Magazine meeting clouded by prospect of slower times

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[southampton, bermuda] The mood was never too heavy at this year's American Magazine Conference, but a sense of potentially tougher times could be felt. And the big issues -- a less-than-rosy ad outlook, circulation woes, the power America Online soon will yield in magazines -- were subjects of both public and private debate.

The most heated moment came during a retail panel where Charles Anderson, president-CEO of No. 1 magazine distributor Anderson News Co., faced pointed questions and rebuttals from moderator Frank Herrera, chairman of Comag Marketing Group, Playboy Chairman-CEO Christie Hefner, and Bob Callahan, director of category management at H.E. Butt Grocery Co.

But the capacity crowd at the hotel bar howling at the World Series broadcast -- as well as the spectacle of attendees fleeing comedian Kevin Meaney's performance at the annual dinner -- gave it a good run for the money.

No earth-shattering news came from this year's AMC, organized by the Magazine Publishers of America and the American Society of Magazine Editors. On everyone's mind was Time Inc.'s $475 million deal for Tribune Co.'s Times Mirror Magazines, announced two days before the convention began. Following a speech by his presumptive boss, America Online President Bob Pittman, Time Inc. Chairman-CEO Don Logan suggested some outlines of what Time Inc. may look like following the Times Mirror purchase and AOL's pending Time Warner takeover. (See story far right.)


Ironically, it was Mr. Anderson -- a big target of publishers' ire on consolidation of newsstand distributors -- who brought some of the most encouraging news to the conference. It was about his company's Instant Start, which sells subscriptions at newsstands and grocery stores.

From the conference room dais, Mr. Anderson waved a polybagged version of Conde Nast Publications' Glamour with a scannable subscription card on the front, which can be rung up and paid for at the cash register. Anderson News has been selling subscriptions to Glamour like this for four months, Mr. Anderson said, though Steve Florio, Conde Nast CEO, said that such efforts were just a test.

Hearst Magazines currently is participating in Anderson's subscription sales efforts with seven titles: Classic American Homes, Country Living, Good Housekeeping, Harper's Bazaar, House Beautiful, and the joint-venture titles Smart Money and Talk.

Mr. Anderson's moves make nice with an industry furious at him for leading the charge for more onerous distribution requirements for magazines. Also the Justice Department ia examining the possibility of collusion among Anderson and the other three major magazine distributors.

Buttonholed outside the conference room, Mr. Anderson said he didn't think Instant Start would affect newsstand sales or replace the massive falloff in subscriptions generated by sweepstakes companies Publishers Clearing House and American Family Publishers -- although publishers welcome any help on that front. The program, launched with the help of Anderson's recently acquired, may later be tied in to direct-mail campaigns aimed at consumers enrolled in supermarket loyalty programs.

AMC's final panel featured key industry CEOs "talking turkey" about partnerships in a bid to keep conference attendees from leaving early. Hearst Magazines President Cathleen Black was non-committal following Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing CEO Dan Brewster's entreaties for publishers to form broader distribution alliances. The industry's singular cross-company distribution effort is Hearst and Conde Nast Publications' Comag, although Mr. Brewster's stated desires to start more efforts (AA, Oct. 23).

Antitrust concerns make discussion of such alliances tricky, to the point that publishers were instructed to say "affiliate" during the panel instead of "ally."

Time Inc. plans to take the lead in developing a cross-company distribution system, with an eye toward creating a system other publishers could join.


Though the mood was hardly tense, concerns were afoot at the conference that the ad outlook for 2001 is looking less rosy than it once had been.

A top Time Inc. executive was asked about the company's take on General Motors Corp. advertising plan, and simply replied, "We're worried."

Meanwhile, TV Guide informed the MPA it would not renew its membership when it expires at the end of this year. In a statement, John O'Reilly, president of the TV Guide magazine group, said that owner Gemstar/TV Guide International "continues to evolve into a multi-industry, multi-platform" company but "still retain[s] a strong commitment to printed products." TV Guide executives have struggled with issues of the print title's relevance as encyclopedic listings become available on every cable system, and TV Guide's biggest current initiatives are in non-print media.

"It creates a dues shortfall," said one MPA board member. MPA dues are calculated according to a publication's revenues in single-copy and subscription circulation, as well as ad revenue. Through the six months ended June 30, TV Guide's circulation was 10.8 million -- trailing only Reader's Digest and Modern Maturity. Through September, TV Guide's ad pages were 2,325.9, good for a No. 12 ranking in the industry.

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