The Sad Story of Media Cat -- and the Vanishing Glossies

A Manhattan Feline Loses its Glossy Nest While the Magazine Industry Loses Brand Exposure

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Media Cat, an elderly feline who lived (worked?) in a newsstand/deli in Manhattan's East Village.
Media Cat, an elderly feline who lived (worked?) in a newsstand/deli in Manhattan's East Village.

Today, the American Society of Magazine Editors is hosting its big, fancy annual National Magazine Awards event -- the so-called Oscars of the glossy business.

Once again this year, I served as an NMA judge (we all gathered at a Manhattan conference center in early March to decide the winners), and I have to confess that doing so made me a little depressed at first. And that 's not just because my particular judging committee got stuck in a stuffy, windowless conference room with headache-inducing fluorescent lights.

Let me explain: Dozens and dozens of titles entered the category I helped judge. Each entrant had to submit multiple copies of three of their best issues of the past year, so there were hundreds of magazines stacked and arrayed across a massive, room-filling conference table. That sight, thrilling as it was to a magazine junkie like me, made me immediately think of Media Cat (as I've nicknamed him), an elderly feline who lives (works?) in a newsstand/deli in the East Village of Manhattan, down the block from my apartment.

When I first moved to the neighborhood, I'd see him all the time, always napping on low horizontal stacks of magazines along a wall covered with shelves, also jam-packed with glossies. I'd squat down to pet him and he, spotting what looked like a lap, would climb onto my thighs and curl into a ball until my legs would start cramping ("Sorry, Media Cat," I'd explain, "but I have to go now").

But at the start of this year, the newsstand remodeled, vastly reducing its stock of magazines, and entirely eliminating the low stacks. Media Cat has since gone AWOL. I'm sort of afraid to ask the counter guys what happened to him. I'm hoping that , deprived of his magazine stacks, he's just hanging out back in the stock room instead.

To me, Media Cat's disappearance is symbolic because his newsstand is just one of half a dozen near my home that have either dramatically shrunk or shut down completely over the past few years. Even the Walgreens and CVS drugstores near my apartment have done top-to-bottom remodeling, in the process cutting their magazine rack space by more than half.

My Ad Age colleague Nat Ives recently reported on some of the numbers behind this reality: "Magazines' retail outlets in North America sank by 18,000 between December 2007 and January 2011," he wrote, "an 11.3% decline to 142,000 in just three years." The gist of Nat's report is that retailers are less and less interested in devoting shelf space to glossies.

The magazine industry used to be blessed with marketing by default in the form of retail real estate. Magazine covers essentially served as eye-level (and waist-level and ankle-level) billboards for their own brands. Perhaps even worse, there is no equivalent brand-billboarding system for magazines in the mobile-app ecosystem. In other words, the visibility crisis magazines are experiencing in the physical world has an even more frightening analogue in the virtual world; glossies can all but disappear in the tablet and mobile space as they're forced to compete with literally hundreds of thousands of apps.

The loss of magazine-brand visibility is a huge and growing crisis -- one that I think a lot of industry players are blind to because we're constantly surrounded by magazines in our own offices, and because glamorous events like the NMAs can make titles seem just as ubiquitous and powerful as ever. But today, in the consumer marketplace, magazines are literally vanishing.

As for Media Cat, a part of me wonders if he died of a broken heart over the loss of his glossy bedding. If all cats go to heaven, I hope there are plenty of Esquires and Vanity Fairs and Newsweeks there to curl up on.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.
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