Magazine Circulation Falls in Half

Newsstand sales drop.

with contributions from Stephanie D. Smith, Amy Wicks
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In Style June 2008

Photo By Courtesy Photo

The phrase “flat is the new up” became a mantra in recent years when it came to assessing newsstand sales. Well, as core fashion titles, women’s service books and men’s magazines have almost universally posted declines in their single-copy sales in the first half of 2008, how does “less down is the new up” sound?

To wit, Hachette Filipacchi Media’s Tom Masterson, senior vice president for consumer marketing and manufacturing, pointed out that, while Elle’s newsstand was down 6.3 percent in the first six months, “many of Elle’s competitors decreased more.”

That’s true — Vogue was down nearly 15 percent, though it still outsells Elle on the newsstand by an average of about 50,000 copies monthly; Harper’s Bazaar fell 8.3 percent, and W, which gets the vast majority of sales through subscription, was down 10 percent.

Or take Shape, which was down about 10 percent overall on the newsstand in the first half, but still averaged higher total sales than the troubled fitness category in general. (Self had the dubious honor of being less down, but is still smaller; Shape has beefed up its distribution at checkout and added 17,000 pockets nationwide.)

Growing market share might be the last remaining competitive advantage in an environment where nearly every editor in chief is seeing the kind of declines that once would have gotten them fired. The long-standing expectation that a healthy magazine is one that sees successive growth on the newsstand is in question — you can’t exactly fire everyone.

Whether the change is cyclical (uncertain economic times that include high gas prices, fewer supermarket trips and less disposable income) or secular (consumer behavior is undergoing a fundamental change away from newsstand, or from print magazines themselves) depends on whom you ask. Editors and publishers would have it be the former.

“I don’t think newsstand softness is systemic to magazines, but rather systemic to the economy,” said O, The Oprah Magazine publisher Jill Seelig.

But some advertisers and observers are beginning to wonder whether the second diagnosis is upon us. As consumers’ attention fractures, spoiled by choice and easy digital access, the culture and entertainment industries already have adjusted their expectations, counting smaller sales numbers than ever as blockbusters. The magazine industry might be falling prey to the same tectonic shift.

Several magazines, such as Glamour and Marie Claire, have seen disappointing sales for several periods in a row, even when the economy was flush, suggesting more of an overall move away from big women’s titles. (Perhaps in reaction, Glamour unveiled a redesign this month.) Even newsstand stalwart Cosmopolitan dropped 6 percent in this period, a difference of more than 100,000 copies, after essentially flat newsstand sales since 2004.


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