Why Are Successful Magazines Folding?
When otherwise growing titles are forced to fold, something is very wrong.
The magazine “couldn’t reach our benchmarks.”
“We cannot justify continued investment.”
“We have concluded that this economic market will not support our business expectations.”
Those are the respective reasons given when Rodale shuttered Best Life, Hallmark Cards killed Hallmark and Condé Nast folded Domino.
The commonality among these magazines—besides that they are no longer being published—is that they were some of the few titles to deliver seemingly solid performances in 2008. Best Life’s ad pages increased 6.6 percent last year, according to the Publishers Information Bureau, and total circulation was up 6.1 percent, according FAS-FAX figures. Hallmark’s ad pages were up 11 percent and total circ skyrocketed 27.2 percent. While ad pages fell 4.1 percent last year at Domino, total circ soared 54.6 percent.
It’s no secret that 2008 was a brutal year in magazines. On the consumer side, ad pages dropped 11.7 percent in 2008 when compared to 2007, according to PIB. Of the more than 230 magazines tracked only 42—or about 18 percent—saw ad pages increase for the year.
So, why are publishers walking away from publications that appear to be growing? “The problem is the publishing model,” says University of Mississippi professor Samir Husni. “It’s one that’s served us well since World War II, when we switched from a circulation-driven publishing model to an advertising-driven model. That’s when magazines began counting numbers, not finding customers that actually count.”
Some publishers, however, see oversaturation as a key reason magazines are going out of business. “Most publishers have the same problems as car dealers or home builders—that is, they have too much inventory and not enough buyers,” says Hanley Wood CEO Frank Anton. “There are too many magazines, too many Web sites and too many conferences—and not enough advertising or marketing spending to support them. So just as stores close and auto dealerships disappear, media properties get shut down. It’s not really about costs or expectations, it’s about revenue, or lack thereof.”
Even after cutbacks and layoffs, there’s no guarantee a magazine will survive. “We did see some great growth in terms of circ and ad pages but the business still fell short of our plan,” explains Hallmark spokesperson Julie O’Dell. “We looked at a number of business models and options but were not able to put together the type of structure we needed. It was not an easy decision, but we have to focus our efforts on our other products.”
Another publisher, Sebastpol, California-based O’Reilly Media, said in February it would no longer publish the print edition of Craft, a 50,000-circulation quarterly which “saw some uptick in numbers” in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say the print model is broken—at least not for Maker Media,” says associate publisher Dan Woods. “If you’ve been all but giving away the book and taking up a big chunk of your EBITDA and spending it on direct mail to build circ for advertisers, I can see that it’s hard to find a way out. On the other hand, those magazines that are built around blended business models that balance circulation and ad revenue seem to have a far better chance of coming through the storm prepared for growth.”
Time for Change
In order for magazines to survive, Husni says, publishers need to stop “devaluing their content” by selling annual subscriptions for the price of (or less than) a single issue. One recent example of this is Condé Nast, which lowered Glamour’s subscription price to $1.50 in recognition of the magazine’s 70th anniversary.
“The obsession with advertising was supposed to continue to buoy losses elsewhere and we’d continue to plod forward,” says TV Guide president Scott Crystal. “Well, it’s not. We need to charge consumers more for a better product and to take costs out of inflated rate bases. We’re all making tough decisions that should have been made a long time ago.”