Despite Recent Events, the American Magazine Is Not an Endangered Species

We've Seen Downturns Like This Before, and We Can Recover Yet Again

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Cathie Black
Cathie Black
"The recession has led to a transformation of the magazine industry, and publishers must adapt to doing business in a permanently altered marketplace."

This candid assessment appeared in Advertising Age in October. Of 1991.

Recovery quickly followed. And it was more than partial. At Hearst, in the next 17 years, we saw advertisers make many of our issues thicker than Chicago-style pizza and, in a supposedly saturated field, a few months ago found an audience for our newest magazine, with the Food Network. We used the internet -- the "disruptive" technology that some speculated would put magazines out of business -- to drive online visitors to our print properties, selling 2.2 million paid subscriptions in 2008, a 42.6% increase over the previous year.

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Now, once again, the economy has hit the wall. This time, as our national distress cuts across all sectors, a self-immolating print media has taken to reporting on itself in doomsday terms. I can understand why. If saving replaces spending, if Detroit never sells another car, if durability comes to define fashion, if the internet becomes the new mall -- in a scaled-down America, any combination of factors could lead more magazines to go out of business.

According to the Magazine Publishers of America, only 32 magazines suspended publication in 2008 -- an infinitesimal percentage of the 19,500 magazines currently published in the U.S. While more casualties are surely ahead, the American magazine is not an endangered species.

Readership is up
Sure, single-copy sales are down, but that is largely due to the fact that in this economy, people are making fewer trips to the store, where magazines are often an impulse purchase. Despite that, 43 million copies were sold at the newsstand in 2008, and total circulation was flat vs. 2007, at 345 million. People are still reading magazines.

Cathie Black is president of Hearst Magazines.
In fact, last year saw 715 magazine launches, 224 more than 20 years ago. Since 2000, newspapers have lost readers and network TV has lost viewers, but magazine readership is up 14%. And yet no one reports the good news about our industry.

As someone who's been in this business through several of these cycles, I vividly recall how each downturn was the worst ever and how recovery invariably required a miracle. In fact, the next downturn is always the worst, and some of the recoveries have been spectacular.

Everything has a life cycle. In creative endeavors, however, it's not wise to link success or failure to larger events. No sane publisher would have launched a magazine in 1933, the low point of the Depression, when unemployment was a stunning 25%. But that's when Esquire was born. People made its debut in 1974, with the Dow falling and inflation and unemployment rising. Those two magazines have survived and prospered regardless of competition or economic flux.

As for disruptive media, new technologies certainly seduce audiences. But it's too glib to say TV "killed" Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post, just as we can't credit the internet for the empty seats at today's magazine conferences.

Why we need magazines
While People may have lost 11.2% of its ad pages since 2005, it's still the advertising leader in the magazine industry, with 3,422 ad pages last year. Esquire recently created a "window" cover that led readers to teasers for articles and a nonintrusive advertisement. Smart content trumps widgets every time.

Magazines explore trends; evaluate ideas, products and culture; and help their readers lead smarter, more satisfying lives. In essence, magazines chronicle change. In a time of incessant change, they're the one kind of medium that should be expected to adjust and survive.

So the first key to success for magazines in these dark times is an agnostic approach to form. For me, no media experience is as satisfying as a quiet hour with a glossy magazine; for others, pleasure comes on a Kindle or iPhone. In time, there will be e-newspapers and magazines. It's really about the brand and what the brand stands for.

In 1933, a year when every dollar mattered, The New Yorker's founders, Harold Ross and Raoul Fleischmann, published a Code of Ideals for their magazine. Ignoring the economy, they boldly announced, "Great advertising mediums are operated for the reader first, for profits second." They got their priorities right: When you truly serve the reader, the advertisers will come.

In this crisis, we can expect to see a fair amount of desperation -- and flashes of genius -- from magazines that risk change and innovation. And we can anticipate fresh shock when any magazine shutters.

Let's just hope the failure-obsessed media coverage occasionally devotes a paragraph to the magazines that are smartly changing their business without violating their first commitment to readers who, month after month, can't seem to do without them.

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