What a Hearst Acquisition of Rodale Would Mean for Magazineland

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New York Post "Media Ink" columnist Keith Kelly has a report in this morning's paper that makes a current magazineland rumor and presumption—that Hearst will buy Rodale—seem to be nearly a done deal. Kelly writes,

The Hearst board of directors meets Wednesday and is expected to approve the deal to acquire the publisher of Men's Health, Women's Health, Runner's World, Prevention and other titles—as well as a small consumer book division whose authors including Al "An Inconvenient Truth" Gore and Arthur "The South Beach Diet" Agatston.

As Ad Age reported back in June, family-owned Rodale, led by CEO Maria Rodale, announced that it had decided to start exploring "strategic alternatives"—code for "Anybody wanna buy this thing?"—which set the company's 700 employees in New York and at its Emmaus, Pennsylvania headquarters (and a few other satellite offices) on edge.

Who else would be in interested?

Rodale's Men's Health.
Rodale's Men's Health.

Publisher Meredith was said to be in the running. Meredith, like Rodale, is headquartered in the heartland (Des Moines, Iowa) and has its roots in agricultural media. The first Meredith magazine, started in 1902 by Edwin Meredith, was Successful Farming; the first Rodale magazine, started by J. I. Rodale in 1942, was Organic Farming and Gardening.

The problem is that, historical/cultural fit aside, present-day Meredith is focused on the women's market with titles ranging from Better Homes and Gardens to Everyday with Rachel Ray, whereas the big prize in the Rodale stable is Men's Health.

Other potential suitors (other than Hearst) are, let's just say, ill-disposed right now. Time Inc. is trying to slash hundreds of millions of dollars of costs to stabilize itself as a standalone business. Condé Nast is also busy reorganizing and belt-tightening, and when it tried to compete with Men's Health by upping the health and fitness content in Details, it didn't go well (Details folded in late 2015). And American Media, the publisher of Men's Health competitor Men's Fitness, announced last month that it was shuttering the print edition of MF (it will remain a digital property) in the wake of its recent purchase of Wenner Media's Men's Journal.

So why is Hearst a good fit?

Hearst can presumably find group-sales synergies between its Esquire and Rodale's Men's Health and between its assorted women's glossies—including Cosmopolitan, Elle and O, The Oprah Magazine—and Rodale's Women's Health as well as Rodale's wellness magazine Prevention.

Also, Rodale has done a great job of making its gendered titles global brands—Men's Health has 40 international editions and Women's Health has 13. Despite the attention Condé Nast gets for some of its high-profile global editions (e.g., Italian Vogue), Hearst is actually the master of global magazine publishing; Cosmo, for instance, has 64 international editions. And Hearst's partnership with Scripps Networks Interactive, which has made HGTV Magazine and Food Network Magazine into major success stories, bodes well for any incoming lifestyle-brand properties.

Is this good for readers?

Though Hearst has been quietly trimming budgets too, it's not in the slash-and-burn panic mode of some of its peers (in some cases noticeably diminishing their editorial products). Rodale has already been pruning weak performers—it shut down the print edition of its Organic Life magazine with the February/March 2017 issue—and is now down to a solid stable of magazines (also including Bicyling, in addition to the titles mentioned above) that remain solid businesses and trusted brands; Hearst, based on its recent track record, does not seem likely to starve those businesses/brands.

Bottom line: a Hearst acquisition of Rodale is, yes, probably the best-case scenario for loyal readers of Rodale's titles.

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