Titles search for relief

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This latest missive from the we-already-knew-that-department: The first half of 2001 was terrible for magazine publishers.

Yet even knowing that, the latest numbers are surprisingly grim.

Through June, the average ad-page drop for the 249 magazines currently audited by Publishers Information Bureau was 11% from the first half of 2000.

This represents an accelerating slide for magazine publishers. Through April, the year-over-year decline was 7.5%; through May it was 9.4%.

Of the top 10 titles ranked by pages, only two-Primedia's Modern Bride and Power & Motoryacht-eked out ad page gains. Time Inc.'s In Style was flat. Of the top 25, the only other titles posting growth were niche sporting titles such as Time4Media's Transworld Skateboarding and Yachting, and bridal book Bridal Guide.

All of the top four magazine categories through June-automotive; direct response; computers, software and Internet; sporting goods-were down as well.

Another sign of the times: The computer-related category, which last year was the industry's biggest, has now slipped to third place. Along the same lines: Last year Industry Standard ran more ad pages than any other magazine, trouncing its nearest competition by a margin greater than 1,000. This year through June, the Standard slipped from leading the pack to rank 19.

Hurting more than 40 major titles, too, was Philip Morris USA's decision to cease cigarette advertising in titles with significant youth readership.

"We'd be having a killer year if we just had 100 pages of tobacco advertising," said John Squires, president of Time Inc.'s Entertainment Weekly, the pages of which were off 9.3% through June. (Actually, another hundred pages would merely mean EW would post a slight ad page gain of 1%.)

What may be most telling is how some executives spoke of a possible second half pickup for magazine advertising. The thing is, they're not talking about the second half of '01; they're talking about the second half of '02.

"My sense is that in the second half of '02, we'll see some real movement," said Valerie Salembier, publisher of Hearst's Esquire, which saw its ad pages drop 4.9% through June. "Then in 2003, business as usual. I think the worst is over." Perhaps-though some would debate her on that-but Ms. Salembier's prediction still means serious stagnation.

Echoing Ms. Salembier was Brenda Saget, publisher of Conde Nast Publications' House & Garden. "I still think November and December are great uncertainties," she said. And if a turnaround does come in '02, she added "it may not be till the second half."

House & Garden's pages rose 3.0% through June. Ms. Saget predicted House & Garden would end the year "flat to slightly up," citing concerns about her smaller advertisers' budgets as the downturn continues.

Others worry about big boys' budgets. In a brief interview in April just after David Pecker, chairman-CEO of American Media, switched Auto World Weekly to monthly, he said he did not expect the automotive category to turn around for 18 months.

If the mantra of early '01 was a second half turnaround, then the mantra of mid-'01 is that '00 is an anomalous year and that '99 is a better comparison.

Setting aside that it's bad business for a publisher to turn down a paid page, anomalous or not, an ugly truth is that comparisons to '99 aren't wholly cheering, either. A significant portfolio of blue-chip titles across virtually all major magazine companies-Time Inc.'s Time and People; Wenner Media's Rolling Stone; Forbes; Meredith Corp.'s Better Homes & Gardens; Dow Jones and Hearst Magazines' SmartMoney; Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing's Family Circle; and Walt Disney Co. and Hearst's ESPN The Magazine-are currently running below their 1999 paging levels.

The performance of its top weeklies-Time, People, and Sports Illustrated-and Fortune aside, what may trouble Time Inc. is what's happened to its shining light of '01, the People Group's In Style. Two consecutive months of double-digit page drops stilled its torrid recent growth.

The big gainer-excepting magazines with frequency changes-among the top 75 revenue players is Gruner & Jahr's YM, with a 40.6% increase.

"It's real," said Valerie Muller, senior VP-director of print services for Grey Global Group's MediaCom, New York. "They revamped"-the redesign hit in February-"when paging was not taking a turn. They locked in stuff and held on to it."

Laura McEwen, YM's publisher, also counter-cycled the industry by doing significantly better, she said, than she'd predicted early in the year. "I forecast [in early 2001] we'd be up between 20% and 25%," she said. Now, though, she "can pretty surely say" the magazine will maintain its 40% ad page gain for the full year.

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