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If each recession breeds new euphemisms, `02's contribution is "sequential improvement." Adopted and perpetuated by newspaper and magazine executives this year, it's a kinder way of saying "the rate of decline is slowing."

The more gimlet-eyed remain guarded. "What's going to happen is an uptick from the bottoming-out, which just occurred," said Don Logan, chairman-CEO, AOL Time Warner's Time Inc. "But I don't see anything that's going to drive a huge surge of advertising this year."

Some isolated niches look hotter than others. Newbie laddie titles FHM and Dennis Publishing's Stuff both show double-digit ad page growth, and Meredith Corp.'s nationally aimed home titles all posted increases.

But Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR projects 2002 ad revenue for U.S. consumer and Sunday magazines will decline 2.8%, with a 1.7% decline for national newspapers-even as overall ad spending rises 2.5%.

`not so sure'

For magazines, lessening declines and increasing reports of ad-page positive issues won't beat back a weak first half. Michael Clinton, exec VP-chief marketing officer, Hearst Magazines, said ad pages at Hearst's titles are collectively up 3% in August and 6.7% in September. But Mr. Clinton said he's "not so sure" that would turn the year positive. Hearst nonetheless recently acquired shelter title Veranda and announced a Lifetime-branded magazine.

Optimism, of course, is relative. "Flat is a major success in the current market," said Andy Clerkson, general manager of Dennis Publishing's Maxim.

"It continues to be extremely tough," said Dan Brewster, president-CEO of Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing, which publishes Family Circle and Rosie. "But there is a discernible upturn going into the third quarter"-albeit "very clear" that the magazine industry ad-page highs of '99 or even '98 won't be threatened.

Others are less sanguine. "I see [the second half] as a continuation of the first half, which is a continuation of what transpired in 2001," said Kent Brownridge, general manager of Wenner Media, adding it "sucks."

Through May, magazines audited by Publishers Information Bureau posted ad-page declines of 11.6%. That comes on top of a 9.4% ad-page decline for the same period last year.

Magazines hardest hit, and slowest to recover, are technology and business-oriented titles, owing to their reliance on moribund technology and finance ad categories. Key business titles have backslid to pre-1995 page levels.

Somewhat similarly, the economy has disproportionately affected national and big-city newspapers, thanks to their exposure to help-wanted advertising and key categories of national advertising that have been slammed.

"It's an anomaly economy," said Tom Curley, president- publisher of Gannett Co.'s USA Today. "Core categories are down" so anomalous blips and twitters drive any positive movement.

And anomalies and sequential improvement alone aren't going to cut it.

Mr. Logan said the test is corporate earnings. As for '03, he said, "Who knows?"

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