There’s a new attitude in magazine publishing: Cautious optimism.
In recent months, the industry has seen some flashes of improvement. MPA’s Publishers Information Bureau reported that ad pages grew 0.8 percent in the second quarter. That’s not too impressive until you realize that’s the first time in NINE quarters that PIB reported that both revenue and pages had increased (ad pages are considered the real bellwether for PIB since revenue estimates assume full rate card rates). One hundred thirty magazines reported ad page gains in the second quarter, compared to 15 for the same time period last year.
Elsewhere, MediaFinder says that 87 magazines closed in the first half of 2010, down from 279 in the first half of 2010. The Jordan Edmiston Group reported that media deals were up 52 percent while deal volume jumped 291 percent.
Of course, every bit of good news is tempered by a reality check. A 0.8 percent gain hardly means the industry is back. The number of magazine closures may have fallen but so have the number of launches (90 in the first half, compared to 187 last year, per MediaFinder). Media M&A has been driven by distressed deals such as Reed Business Information and Nielsen Business Media or by high dollar, high multiple online deals that few publishers other than the largest consumer players can afford. The iPad is getting publishers excited again, but tying your next generation product to someone else’s proprietary platform raises some real red flags about long-term revenue and audience development opportunities.
But for an industry that’s had to duck and cover for the last two years, there are signs that we can go on the offensive again. Digital is becoming a real business for many publishers. Live events that skipped 2009 are back on two (albeit still shaky) legs. What staff remains is typically comprised of people who get the job done.
However, if we sink right back into old habits (running up debt, thinking we don’t need to change or chasing new opportunities "just because" rather than vetting that opportunity) any improvement will be short-lived. CEOs whose mantra has been "Just be glad you still have a job" may find themselves explaining to investors why they have a 60 percent employee attrition rate.
We’re not out of the woods yet (least of all the thousands of former publishing employees still out of work). But if we are starting to see a turnaround, let’s hope the scars we’ve picked up remind us to be careful moving forward. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from the past year?