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Would You Rather Own a Magazine or a Digital Startup?

(That Is Not a Trick Question)

By Published on . 3

On the evening of Sunday, Oct. 14, Ad Age Editor Abbey Klaassen and I stood on a small, remote-controlled boat -- one not much bigger than a queen-size bed -- floating in the pool at the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar at the historic Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Normally the boat is where the house band plays, but given that it's the one spot that 's mic'd and sufficiently lit in the moodily dark room, we had no choice but to commandeer the vessel to present Ad Age 's annual Magazine A-List awards. The audience on the "shore" of the pool (or lagoon, as the Fairmont refers to it) consisted of attendees of AMC 2012, the annual Magazine Media Conference that draws publishers and editors from all the big magazine companies. Over the next two days, hundreds of magazine people, most of them having flown in from New York, would call the Fairmont home.

Credit: Kelsey Dake

The optics, as they say, were a bit weird that first night. Here we were at the establishment hotel in town -- a place where presidents and prime ministers have slept, where Tony Bennett debuted "I Left My Heart In San Francisco," where the United Nations Charter was drafted -- but in the basement of it. In a kitschy bar that in 2009 the hotel announced it planned to close (local preservationists cried foul, and so far, obviously, it hasn't happened). And it's worth noting that just before Abbey and I climbed aboard the rocking boat, a fake thunderstorm -- signified by a too-loud-to-talk-over soundtrack of pouring rain and thunder -- reverberated through the room for half a minute or so as fake lightning lit up the fake-lava walls and illuminated trays of hors d'oeuvres on tables housed in (of course) little thatched-roof huts.

Frozen in Amber
In other words, not far from Silicon Valley, a bunch of print people stood around in a dark, frozen-in-amber tiki bar and endured yet another storm. If it weren't for the fact that Abbey and I were aboard a glorified dinghy, there would be obvious Titanic-esque jokes to make about the sinking magazine industry.

And yet, we weren't handing out life preservers -- we were handing out well-deserved trophies. A lot of Champagne was sipped that night, and for good reason. (A lot of mai tais were also sipped that night, for less-good reasons.) Ad Age 's Magazine A-List awards aren't just about ginning up another gratuitous feel-good moment (there are already way too many of those sorts of faux honors in the media world), but recognizing real success. All 10 of the A-List awardees are profitable -- highly profitable, in many cases. These are growing businesses.

For instance, as we noted that night and in our A-List package (full coverage, if you missed it, is available here), Architectural Digest ad pages are up 11.3% so far this year, after being up 9.1% in 2011 and up 5.7% in 2010. Food Network Magazine is overdelivering (to the tune of 200,000 copies) on its guaranteed paid circulation of 1.4 million. Our Magazine of the Year, Marie Claire -- home of our Publisher of the Year, Nancy Berger Cardone -- is not only up more than 15% in ad pages so far this year, but published two editions of its career-focused spin-off title, Marie Claire@Work, in the spring and the fall. And all of the A-List winners are innovating in digital -- with websites and tablet/mobile editions that are driving real revenue -- at the same time that they're continuing to convince readers and advertisers of the value of print.

It's easy to overlook "traditional media" success stories in favor of "new media" hype . And when bad news arrives in the magazine world, such as the (inevitable) announcement last Thursday that Newsweek will be shuttering its print edition in December, it gets outsized attention and is seen as some sort of barometer of the overall health of the industry. Likewise, a lot of willfully ignorant folks in the "print is dead" crowd lump magazines and newspapers together, which is a big mistake.

The truth is , all ad-supported media -- including magazines and digital-native companies -- are operating in what continues to be a challenging environment. The difference with magazines is that they generally have to function as real companies with real revenues and real plans for how to survive and thrive. Unlike in Silicon Valley, there isn't exactly a lot of venture-capital funny money floating around in the magazine world, propping up glossy pipe dreams and giving the illusion of success.

As Mary Berner, the new president-CEO of the MPA, the Association of Magazine Media, pointed out in a rousing speech to the AMC crowd, most digital startups fail. As I've written in this space before, VCs usually end up making bad bets. (History goes to the victors, which is why smart VC bets on the likes of Google tend to get remembered, while we all conveniently forget dogs like Kozmo.com, which raised an astonishing $250 million before going bust in 2001.)

I have no doubt that we'll all continue to treat venture capitalists like rock stars, and that the infectious we're-going-to-change-the-world vibe of even the most dubious digital startups will continue to result in hagiographic media coverage from tech blogs.

Meanwhile, over in the reality-based media community, a lot of magazines continue to be not only damn good businesses, but are doing better than ever.

You probably won't read about that on TechCrunch or Mashable, but you're reading it right here.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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