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Are Magazines Doomed in the Recession?

June 18, 2009 04:20 PM
by Liz Colville
Newsweeklies such as Reader’s Digest and Newsweek have seen big drops in circulation while other publications are struggling to work the Web to their advantage.

Household Titles Still Struggling Online and Offline

“In general, only three out of every 10 new magazines make it to their fourth anniversaries,” Slate Magazine’s Guy Short wrote in 1999. The cost of starting a magazine is typically in the tens of millions of dollars—sometimes hundreds of millions.

The money is chiefly spent on subscribers. “You mail out masses of subscription offers (i.e., junk mail) and are happy with a 1 percent to 2 percent response,” Short explained. “Then you are thrilled if half of those renew at the end of a year.”

Ten years later, print subscriptions at one magazine giant, Condé Nast Publications Inc., are mostly shrinking or staying about the same. The company recently closed its doors on Domino even though that magazine’s circulation grew more than 67 percent in 2008, according to Magazine Publishers of America. It also shuttered Portfolio, a business magazine founded in an era that is seeing business magazines fade, as Steve Fishman points out in New York Magazine.
The company’s familiar titles, whether they are growing or not, are struggling to adapt to the Internet, where most content is free. Despite impressive, content-rich Web sites such as (home of Vogue and W), and, the revenue is elusive. “Only about 3 percent of Condé Nast ad revenues came from digital last year, according to Advertising Age,” and this return is “among the lowest in its class,” Fishman wrote.

But Condé Nast may wait it out because those Web sites represent such longstanding titles. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out in a story about Portfolio, the company “absorbed nearly two decades of losses at the New Yorker,” but “pulled the plug on Portfolio magazine after less than two years.”

Cosmopolitan, published by Hearst Corporation, faced the challenge of the Web by creating an online paid subscription option. In 2008, digital subscriptions accounted for 99,012 subscriptions, or 3.4 percent of the magazine’s total circulation. Many of Cosmopolitan’s readers “like getting their information online,” a Hearst spokesperson told Mediaweek.

Ad buyers, however, are “wary” of digital subscriptions, Mediaweek reported, suggesting that the Web is still an unsettled frontier for advertising.

Opinion & Analysis: A magazine’s offerings, offline and online

Making online pay

As some magazines attempt to put all their content online, for free or for a subscription fee, Scott Daly of Dentsu America, a branding and advertising agency, told Mediaweek that he sees “absolutely no value whatsoever” to digital versions of magazines, adding that “a digital version of a magazine is not the reason we’d go into a magazine.”

Robin Steinberg of MediaVest, a marketing and branding company, delved into that philosophy further, saying that “while digital editions hold potential for marketers, more needs to be known about the difference” between how digital and print readers engage with ads and take action on them, Mediaweek added.

Struggling newsweeklies

Newsweeklies like Time Magazine, owned by Time Warner, and Newsweek, owned by The Washington Post, have heavily trafficked Web sites, but their traffic statistics are on the decline, according to data from

Graydon Carter, a Vanity Fair editor optimistic about Condé Nast's future, told New York Magazine, “If you’re competing as a daily or a newsweekly, you may have problems with the Internet. For the monthly magazines, the clouds part a little and the sun comes out.”

Time and Newsweek have been known for delivering “analysis and trend pieces,” as MediaPost’s Phyllis Fine wrote in 2008. But with the Web to contend with, their priorities have had to change. After a story hits, “follow-up commentary on every kind of news story—from earth-shattering to trivial—can be found almost immediately on the Web.” She concludes that today, “I find it hard to tell Time and Newsweek apart—and neither threatens to become a compelling must-read.”

In The Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn agrees about the fate of newsweeklies, but proclaims that The Economist is a model for excellence. The British magazine is a “niche” title that sells very well on newsstands despite its $6.99 price tag.

It has “been growing consistently and powerfully for years,” Hirschorn says, and while much of its content is now free online, “most of the magazine’s readers seem to have no idea the site exists. While other publications whore themselves to Google, The Huffington Post, and the Drudge Report, almost no one links to The Economist. It sits primly apart from the orgy of link love elsewhere on the Web.”

Hirschorn proposes that general titles are on the way out. “In the digital age, razor-sharp clarity and definition are the keys to success.”

Another method for success, The New York Times suggested recently, is to simply raise subscription prices, which some magazines, including Vanity Fair, have done. The cost of a Time magazine subscription is 58 cents per issue, the Times points out. “For that, you could get one-eighth of a Starbucks latte.”

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Reference: Magazine circulation in 2008


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