples of TV ads than magazine buys. A subsequent panel on Wall Street's view of the magazine business focused heavily on the continuing value of print in the new-media age. Disney's Michael Ovitz capped the morning's general session with a futuristic-and, some say, unrealistic-view of the magazine of the future: a portable, digital device with a liquid-crystal display screen.

Of six breakout workshops that followed the general sessions, two were devoted to new media. The second day brought much of the same, with Michael Kinsley, editor of the online magazine Slate, as the featured speaker. He joked about the high number of new-media sessions and said attendees were probably "sick of hearing about journalism on the Internet."

The agenda for the third and final day included key sessions on why magazines deserve a bigger slice of the advertising pie and the importance of knowing your customers.

The only topic that got as much attention as new media, though, was the presidential election, with a panel of journalists dissecting the topic on the second day and speeches by Steve Forbes and Ed Rollins on the third.

"This is the third year of [focusing on] new media," said the editor of one mass-market magazine who attended the conference. "Why aren't we talking about all the editors that got fired this year? Why aren't we talking about Premiere and New York? About the magazine business?" He was far from alone in that view. Said the publisher of a leading weekly, "It's a tail-dog thing."

In his opening remarks, Magazine Publishers of America President Donald Kummerfeld touched on several areas of concern for publishers, particularly "the chaos and consolidation occurring in newsstand distribution of magazines." Yet there were no general sessions or workshops on the topic.

Other issues of concern raised by Mr. Kummerfeld, notably "protecting commercial free speech which has been attacked by the FDA regulations on tobacco advertising," got no further discussion outside his speech. The only one that did was the debate over improving measurement of magazine readership, covered by a breakout session featuring key agency, media and marketer panelists.

By now, there's no doubt that new media will impact how magazines do business, and it's also a sure bet that most magazines will be able to adapt and thrive. As magazines continue to determine how the Internet is changing the communications business, it's also important for the industry to include the issue on its agenda each year. To ignore it would be foolish.

But it's also time for magazines to get back to the business of talking about magazines and the day-to-day realities facing the business. Why wasn't there a frank panel discussion with editors and publishers talking about how bottom-line pressures are affecting editorial independence? Why wasn't there a general session dealing with what magazines can do to lessen the loss that would result if strict tobacco ad regulations are upheld in the courts? Or a session on the consolidation among distributors that threatens newsstand sales and profits?

To his credit, Frank Lalli, American Society of Magazine Editors president and Money managing editor, did raise the issue of editorial pressures during his ASME overview, and unveiled a statement reaffirming the group's "standard for editorial independence."

The magazine industry is a terrific one, populated by some of the brightest minds, savviest dealmakers, most colorful personalities and most vibrant products in the business world. Splashy launches, fierce bidding wars and high-level executive shakeups keep the excitement level high. For many publishers, 1996 is shaping up as a pretty good year, with ad pages and profits on the rise. And 1997 doesn't look too bad, either.

All of those things deserve at least as much time and attention at industry gatherings-if not more-as new media.

Mr. Donaton is executive editor of Advertising Age.

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