Magazines show backbone, confront their woes head-on

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The cats were keeping out of the way of the dogs.

This was at the American Magazine Conference at the Boca Raton Resort and Club in Florida. We had just returned from an off-site dinner of filet mignon and birthday cake for the boss, Rance Crain, and were waiting in a line of cars to get back into the resort.

President Bill Clinton, who had hit the road that morning to stump for John Kerry, was scheduled to address the conference the next morning-an appearance that would draw two standing ovations from the fairly like-minded group of magazine editors and publishers-and rumor had it that Veep Dick Cheney and the Bush twins were also camping out at our hotel in advance of swing-state campaign appearances. (For a while there was buzz that John Edwards was there, too, but that was probably just a sighting of his doppelganger, Hearst Corp.'s Michael Clinton.)

Anyway, every vehicle entering hotel grounds that night was thoroughly searched at the front gates by police and Secret Service. At the guardhouse some 20 yards in front of the gates, nearly a dozen cats wandered aimlessly, keeping a safe distance and wary eye on bomb-sniffing German shepherds that circled each car.

On the other side of the fence, the scene was quite different. There, the cats-hundreds of magazine-industry executives spooked by a lingering recession and seemingly intractable long-term problems-had decided to do something out of the ordinary. Instead of clawing at each other, they were ganging up confidently to confront the dogs. (This is known in the trade as a tortured metaphor. Apologies.)

The transformation was stunning. I've been coming to this conference for more years than I care to admit, long enough to see Greg Coleman-who once ran a now-defunct magazine about the past, Memories-return triumphantly as a top executive at a leading Internet brand, Yahoo, to discuss the future. At past conferences, I've heard publishers beat their chests during good times and evade issues in tough times, but I've never seen as much true confidence as they displayed at this meeting. Gone was print's inferiority complex, replaced by a new competitive scrappiness.

"Television is way more vulnerable than I've ever seen it," said Tom Ryder, the usually affable chairman-CEO of Reader's Digest Association. His remark reflected a sentiment echoed by many, including media buyers, who believe digital technologies and audience fragmentation raise big questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of the dominant ad medium.

There were reality checks. The litany of troubling issues is familiar: Retail unit sales of magazines have declined by a third in the last 10 years; TV and the Internet vacuum up huge portions of ad budgets before print gets a first look; postal and production costs are rising; and marketers are demanding better accountability measures and more "creative" ideas, which can sometimes be shorthand for programs that threaten magazines' core brand equity, their editorial integrity and reader relationships.

Yet the business seems willing to frankly confront its issues and to copy the model of another successful media segment, cable TV, by spending less time beating on each other and more time selling the strengths of the medium. It's also following advertisers in promising a customer-centric approach, whether those customers are advertisers or audiences. founder Jeff Bezos, who now sells 10% of all books purchased in the U.S. and sees opportunity in peddling magazine subscrip-tions, put it best. In the service's early days, he said employees were often distracted by rivals' assaults on Amazon's business. Bezos didn't tell them not to worry, just not to worry about the competition. "Let's wake up every morning," he said, "terrified of our customers."

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