MAGAZINES STAY ON DOWNWARD COURSE IN 1ST HALF;WIDESPREAD DROP IN READERS AS PUBLISHERS GET MORE PICKY

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Mass-circulation magazines continue to be cut down to size.

A whopping 60% of the top 50 titles by circulation registered declines in the first half of 1996, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations and BPA International.

Of the 526 titles tracked by the Audit Bureau, Dan Capell, managing director of circulation consultancy Vos, Gruppo & Capell, said, "there were 50% showing circulation declines-that's the highest number reporting declines in the 15 years that I have been tracking it."

LAUDING RESULTS

Although these numbers might seem alarming, most circulation executives applauded the trend, saying it meets their goal of dumping marginal readers and reducing circulation bonuses above rate bases promised to advertisers.

Hearst Magazines, for example, moved last November to shed unprofitable circulation by cutting rate bases an average of 10% for 13 of its 16 monthlies. For the first half of '96, according to the audit bureau, Hearst's average paid circulation was down 5.9%, including a 6.1% drop in subscriptions and a 5.4% drop in single-copy sales.

"The strategy has worked very, very successfully. Asking readers to pay more going forward is a key part of the strategy," said Hearst President Cathleen Black, who anticipates further circulation decreases in the second half.

Paid total circulation at Hearst dropped on every title except Harper's Bazaar, up 4% to 732,233. Cosmopolitan dipped 0.5% to 2.56 million, despite a 13.8% gain in subscriptions to 847,917. Good Housekeeping had similar results: Total circulation fell 1.8% to 5.03 million but single-copy sales jumped 8.1% to 1.21 million as Editor in Chief Ellen Levine held the newsstand price at $1.95.

BUCKING THE TREND

One of the few Hearst titles to escape the edict to trim circulation was SmartMoney, a joint venture with Dow Jones & Co.; its paid circulation rose 18.7%.

At Conde Nast Publications, flagship Vogue was flat at 1.14 million while Vanity Fair tumbled 4.8% to 1.12 million. Six of the company's titles were up, while the other seven posted decreases.

Among Time Inc.'s top three magazines, People fell 0.5% to 3.36 million; flagship Time was up just 0.9% to 4.13 million; and Sports Illustrated rose 1.4% to 3.38 million. Time Inc.'s Martha Stewart Living remains on the fast-growth track, up 46.8% to 1.78 million paid.

Virtually the only titles delivering large circulation gains and substantial bonuses for advertisers are younger upstarts. Meigher Communications' Saveur jumped 49.4% to 204,436, while Goldrush Media's Vibe rose 41.4% to 426,005.

WHOLESALERS TO BLAME?

Consolidation among national wholesalers may also be driving circulation down.

Wholesalers are being probed by the U.S. Justice Department for possible anti-competitive practices. Although no charges have been brought in the two-year investigation, a spokesman for Justice said, "Our investigation is continuing into the possibility of anti-competitive practices in the distribution of magazines."

"We think the impact of the wholesaler consolidation seems to be having a negative impact on retail sales as well," said John Squires, senior VP-consumer marketing at Time Inc.M

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