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With magazine ads down 16%, what does it mean to the magazine industry?

This article originally appeared on Bob Sacks’ daily newsletter. Bob Sacks is the world’s most pre-eminent commentator on magazine industry issues. His free daily newsletter is a must read and can be found here…..

Let’s be honest, although many attempt to do so, there is no way to find a positive spin to the data in this or any industry-wide report with magazine ads down another 16%. As an industry, we have seen negative numbers every year for a decade. Were you expecting a change?

Newsstand sales of magazines have plummeted at least 50%, and periodicals run through the USPS have dropped 55% and diminish each year.  Meanwhile ad sales, as seen in this report, continue on their long decline seeking a yet undiscovered plateau.

We have seen associations use sleight of hand to try to change the subject and use illusory metrics. Has that helped?  We have seen pundits declare that all is well and that print will live and be prosperous forever. Neither of those is helpful as a solution nor a recognition of the situation at hand.

While we were discussing this new data my friend Mr. Dead Tree offered this to me in an email yesterday:

“Maybe the message needs to be what AA and the other 12-step groups say: To fix a problem, first you have to acknowledge you have one. On the print side of our industry, there seems to be lots of denial and not much innovation.”

My hypothesis is that there is no longer a magazine publishing industry at large as we once understood it. There are however individual sectors that are incorrectly lumped into a total of false equivalency. There are the large publishing houses that have absolutely nothing in common with small niche publishers. Yet somehow, they are deemed to be in the same industry with incorrectly compared metrics. There are regional publishing houses that have little to nothing in common with enthusiast titles, but they are also judged by the same over-all criteria.

There is only one common denominator and that is the paper with which we create a distribution platform. Today the business models are vastly different, the readers between publishers are different, and the access to information is decidedly unlimited. I suggest that what was once known as the magazine industry doesn’t exist anymore.

How else do you reckon with the various successes buried in the depressing “industry data”?

  • US News and World Report once a newsweekly is now successful by reinventing itself and its business model. What have they done? They have evolved from a mere print newsweekly to the recognized leader in college, grad school, hospital, mutual fund, and car rankings. Is that a magazine business?
  • Hanley-Wood as reported here yesterday, has dramatically transformed the company and has grown by more than $35 million directly as a consequence of a new customer centric data business model. Is that a magazine business?
  • Active Interest Media (AIM), one of my favorite innovators in the magazine sphere, constantly offers new approaches and new revenue streams. As reported by MIN, “enthusiast publisher AIM is proving that premium pricing and consumer-direct paid digital media can thrive even in a sea of free. For the last several years, AIM has built two virtual academies ‘Healthy U’ around its fleet of titles like Yoga Journal, Vegetarian Times, and Clean Eating, and ‘Adventure U’ around Backpacker, Climbing, SKI and other titles.” I ask you, is that a magazine business?

What is the magazine business? Surely in the 21st century most publishers have diversified to an unrecognizable extent from the past with unique revenue streams dependent on the particular sector to be examined.

Will print sales continue to diminish? Yes, what is there to stop it? Are there random print successes?  Of, course. Magnolia and Pioneer Woman are recent examples, but they are not the norm, they are outliers to the industry trends as seen in any industry report.  There are many other success print stories, too, when viewed separately from any industry-wide analysis.

Many printers have adapted to the situation and are doing quite well, too.

There are billions of dollars still available in the information distribution business formally known as the magazine industry, even while the duopoly continues to attack us by taking ad revenue. And there are uncounted upstarts on the horizon.

What I am getting at is the need for some honest corporate self-assessment. Internet likes have proven to be incredibly irrelevant to the success of actually selling magazines and the ads in them. The same holds to true to surveys about print magazine preferences. Preferences and actions are obviously two completely separate items. Just look at the on-going annual sales figures. Pie in the sky all is wonderful in print is also very nice to hear, but it’s not an accurate picture of the industry, only some titles in it.

The only meaningful statistic is how your magazine is doing compared to other magazines in your sector. There is no other meaningful data, only yours.  You can’t be compared to all others nor the industry at large, as there is no longer a broad-reaching one data-set fits all.

I continue to be optimistic for our industry and its reinvention. The only reasonable path to success is constant innovation and the supreme clarity of your messaging in your particular niche. That and a continued relentless pursuit of excellence.