The only source of growth across the board has been in total circulation, which, given the newsstand declines, usually means that publishers are spending more than ever to build and maintain their subscriber bases. And advertisers are traditionally more skeptical of that kind of audience-building, given publishers’ past practices of steeply discounting subscriptions.
That Men’s Vogue’s newsstand is down 39.1 percent, for example, even as it’s raising its rate base to 400,000, can be explained several ways: first, that it suffers from an apples-and-oranges comparison between five issues published in the first half of 2008 and three in the first half of 2007; second, and more significantly, that it’s growing its audience the expensive way, through subscriptions, and not wowing on the newsstand.
The title also has seen its verified circulation (bulk copies in public places) drop by 14 percent since last year. A spokeswoman said, “Men’s Vogue continues to take risks on covers to recognize accomplishment over celebrity.” Case in point: the model-free Bugatti cover in May, which sold 45,000 copies, according to Rapid Report. (That was still better than the worst cover to date, April with Alex Rodriguez, at 41,000.)
As such, given the flood of negative newsstand figures in the first half, the few examples of uptick in sales should be particularly celebratory — among them, In Style, which, whether you consider it a core fashion title or a peer of Glamour and Marie Claire, was the only one in either group to see any rise in newsstand, by 4 percent to 783,254. That’s before the recently unveiled redesign was even tested on the newsstand.
And Rodale’s David Zinczenko showed once again that he can put his money where his mouth is, maintaining Men’s Health’s position as the number-one newsstand seller in the men’s category with a 2 percent growth, and having a hand in two newer magazines, which also have seen good news: Women’s Health, with its 12 percent rise, and Best Life, up almost 20 percent. Maybe that’s why Men’s Health Living has been given a go-ahead in a tough environment for shelter magazines.
So, do the steep declines serve as a harbinger of equally sharp falls in advertising revenue as firms seek other media? Well, for now, media buyers seem to be seeing the big picture. “I don’t think we would have seen these types of declines if the economy had been in a different place,” said Robin Steinberg, senior vice president and director of print investment and activation at MediaVest. “We would have seen some declines, but not deep declines.” That said, she added: “The future of magazines is not going to have the same distribution exposure as in years past,” as the business model shifts from emphasizing the number of eyeballs to assessing quality of audience.
And media companies are experimenting with new distribution tools such as Maghound, the so-called “Netflix for magazines” launching in September. A subsidiary of Time Inc., Maghound will allow consumers to switch in and out titles for a flat monthly fee, and around 300 titles have signed up so far.
Magazine publishers also are trying to figure out how to leverage their Web sites to build a subscription base — a potentially more efficient, or at least cheaper, way to add subscribers than direct mail or verified circulation. Hearst magazines in particular — many of which tend to be big, single-copy-heavy titles in an age of grim newsstand — have suggested this as a winning strategy. In the face of a newsstand decline of 17.3 percent, for example, Oprah’s Seelig pointed to the fact that the magazine hasn’t had to resort to verified circulation and that subscriptions were up 7 percent, in part because “we played around with the subscription offers on Oprah.com.”
She added, “The simple truth is consumers are not going to the places where our magazines are sold as frequently as they were,” i.e., airports, supermarkets, drugstores and other retailers.
That said, the magazine recently saw the exit of editor in chief Amy Gross, billed as voluntary, and new editor of former Golf for Women editor Susan Reed will have to figure out how and if the newsstand can be turned around. George Janson, managing partner/director of print at Mediaedge:cia, said, “Some magazines have reached a natural level of circulation,” pointing to Oprah in particular.
“Magazines are also coming off a period where [advertising] spending and circulation have, for the most part, been flat to up,” added Janson — meaning that what goes up sometimes has to come down.
But if the latest newsstand numbers prove to be long-term indicators, publishers could be faced with hard choices, such as cutting rate bases or rethinking their distribution models. “As content becomes free on the Internet, I question whether or not the future of magazines will be opt-in and nonpaid,” said Steinberg.