You May Already Be a Winner in the Mile-High Circ Club!

Weekly Commentary From the Media Guy

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The recent federal subpoena of Time Inc. in regard to its circulation practices reminds me of a song title by the Bloomington, Ind., band Murder By Death: “Until Morale Improves the Beatings Will Continue.”

Every few years the glossy world endures some sort of circulation scandal. Everybody acts upset and a little bit shocked, reporting and auditing standards are supposedly revised and tightened, and then everybody mostly goes back to doing what they normally do: finding ways to game their circ numbers.

The latest agitation has to do with now-defunct InFlight Newspapers & Magazines, which bought mags in bulk and stuck them on airplanes and in other captive-audience spaces. But the government, judging from the subpoena, doesn’t think such circ should be counted as “paid” -- part of the official rate base on which advertising rates are determined. Time Inc., of course, has already folded: In response to the subpoena, it told advertisers that it will now label such so-called sponsored circulation as “qualified.”

Um, OK. Great! Attention, doubters: The glossy world has found its thesaurus (I think everyone’s sharing one copy) and is once again energetically flipping through it! Feel better now?

Say what you will about the ongoing controversy over people meters and Internet click fraud—the rest of the media universe is clearly getting more scientifically, precisely measurable as the print media world putters around with semantics.

The irony here is that, of all the magazine companies I’ve dealt with -- I’ve worked at or consulted for most of the majors -- Time Inc. appears to be one of the most upstanding in its circulation reporting. I predict that no serious improprieties will come out of the federal investigation. That’s because Time Inc. is a well-managed company with solid brands -- magazines that people actually want to read. It’s grown its titles organically, and even those that have gotten big fast, like InStyle and Real Simple, are clearly the real deal.

Come to think of it, I’ve read freebie copies of Time Inc. titles on airplanes, and they were heavily thumbed through. Each copy of a good magazine (as opposed to the usually cheesy airline magazine) that goes on any given flight is conceivably read maybe a dozen or more times. In my book, “qualified” circ is sometimes better than actual paid circ. And really, what’s wrong with putting magazines where newbies might actually discover them and become regular readers?

The real problem is that industry execs in general continue to be addicted to trying to position their magazines as mass-market plays. It’s always about big-ism -- getting big and staying big, no matter what the cost. I worked for a magazine conglomerate that in the ‘90s rather arbitrarily kicked up the rate base for one of its oldest glossies, for no other reason than it felt good—and sounded good -- to announce growth. But that growth was from heavily discounted subscriptions, which drew in cheap-ass readers (who were more interested in the bargain price of the sub than in the magazine itself), which caused demos to plummet. Overnight, the magazine’s readers, on average, were no longer in the Top 10 for, say, premium vodka consumption. Gosh, so, the wider the readership target you set, the less chance your readers are keeping their liquor cabinets stocked with Grey Goose. I mean, duh. Still, the corporate execs and circ jockeys seemed shocked that there was a demographic price to pay for big-ism.

That sort of denial still goes on every day, which is why, as of last week, there was fire-sale pricing ($4.69 for a year) for Muscle & Fitness, Rolling Stone, Harper’s Bazaar and scores of others at (one of more than a dozen sites that offer deeply discounted subs to help publishers prop up their circ numbers).

What the industry needs to do is admit that circulation grows and contracts organically. And the Audit Bureau of Circulations, with its glacial reporting and auditing procedures, needs to figure out how to enter the SoundScan/ BookScan Age, so that marketers can get real, real-time numbers.

By the way, I should note that while most of the magazine industry fiddles around with labels -- hey, instead of “qualified circ” why don’t we call it “elite circ” or “specialized circ” or “The Mile-High Circ Club”? -- there’s one circ guy who has actually said something meaningful lately: “We are reducing our circulation by design,” TV Guide Senior VP-Consumer Marketing Chuck Cordray said when the mag’s radical repositioning as a full-size glossy -- which also involves dropping its circ from 9 million to 3.2 million -- was announced. At the time, I wanted to hug him. I still do.

Chuck, if you’re reading this, I love you, man.

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The Media Guy's column appears weekly on and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at [email protected]

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