When Ad Age editors started searching for the 10 outstanding titles that would compose our 2008 A-List, we found ourselves confronting some unpleasant news about the magazine business.
Ad pages in the monthly magazines' January through September issues had fallen 7.4% from 2007, according to Media Industry Newsletter. The first nine months of 2007, by comparison, slipped only 1% from 2006. Before that, we'd seen a few years of gains.
The scene was even worse on newsstands, to which advertisers look in order to gauge a title's vitality. Seven out of 10 magazines reporting to the Audit Bureau of Circulations saw newsstand losses in the first half, circulation guru Dan Capell pointed out. It was the worst first-half performance in 20 years.
Our normal method of compiling the A-List -- listing the titles marching forward in nearly every statistical measure, then culling them down to 10 standouts -- was not going to work.
But as we sifted through the data and rifled through issues, we found that this year's honorees shone all the more brightly for the dark. The Economist, our Magazine of the Year, presented a crisp example of excellence in editorial, ad sales, circulation and marketing. Women's Health continued its ascent unperturbed. Every Day With Rachael Ray even reversed the newsstand decline of first-half 2007. Fast Company hasn't regained its old heights, but it is putting on a great show as it tries.
Re-examining recent lists, however, proved 2008 was different.
The 2004 winners all increased their ad pages and together averaged a 14.2% ad-page gain. The next year was even better, as everyone gained again but their average increase topped 15.2%.
In 2006, we let People, the perennial leader in ad pages and revenue, on the list even though ad-page sales had moved sideways, slipping less than 1%. Everyone else was up. The 10 averaged a 14.6% ad-page jump.
Last year a runaway Every Day With Rachael Ray, which was still finding its level -- ad pages shot up 80.9% -- led the group to an average ad-page gain of 17.3%. Even without Rachael Ray, the other nine averaged 10.2%.
But this year? Three A-Listers showed ad-page declines through September: National Geographic, New York and Condé Nast Traveler. The whole list grew ad pages an average of 11%, but if you stripped out the growth spurt at People StyleWatch, the other nine averaged an 8.6% increase -- pretty modest for a top-10 list.
The arc of newsstand performance over recent A-Lists pushed 2008 even further down the ladder. Single-copy sales growth across our 10 averaged 12.8% back in 2004. Last year the gains averaged out to 9.3%.
The 2008 A-List includes three magazines whose newsstand sales fell; together the 10 honorees averaged a meager 5.3% increase.
Given the challenging environment for magazines, we've added to this year's honors five American Magazine Vanguard Award winners, chosen by our Media Guy columnist Simon Dumenco. The AMVAs recognize that great magazine brands are not held back by their performance on the newsstand or the latest ad page counts.
Just don't be mad at this year's lists. In a rocky year, these magazines proved to be gems. They held their ground or, more often, advanced despite challenges from other media and an economy grinding the gears down to recession. As Beth Fidoten, a print buyer at Initiative, said of The Economist, they found ways to win.
"It just shows you," she said, "that the right product marketed in the right way can have a very good success story in even in a time that's not the easiest."