'YM' on the block: Sales plummet for once-hot teen titles

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Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing's anticipated move to sell its tattered title YM is but the latest illustration of the woes affecting teen magazines, which not long ago was the hottest magazine category.

An Ad Age analysis of all teen titles' single-copy sales from the first six months of 2000 to the first six months of 2004 showed significant declines, from 3.3 million to 2.1 million. The biggest and oldest players in the space-YM, Hearst Magazines' Seventeen, and Time Inc.'s Teen People-saw their single-copy sales fall 43.1% on average. For the first nine months of 2004, ad pages are down 4.8% in teen magazines, but the category is buoyed by substantial ad page gains from its newest entrants, Conde Nast Publications' Teen Vogue and Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S.'s Elle Girl.

flooded market

Of course, other major categories have suffered significant newsstand sales declines, most notably the traditional women's service niche. What's unusual about the teen category is that all of the industry's major players rushed into the space just before the deluge. Since the launch of Teen People in 1998, there's been a steady march of younger-sister entrants: Hearst's CosmoGirl, Elle Girl and Teen Vogue.

The market "cannot support the number of magazines in this category," said George Janson, managing partner-director of print for WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia.

Gruner & Jahr USA President-CEO Russell Denson sent a memo to employees last week, saying the company had hired media investment bankers AdMedia Partners to explore a sale of YM. Sale explorations had long been expected by several industry executives. Potential buyers include Hachette, which lost out to Hearst when Seventeen was sold, America Media and Hearst.

Outside analysts and magazine executives point to increased challenges in winning inclusion in the teen girl's media diet, with competition coming from online forms not available a decade ago, like instant-messaging, and some that have only begun flourishing in the last couple of years, like blogging. Elizabeth Crow, editorial director at Consumers Union who oversaw YM in the early '90s and Seventeen earlier this decade, said such trends have "accelerated" even since then.

Teen girls "exist in a kind of media ecosystem: all media all the time," said Ms. Crow, who has a teenage daughter.

And there's also migration to other magazines. "The teen category is experiencing some attrition because of the rise of weekly celebrity magazines," said Amy Barnett, managing editor of Teen People. She nonetheless insisted that internal research showed Teen People readers were spending more time with her magazine.

Esther Franklin, senior VP-director of consumer context planning at Publicis Groupe's Starcom, Chicago, argued that, despite new media encroachment, "magazines are still one of the main mediums that can provide [information] on multiple levels." While she said some Starcom dollars targeting teens had shifted in recent years, she said "from a pure budgetary perspective," TV spending suffered the largest impact.

Still, said Ms. Crow, "it's a tough, tough market. ... The big, general-interest teen magazines have a problem."

Save for Hearst's still-surging CosmoGirl, the top four titles in the category all posted significant ad page drops. And, as Ms. Crow pointed out, the ad page volume at the teen mags never swelled to, say, the levels enjoyed by women's service titles, which still post several hundred more ad pages per year than their teen counterparts-meaning the drops may be more painful to the teen magazines' bottom line.

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