Magazines see 6.8% drop in ads for the first quarter

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Further evidence of the advertising decline can be seen in magazines' ad-page results for the first quarter.

While the magazines audited by Publishers Information Bureau posted an overall 6.8% decline (6.9% if newspapers' Sunday magazines are included), a glance at this year's top 10 makes one understand why in today's climate publishers can say with straight faces that they're happy to be down "only" 10%.

Of the 10 magazines attracting the most ad pages, only one-Bridal Guide-posted an ad-page increase, by staying essentially flat with a 0.2% uptick.

Double-digit losses were recorded by business-title stalwarts Forbes, Time Inc.'s Fortune and McGraw-Hill Cos.' Business Week, which took the biggest hit of the lot by dropping 30.1%. By posting the smallest ad-page loss of the three, Forbes vaulted past both titles to be the business title with the most ad pages so far this year, whereas at the end of 2000's first quarter it trailed them.

"2000 is not the benchmark," said Forbes Magazine Group President Jim Berrien. "1999 is, and we are comfortably ahead of '99." But if Mr. Berrien's assumption of a 20% ad-page loss for the year proves correct, it will leave the group slightly behind 1999's results, given its 20.2% ad-page gain in 2000.

Unsurprisingly, some of the sharpest declines were posted by new economy titles Red Herring, Imagine Media's Business 2.0 and International Data Group's Industry Standard, down 28.3%, 38.6% and 65%, respectively. The Standard far and away carried the most ad pages in calendar 2000, beating runner-up Fortune by nearly 1,200 pages.

Conde Nast Publications' Wired, which has taken pains to position itself away from the dot-com driven titles, has so far weathered this year only slightly better, with ad pages dropping 24.1%.

Of the top 20 magazines, the one posting the biggest ad-page gain was something of an industry dark horse: Time Inc.-owned Time4 Media's (formerly Times Mirror Magazines) Transworld Skateboarding, up 32.2.%. Runner-up was Time Inc.'s indefatigable In Style, up 12.8%.

"God bless In Style," said Dave Long, Time Inc.'s president of media sales and marketing. Mr. Long's other top magazines all were down: Entertainment Weekly (down 14.6%), Fortune (down 21.5%), Money (down 18.3%), People (down 6.6%), Sports Illustrated (down 9.4%) and Time (down 21.2%, tying U.S. News & World Report for the steepest falloff for a newsweekly).

Mr. Long characterized the first quarter as "aberrant." For the first three months of the year, for instance, the cosmetics and toiletries category was Time Inc.'s No. 1 category for revenue for the first time ever. Yet Mr. Long said downward trends in computers and technology seemed to be stabilizing and turning around, and that upcoming launches for automakers next model year should help bolster that sagging category, which magazine-industry-wide is down 11.8% through March.

According to Time4 CEO Jason Klein, most other magazines can learn little from Skateboarding. "They've not been affected by any of the general market trends," he said, referring to Skateboarding and its sibling Snowboarding, another double-digit gainer. "[The two magazines'] business has been driven by endemic advertising, and the endemic field has been very strong." Unlike the other former Times Mirror titles-such as Field & Stream, which dropped a steep 29.9%-the Transworld titles haven't been hurt by the falloff in tobacco advertising since they carried none.

Wenner Media's venerable Rolling Stone looks like it's feeling the loss of tobacco business as well, with ad pages dropping 29.2% in the first quarter. Philip Morris Cos.' Philip Morris USA last year pulled out of more than 40 magazines, including Rolling Stone.

Perhaps reflecting the pain of automotive-ad cutbacks, Mr. Klein made the case that advertisers that reduced commitments are only hurting themselves. "Detroit is one category that's cut back too far," he argued. "To reclaim share against imports, you've got to advertise."

Underpinning much of the discussions with magazine executives was the sense that this decline came about much quicker than the last major market downturn, and the hopes that a rebound could come just as quickly.

But no one is predicting that just yet.

"We've been saying for a month or so it's a month-to-month business. Now it's day-to-day," said Ed Kelly, CEO of American Express Publishing Corp., jointly owned by Time Inc. and American Express Co. "What happens next month? Who knows?"

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