A recipe for winning mags

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At first blush, our picks this week for the five best magazines in the business don't seem to have much in common. There's no obvious shared thread snaking through a list that includes The New Yorker, one of the most revered magazines in publishing history, and O, the Oprah Magazine, a sassy, celebrity-soaked startup. (Fortune, CosmoGirl and TransWorld Skateboarding round out the group.)

But on closer inspection, the five magazines (and other titles honored in one way or another in our Special Report) share perhaps the most important thing any media property can boast: a passionately loyal audience. All Oprah Winfrey has to do is mention she likes something and retailers immediately sell out their inventories. As for The New Yorker, it has a renewal rate of close to 80%, virtually unheard of in consumer publishing.

There's a lesson here for those marketers eagerly taking ownership stakes in programming or launching custom publishing projects in the mistaken belief that if they control the environment in which their message appears, their advertising will be more effective. The magazines honored in this issue stand as stark reminders that the traditional media model (a gap is found, a product is created, a bond is developed with the audience, advertisers tap into the relationship) still works best.

Too many of the media "innovations" we hear of these days are driven chiefly by a desire to sell products and, secondarily, to serve the audience. But as our publishing executive of the year, Myrna Blyth, wisely notes, "The real power people are the ones who create the product ... Creative ideas are key to all media businesses."

These are challenging times for the magazine business. The ad market is soft, paper and postal costs are rising, newsstand sales are down and subscriptions are ever more expensive and difficult to sell. A shakeout is likely, which will be painful but is overdue and necessary. In these tough times, this new crop of Best Magazines should be celebrated and emulated. Our new editor of the year, Adam Moss, said his primary goal is to "make the case that magazines still matter." We couldn't have said it better ourselves.

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