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The End of Print?

The Internet continues to transform the way we think and interact with content. Unless you’re a magazine. To say that magazines have struggled in this Electronic Age is falling well short of the complete story. Yes there have been some success stories. But, the Bible of magazine publishing Folio gave fresh insight into the health of the industry with this headline,Twelve of the Top 25 Newsstand Publications Saw Declines in the Second Half of 2006.

The Internet continues to transform the way we think and interact with content. Unless you’re a magazine. To say that magazines have struggled in this Electronic Age is falling well short of the complete story. Yes there have been some success stories. But, the Bible of magazine publishing Folio gave fresh insight into the health of the industry with this headline,Twelve of the Top 25 Newsstand Publications Saw Declines in the Second Half of 2006.

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Could the earlier and more severe slump in urban magazines have portended this greater slide or is the trouble with the urban and African American magazines unrelated? The last five years have seen giants such as Time Warner launch and quickly shutter Suede magazine, geared to young African American women after just four issues in 2005. The “Bible” of Hip Hop, The Source magazine seemed unstoppable, but now sits in bankruptcy. The magazine is still publishing, but with the founders gone it seems unlikely that it will ever regain the lead in the genre. The Source founders Dave Mays and Raymond Scott, now ousted, have launched a competing title – in print – Hip Hop Weekly.

I could go one, there’s Honey magazine gone for several years now, and rumored to be re-launching with former music exec Philmore Anderson at the helm. And many smaller titles, such as Oneworld, Ego Trip (transitioned to books and TV),and Stress have all stopped spilling ink for a variety of reasons.

It could be that the fundamental inefficiency of the print business is being exposed in the ever-efficient on-line pay per click world that has emerged since the dot-slump of 2000. In print most publications are doing well if 40% of the issues they place on newsstands are sold to consumers. In fact. 40% is a great number. Well, let’s look at Oprah’s magazine, O, which Folio says saw a decline in newsstand sales of 9.92% in the six months ending December 30, 2006. In order to sell its 867.000 magazines per issue they would have to print over 2,000,000 magazines for the newsstands. Yep, put them all on trucks and planes headed to every newsstand in every city all in the hope of selling four of ten copies. Who ultimately pays for that inefficiency? Advertisers.

Not subscribers. One thing you can find on the internet are discount magazine subscriptions. A yearly subscription to Cosmopolitan can be had for $16.96 versus a cover price of $42.00 (annually). African American stalwart Ebony magazine can be had for $16.00 at Mags Direct. And when you add the cost of manufacturing a magazine, maintaining the subscriber list, and then dropping each copy in the mail, well these home-delivered copies are subsidized…by advertisers. And as a publisher you hope these subs never call customer service, those calls can cost $.50 to $1.00 each!

So what do you do if you’re a magazine? I don’t think anyone has figured that out. ESPN has done a good job of moving their brand to the Internet. There are many niche urban magazines that aren’t necessarily African American that seem to be doing fine such as The Fader, Trace, YRB and even Mass Appeal. And some more African Amercan focused mags like XXL seem unfazed by the turmoil. And for those that appeal to the core African American audience? Hip Hop Weekly will be an interesting test to see if there is strength in the category on newsstands. Maybe urban mags are the canary in the proverbial coalmine. As they go so goes the industry?

On the Net advertisers can pay for exactly the response they want, they can gauge impressions with a fair amount of precision and can immerse a willing consumer in a multi-media experience. Print still offers the ultimate in untethered portability. But keep an eye on urban, if these targeted, and generally editorially streamlined books can’t make it then the car-service set at the bigger titles should be working on their Net resumes.

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John N. Pasmore • New York, NY • mailto:johnpasmore@gmail.comwww.nextthingsnext.com