Thursday, June 14, 2018

U.S. Magazines Are in a Steep Decline, Except . . .

Everyone who’s in denial about the sorry state of U.S. magazine publishing should take a close look at the chart above.

It shows that on a “real” (inflation-adjusted) basis, the spending on magazine advertising has dropped from about $65 per person to only about $22 in the course of just 10 years.

Those of us in the publishing business have been joking for years that “slightly down is the new up.”

But when the population is growing and prices are rising, “slightly down” means losing major ground. And in some years, magazine ad revenue has dropped way more than “slightly”.

The long-term trend for the consumer side of the business isn’t as bad, but it still sucks: The average number of magazines mailed to each U.S. household has dropped “only” by half in the past 30 years, according to a recently released U.S. Postal Service study. (The advertising chart was in the same study. The Postal Service is just full of good news these days.)

This cover was ripe for social media.
As a whole, the “magazine media” industry is in decent shape because of fairly good performance from the digital side of the house. As I note in a Publishing Executive article published yesterday, traffic at large digital-native web sites dropped 5% during the 4th Quarter, while web traffic of large magazine brands rose 5%.

The good news for printed magazines is that their credibility has a halo effect on the magazines’ web sites, which gives them a competitive advantage over their digital-only competitors. People may be buying fewer magazines, but they still associate them with quality and reliability.

With the rise of duopoplexy -- consternation about fake news and privacy abuses – trust has become a valuable commodity on the web. (“Duopoplexy” is a mashup of “duopoly” and “apoplexy,” in case you’re wondering.) And, as noted in the Publishing Executive article, the right magazine cover can do wonders for a publishing brand’s exposure and social-media presence.

But there’s only so much credibility leveraging and propping up that can be done by the digital side of the house. For long-term survival, magazines need to be able to stand on their own.

The first step to sustainability is to admit that what we’ve been doing isn’t working any more – and hasn’t been working for a long time. Too many consumer titles, for example, have inflated ratebases (minimum-circulation guarantees) that force them into offering $5-per-year subscriptions and other self-defeating practices.

And I challenge you to find a competing medium that has a more cumbersome process for buying ads than the U.S. magazine industry.

Hooray-for-print denial may make us feel good, but it prevents us from making the changes necessary to help our beloved magazines survive and thrive.

For further reading, some signs of hope for magazines: