When we started working on the annual Ad Age Magazines of the Year package in the fall, there were six large magazine publishers: American Media Inc., Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, Rodale and Time Inc.
Soon—once Hearst finalizes its acquisition of Rodale, and Meredith swallows Time Inc.—there will be four.
You've probably heard publishing types say something like, "It's been a challenging year." That's for public consumption. Private translation: "It's been absolutely brutal." Beyond the headline-making consolidation, the biggest players have all cut (sometimes slashed) budgets, and various independents—e.g., Wenner Media, which offloaded Us Weekly and Men's Journal to AMI and, as of this writing, is still looking for a buyer for Rolling Stone—began a slow fade to black.
But what made 2017 particularly transformative is that more than traditional publishers were under siege. Digital natives also faced stiff headwinds. BuzzFeed, after missing revenue projections, announced it was cutting 100 staffers; Mashable sold for a fraction of its previous presumed value; and Verizon laid off more than 500 employees of Yahoo and AOL.
And so a curious reversal is happening: The once seemingly invincible digital darlings are scrambling to rethink their businesses and diversify their revenue (native-advertising champion BuzzFeed, the sworn enemy of display advertising, quietly decided over the summer to start taking money for, yes, banner ads).
Sound familiar? Traditional publishers have been rethinking/reinventing/diversifying for years now.
And get this: Every honoree on our Magazines of the Year list still produces print editions that make money—in many cases a lot of money—while they've been building out their increasingly impressive digital businesses. Honestly, good old-fashioned "reader revenue"—money from subscriptions and newsstand sales—has a refreshing ring to it circa 2017. (Eat your hearts out, digital natives.)
Starting with New York magazine, the Magazine of the Year, followed by the diverse range of titles (in alphabetical order) that round out our honorees, we present to you modern media brands that are cross-platform, experimental, nimble and, perhaps most notably, disciplined. Memo to digital natives: Maybe take some notes.
Condé Nast's Bon Appétit held its print advertising steady this year while expanding digital operations under Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapoport, also the editorial director of pioneering foodie site Epicurious, now in its 22nd year. Bonappetit.com debuted a clean, mobile-friendly redesign in October, and under Craig Kostelic, chief business officer of Condé's Lifestyle Collection, Bon App's millennial audience is up 13 percent year-over-year, with big boosts from new sub-brands Basically ("25 Kitchen Upgrades for Under $25") and Healthyish ("11 Healthy Recipes That Are Perfect for Cooking in College Dorms"). In 2017, the Food Innovation Group, which includes Bon App, Epicurious and their online siblings, surged past the 50 percent mark in terms of the revenue generated by digital—but perhaps just as remarkably, Bon Appétit won major print ad business from digital marketers including Google (a special issue called "The Foods We Crave Now and How to Cook Them" was backed by an ad takeover for Google's Pixel 2 smartphone launch) and Apple (a big backer of the magazine's annual travel issue).
Print ad pages are up (8 percent year-over-year) at Hearst's Country Living under Associate Publisher Michelle Balaz. Under Editor-in-Chief Rachel Hardage Barrett, the monthly excels at practical service packages, e.g., "The No-Regrets Guide to Decorating"—but the brand has also found a way to work its folksy, no-nonsense appeal online, positioning itself under Site Director Lauren Matthews as "a scenic route off the information highway" with an aggressive video strategy including the August introduction of a hit Facebook Watch show, "Life With Pets." This year, more than 100,000 attendees came to Country Living Fair events in cities from Nashville to Columbus, Ohio. And the annual "Country From Coast to Coast" reader issue ("50 States, One State of Mind") came to life in March with a new Country Living-branded spring cruise on Holland America, which set sail for the Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale. The magazine's editors and special guests, including flea-market experts Amie and Jolie Sikes (aka the Junk Gypsies), served up a week's worth of countryfied cuisine, crafting sessions and entertainment for Country Living obsessives in one of the most ambitious and unexpected magazine brand extensions we saw all year.
Food Network Magazine
In its ninth year, Food Network Magazine feels like much more than just a fanzine for the beloved cable channel (the magazine is a co-venture between Hearst and HGTV owner Scripps Networks Interactive). Under Editor-in-Chief Maile Carpenter, the monthly focuses on entirely accessible, if gorgeously photographed, meals and treats (hello, peaches-and-cream cupcakes) that are designed to connect with readers who may or may not be regular viewers of FN shows. Ad pages under VP, Publisher and Chief Revenue Officer Vicki Wellington have held steady, with a big assist from the magazine's in-house creative team, which produced more than 100 custom-content and other bespoke executions this year for advertisers from endemic food-mag categories, including Land O'Lakes and Kitchen-Aid, as well as broader brands such as Kohl's and Sherwin-Williams. And FNM continues to have a great newsstand business—single-copy sales averaged more than a quarter million in the second half of 2017—helping it to over-deliver on its 1.7 million rate base.
