November 26, 2013 Last Updated 3:12 pm

Survival of the fittest: growth of digital makes it hard for secondary magazines to survive

Why are some magazine being shuttered while others are breaking ad page records?

This it not 2007-8, the depths of the financial crisis, when ad pages plunged, and many magazine executives started to trim back their portfolios. But magazines are still being shuttered, and the reasons for these closings have changed.

When the economy is in recession, many publishers hunkered down, trimmed costs, and waited for ad pages to rebound. But many publications are finding that the three headed monster that is digital – the web, mobile and tablets – is proving to be even more deadly than the economy.

FIREmags-smLast week Penton announced that it would be shuttering FIRE CHIEF, a 57 year old B2B brand. Unlike some magazine companies, Penton kept up the magazine’s BPA, only trimming its total circulation from 52K to 47K over the past five years. Its BPA audit continued to look stout, with a first year qualified number near 80 percent.

But FIRE CHIEF was not the number one magazine in its field – that would be Firehouse, owned by Cygnus Business Media, with a circulation over 77K.

A decade ago, being number two in a category was not a bad thing, there likely to be many other titles below. But today, when advertisers have so many more choices, not being the king of the hill could mean that there are few ad pages to be had.

“Many factors that have contributed to the decision to close, including the publishing industry’s steady transition to digital, the economy, and the decline in ad revenue that most publishers are facing,” wrote Janet Wilmoth, FIRE CHIEF’s editor, who started with the magazine as an associate editor in 1986.

It is true that most publishers are facing ad page declines. But not all publishers are. Some are finding that as the number one title in their field that they page counts are actually holding steady, or even increasing. The reason, a number of publishers have told me, is that they are able to become THE print buy in their category, with much of the other parts of the ad budget moving to digital. One publisher said that they have even begun to see a swing from the old buy print, giveaway digital, to a situation that is somewhat reversed: their digital offerings are saving print pages.

Some magazines have been helped by the collapse of whole B2B magazine companies. Reed Business Information, which for a long time, was the leading B2B publisher following its acquisition of Cahners, sold off or closed many of its titles at the end of 2009 and into 2010. Many of those titles were salvaged by their publishing teams, but many fell from being the number one book in their field as a result.

But one problem some B2B publishers are facing is that they have not had time to prepare for an alternative approach to shuttering a title. For example, without a tablet edition to fall back on, or a robust website, the only solution that seems reasonable when ad pages crater is to close the publication.

  • Neil Thackray 4 years ago

    Er – well anyone who thought that waiting for an ad rebound was a strategy for success at any time in the last ten years was deluded. The only survivors are those who worked out that was never going to happen.

  • Neil Thackray 4 years ago

    So I don’t think anyone can claim they haven’t had time to think of a survival or growth strategy. This is what is called the Snow White complex. It afflicts media execs, who having been asleep in the forest waiting for a miracle to wake them, suddenly emerge from their slumber to find the whole damn thing is a nightmare. I know nothing about the circumstances of this particular title, but the general point is that there is no excuse for failure blamed on circumstance. There are are plenty of winning strategies for number ones and number twos.

    • D.B. Hebbard 4 years ago

      Comments are moderated here because of spam, so readers should be patient to have their comments appear. But sometimes, like in this case, it took me awhile to release the comments because I was working on the Mac|Life story (new interactive edition has debuted).

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