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Magazines came roaring out of the gate in the first quarter of 1995, thanks to continued strength from automotive ads and the sudden revival of the food category. Total ad pages for the first three months jumped to 47,908.5 pages, up 9.9% compared with a year ago.

Said James Guthrie, exec VP-marketing of the Magazine Publishers of America, "There were two factors driving the numbers-a strong economy and active families."

The food category, which posted the largest percentage gain in revenues among the top 10-up 40.2% to $160.7 million-has meant a bountiful harvest of ad pages for epicurean titles. The group has been paced by Eating Well's 62.4% quarterly rise in pages and Bon Appetit's 37.3% increase.

"We're having a great year," said Bon Appetit publisher Lynn Heiler. "There's strong growth in the endemic categories but we're also carrying things like IBM Think Pads, Motorola Cellular Phones and the Janus Funds." Elsewhere in the niche, Food & Wine is up 25.5% in the quarter to 152.9 pages, Gourmet is up 24.3% to 271.8 and Cooking Light is up 15.7% to 154.9.

The Seven Sisters are also recovering ad pages again, thanks in large part to the revival in food. Of the seven women's service books, five were up in the first quarter. Woman's Day (up 12.6%) is setting the pace but faces stiff challenges from at least four other books as it tries to "threepeat" for the category's ad page crown.

The only laggards in the group are McCall's, down 12.9%, and Family Circle, down 14.6%. McCall's is undergoing a repositioning, and at least some of the duo's slump can be attributed to the normal decline that follows an ownership change, as the books went from the New York Times Company to Gruner & Jahr Publishing USA in mid-1994.

In another tight category race, Time is on top against two tough rivals, Newsweek and U.S. News, even though it lost an advertorial from the Cruise Line Industry Association to Newsweek.

"We made up for that with our special issue on cyberspace," said Time publisher Jack Haire. Sole sponsor AT&T ran 28 ad pages in the issue, helping Time post an 11.3% gain to 528.8, besting Newsweek's 23.4% gain.

Last year's category crown leader, U.S. News & World Report, finished third, up only 5.7%.

One of the surprising hot books of the quarter is Reader's Digest. Group publisher Greg Coleman attributes its gains to two demographic editions, the 6 million-circulation Family Plus, which targets families with children, and the 4.1 million-circulation Power Plus, which targets households with incomes over $50,000.

"They've been bringing in a lot of incremental advertising without cannibalizing the main book," he said. "We're able to offer targeting and tonnage."

Despite the strong showing, publishers are not relaxed over the first-quarter tallies, since they come against a fairly weak quarter a year ago. "The real test of the strength of this opening wave of ad page activity will come when it hits the shore in the second quarter," said the MPA's Mr. Guthrie.

And this year's ad page surge comes against a backdrop of relentless paper price hikes.

Joe Mandese coordinates MediaWorks.

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