September 18, 2017 Last Updated 11:51 am

The magazine industry finds itself fighting on unfamiliar terrain, best suited to their rivals

Fall 2017 will see a number of magazine companies soon sell out and stop existing, while at the same time, even some of the biggest and most profitable magazines are seeing big changes coming, especially at the executive editor level

This could prove to be an ugly fall for the magazine publishing business, a sort of reckoning that many had hoped could be put off indefinitely. Rodale is selling off, and Wenner Media will be no more once Jann Wenner finds a buyer for his majority stake on Rolling Stone.

Two issues have dogged the industry for the past decade: the decline in newsstand retail space, and ad dollars shifting from print to digital.

As I argued back in 2010-11, this shift in dollars will not mean that every magazine will suffer, but that categories that could support half a dozen or more titles making hefty profits might find that the number of titles thriving will be halved (or worse).

I would argue that one thing that has made the situation more threatening for publishers is the industry’s habit of fighting their battles on the wrong terrain.

Magazine publishers are good at certain things, such as figuring out how to publish a print magazine, distribute it, and not lose their shirts. They are less good at figuring out how to fight with Google and Facebook for high volume, low cost digital advertising. Despite this, this is the ground many now want to fight on.

Magazine publishers are now talking about video… a lot. So much so that it has become a bit of a joke in the publishing business. Everything that sounds bad can now be made to sound better if the words “pivot to video” is added on the end. That most magazine publishing veterans have little experience with video production, or selling video advertising, should be obvious. And even those executives who have been in that space, fail to understand that they are again fighting a battle against powerful adversaries, and on their turf.

SI’s demo of a tablet magazine from Dec. 2009, before the first iPad was even unveiled

I continue to be saddened that more magazine publishers did not enthusiastically embrace digital editions. Digital editions was a war that could be fought on familiar territory, where magazine publishers could continue to sell display ads, though now in digital form, and could continue to sell subscriptions, but in digital form.

WIRED tablet magazineThe challenge was that publishers could not depend on Apple, Google or Amazon to create, maintain, and improve their digital newsstands. Apple proved a particularly bad publishing partner: too insular, too secretive, and too self-centered.

Today, many magazine publishers dismiss in an off-hand way the whole notion that there is a future for digital editions, even as libraries across the country end the practice of maintaining magazine collections, replacing them instead with digital magazine services — simultaneously freeing up shelf space, while expanding the number of titles that can be offered to patrons. Yet, magazine publishers actually fought this shift to digital, despite its obvious advantages.

“One of the concerns that the publishers had was ‘oh God, if the library is buying a print subscription to Car & Driver magazine, and they get it digitally they are not going to buy the print anymore,” an executive from one of the library services told TNM in 2013. “And that was one of the first fallacies that the libraries basically laughed about because they said that with food magazines, with fitness magazines, with any kind of auto magazines, these magazines get destroyed. The first day that Men’s Fitness comes out they guarantee that every single exercise page is ripped out and taken.”

“So for them, being able to buy the print still because they still want it there, and they still want people to see it on the shelves, and then have a digital copy where people can actually enjoy the content that they expected is huge. It is not cannibalizing print at all.”

Like the newspaper business, magazine publishers are combatting declining ad revenue with cost cuts. It is a completely logical thing to do, but now the cuts may be changing the nature of the industry in ways that may have been unimaginable a few years ago.

In the past month we have seen a number of high profile, well paid magazine editors exit their titles. It is likely that rather than bringing in another high profile editor, most publishing companies will choose to promote from within, pay less to the replacement, then not replace the person they have promoted. It is, in a way, cost cutting by another method.

“One wonders,” one magazine editor told me, “whether we will begin to see places like NYC and London become less the center of our universe going forward. Editors like Graydon Carter (longtime editor of Vanity Fair) weren’t just editors, they were brand advocates, visible in the city.”

The concern is, according to this editor, that some consumer magazines will begin publishing as many trade magazines have, with interchangeable editors, and with few magazine executives seen as being tied into the fashion, food or technology fields they are supposed to be covering.

“Face it, it is a lot less expensive to publish out of Birmingham, Alabama or Bangalore, India, than New York City,” this editor said, referring to Time Inc.’s recent move of Food & Wine from the city.

Comments are closed.