Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Magazine Resurgence? The Numbers Say No

Despite what Disney movies teach us, wanting something to be true doesn't make it become true.

I keep hearing and reading about the resurgence of printed magazines, often accompanied by Monty-Pythonesque "not dead yet" remarks. With CPMs for web ads continuing to droop, publishers have become downright nostalgic about good old dead-tree editions. Noting that printed books are holding their own against e-books, the magazine cheerleaders keep telling us that print is making a comeback.

But that's not what the numbers say. The volume of magazines mailed annually has dropped for 15 years in a row, according to data released yesterday by the U.S. Postal Service.

During those 15 years, "Outside-County" Periodicals Class volume -- by far the best proxy for total magazine volume -- has dropped 44%. That means 4 billion fewer copies were mailed in 2015 than in 2000. (Outside-County periodicals are almost exclusively magazines and represent the vast majority of U.S. magazine distribution.) During that time, entire categories have disappeared or shrunk to the point of insignificance.

For the past three years, the Outside-County declines have been 6%, then 5%, and then 4% in Fiscal Year 2015. So, OK, things are getting a little less bad, but it's no resurgence. More like a reshrinkence, or maybe a resuckance, today's options for Publishing Word of the Day. (For a recent Publishing Executive article, I proposed the latter but the editors thought the former was less offensive. Guess who won.)

Giant sucking sound
By the way, don't look to single-copy sales, the second-largest method of U.S. magazine distribution, for better news. There are only giant sucking sounds, without any resurgence, coming out of Newsstand Land. A 6% annual decline would literally be a cause for celebration in what's left of the newsstand system.

What has improved the past few years is the outlook for printed magazines. The iPad was supposed to be a Print Killer but is already slouching toward obsolescence. Magazine publishers were at first frozen in the headlights and run over by the Digital Revolution. But the titles that didn't become digital roadkill have transformed into magazine-media brands, where smaller-footprint publications thrive alongside a growing panoply of digital, event, and data products.

And every month seems to bring an announcement from another digital-native publisher that is starting a print magazine.

But don't mistake all of this for growth, at least not for the magazine side of the magazine-media business. Launches of new niche titles aren't making up for trimmed circulation and outright closures of existing magazine brands.

Publishing Word of the Day is an offbeat, 31-part look at terms that tell us what's really going on in Publishing Land. Tomorrow's words: Facebump and Facehump.

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