Fashion magazines had a rough 2017, with print ad revenue down pretty much across the board—and Condé Nast's GQ was no exception. But we're honoring the iconic glossy, in its 14th year under Editor-in-Chief Jim Nelson, for not only revving up its digital business (e.g., GQ.com now averages nearly 10 million monthly unique visitors, up 40 percent year-over-year) in partnership with Chief Business Officer Kim Kelleher and VP of Revenue David Stuckey, but for taking some really interesting editorial risks.
Cases in point: The full-throated political stance of the Colin Kaepernick "Citizen of the Year" cover. The commentary of Keith Olbermann, whose GQ web series "The Resistance" offers some of the most furious—yet clear-eyed—deconstructions of the Trump era. (The show is so intense it may well have worn him out; Olbermann now says he's "retiring" from political commentary.) And the hiring of Ben Schreckinger from Politico to be GQ's D.C. correspondent, where he's developing a video series with an emphasis on breaking news and investigative journalism.
Meanwhile, the brand has continued to show off its enduring pop-cultural power by enlisting the likes of Harrison Ford and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to star in original digital shorts, helping drive video views to a record 65 million in October.
HGTV Magazine, Hearst's other major co-venture with Scripps Networks Interactive (alongside Food Network Magazine), ticked up 1 percent in ad pages this year under the leadership of VP, Publisher and Chief Revenue Officer Dan Fuchs, in the midst of a down year for the shelter-book category. Though the magazine regularly features stars of the cable network HGTV, who are known for big-budget renovations—"Property Brothers" Drew and Jonathan Scott, for instance—Editor-in-Chief Sara Peterson has positioned the print product to focus on home makeovers and quick design fixes with price points more likely to be in the hundreds or tens of dollars (e.g., "Dream House on a Tight Budget," "More Style for Less! 125 Totally Doable Ideas"). That said, loyal readers are willing to pay a premium for HGTV mag—the average sub price for 10 issues a year rose to $21.50 in 2017—and it's one of the top 10 monthlies at the newsstand.
The Magnolia Journal
The Magnolia Journal, Meredith's new quarterly magazine led by Editor-in-Chief Joanna Gaines—one half of HGTV's "Fixer Upper" team (her husband Chip, we probably don't need to tell you, is the other half)—started with a fall 2016 test issue that sold out 400,000 issues at the newsstand. Subscriptions became available with the second issue, which served a rate base of 800,000. And the spring 2018 issue will lift the rate base to 1.2 million.
For fans of "Fixer Upper"—which is winding down in its current form on HGTV, but is set for at least one planned spin-off—this elegant quarterly is the perfect print expression of the show's home renovation/decor aesthetic, as well as a collectible entry point into the Gaineses' burgeoning Magnolia lifestyle brand. Under VP and Publisher Mark Josephson, The Magnolia Journal has an unusually disciplined revenue strategy: Its model limits ads to 25 pages per issue, so ad revenue gains have come from a rising ad insertion cost as the rate base has increased. And subscription pricing is $20 for four issues or $30 for eight issues. It's never discounted, giving The Magnolia Journal one of the most enviable consumer revenue streams in publishing.
Martha Stewart Living
Meredith may have the next Martha Stewart in the form of Joanna Gaines, but it also has the Martha Stewart. The doyen of domesticity's namesake glossy gave up its indie status in 2015 (Meredith assumed operational and editorial control in December of that year), and now, after nearly two years under new management, print ad pages are bouncing back (up 4 percent through November versus the same period in 2016) and digital and video revenue is up, too. Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Graves and Design Director Jaspal Riyait unveiled a major redesign of the print product with the October issue, including custom-created MSL-exclusive typefaces (as always, no detail is too small for Martha). VP and Publisher Daren Mazzucca has been diversifying the marketer mix, with print ad growth particularly in the toiletries-and-cosmetics category (thanks in part to L'Oréal and P&G) as well as the home category (KitchenAid, Rowenta and Serta came on board). And in its 27th year, the magazine just feels more fun, particularly in its social media; witness its wry tone vis-à-vis Martha herself, starting with the #ImSoMartha hashtag on Instagram.
Men's Health and Women's Health
Men's Health and Women's Health are, quite simply, why Hearst decided to acquire Rodale this fall. Family-owned Rodale, once known more for rather earnest titles including Prevention and the late Organic Gardening (which lives on as the Rodale Organic Life website), somehow turned what could have been prosaic wellness/fitness titles into expertly executed, pop-culturally savvy global publishing powerhouses.
Men's Health, now in its 30th year, has 35 international editions; Women's Health, which began in 2005, has 28. Both titles remain formidable lifestyle books—and, notably, Men's Health essentially vanquished its longtime (wannabe) direct competition when AMI announced earlier this year that it was axing the Men's Fitness print edition.
Under newish Editor-in-Chief Matt Bean—2017 will amount to his first full year—Men's Health debuted a thoughtful redesign/rethink in print while rapidly building out its digital platforms, particularly video. (Video views grew 74 percent to 8.3 million, and MH Films, devoted to episodic longform content, launched in April.) At Women's Health, Editor-in-Chief Amy Keller Laird has been putting an increased emphasis on mental health (e.g., Women's Health's May story on "smiling depression," wherein women put on false fronts to hide symptoms, complete with a participatory #HowIReallyFelt element on social media). The magazine also pulled off a Global Naked Issue (about body acceptance) with Sofia Vergara as its cover star across its various multilingual editions. Given that Hearst is also expert at launching and supporting international versions of its magazine brands, it's hard to imagine a better next home for the two magazines than Hearst Tower.
The New Yorker
In 2017, The New Yorker's journalism has been stronger and more influential than ever. Think Ryan Lizza's report on his rather stunning late-night conversation with short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, and Ronan Farrow's relentless Harvey Weinstein coverage, which arguably outdid The New York Times' Weinstein reporting, even though the Times was first out of the gate. David Remnick is closing in on two decades as editor-in-chief of the venerable Condé Nast weekly (he took the helm in 1998) and along the way he's proved himself to be a most nimble multimedia mastermind. Time and time again in 2017, stories that broke on newyorker.com drove the national news cycle, and the brand grew its followers across social to more than 17 million (including 1.1 million for @newyorkercartoons on Instagram alone), up 24 percent year-over-year. At every turn, the signature sensibility shines through (see The New Yorker Poetry Bot on Twitter and Facebook Messenger, now sending you a poem every day). And under Chief Business Officer Chris Mitchell, year-over-year digital revenue has increased 17 percent, video revenue 40 percent, consumer revenue 9 percent—and overall revenue 12 percent.
The once high-flying business of celebrity weeklies has been crashing to earth—witness the spring fire sale of Wenner Media's Us Weekly to AMI—but People remains a bright spot not only for the category, but for Time Inc. and the entire magazine industry. Of course, the 43-year-old brand is more than a celebrity title—it's always been just as much a purveyor of newsy human-interest stories—but People's generally gracious, fact-based coverage of stars under Editor-in-Chief Jess Cagle makes it an ever-more-refreshing read in a celebutainment "news" ecosystem increasingly focused on rumors, fictional pregnancies, fabricated feuds and all-around nastiness.
People's bestselling issues still top half-a-million single-copy sales, and total reader revenue continues to make an outsize contribution to the bottom line on a 3.4 million rate base. Under Group President Karen Kovacs, print revenue has held steady (paging dipped just 2 percent—a huge win for a weekly in 2017) as web monthly uniques grew 5 percent to 36 million. And the brand relaunched the People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN) as PeopleTV, racking up more than 100 million video views 2017 to date.
The Week, which was introduced in 2001 by the late Felix Dennis (closely following the template of the original U.K. edition, which started in 1995), is a slim weekly magazine that concisely summarizes and analyzes the news. Its 550,000 rate base is entirely unpadded (no "verified" or other giveaway circ) and it has no newsstand presence (reader revenue comes from paid subs, which average $50 per year). As such, it's something of a cult favorite among the time-crunched business-minded jet set—although its website has quietly gained impressive reach, drawing an average of 6.2 million unique monthly visitors in 2017, up 11 percent from 2016.
Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper veteran William Falk has been editor-in-chief of the print edition since launch, consistently assembling a smartly balanced, fair-minded take on U.S. and international news. Ben Frumin has been editor-in-chief of TheWeek.com since 2012, somehow offering big-picture clarity on the otherwise insufferable, bewildering news cycle. And the return of John Guehl (who started at The Week in 2007, decamped to Condé Nast for three years, returned in 2013 and has been VP and publisher since 2015) has supercharged the bottom line. Print ad pages are up 17 percent this year to date—both Morgan Stanley and Emirates did sole-advertiser issue takeovers this year—and digital revenue is up 7 percent.
Launch of the Year: The Pioneer Woman Magazine
Hearst proceeded cautiously with summer's pilot of The Pioneer Woman Magazine, printing just 150,000 copies, sold primarily at Walmart. The fall issue expanded to 20 retailers; next year the magazine officially goes quarterly, with a 400,000 rate base. Subscriptions are now available, but TPWM is on track to rank in the top 10 of all magazines on the newsstand in 2018.
The appeal here is, of course, Ree Drummond, the lifestyle entrepreneur whose wildly popular Pioneer Woman blog led to a hit cooking show on the Food Network. Oklahoma-based Editorial Director Drummond works with New York-based Editor-in-Chief Maile Carpenter to produce a deeply nostalgic package with stories such as "An Owner's Guide to Backyard Chickens." Brands seeking ad adjacencies to its folksy fare range from Tyson to L'Oréal Paris; VP, Publisher and Chief Revenue Officer Vicki Wellington has already tripled Hearst's ad revenue projections.
Incidentally, the brand's secret sauce is Drummond's decidedly modern social media presence, including 4.5 million Facebook fans. The backyard chickens—and everyone else—seem fine with the irony.
All website traffic figures per ComScore, unless otherwise noted.