Magazine Readership Hitting a Brick Wall

Hundreds of magazines launch every year, but most cover the same topics already available on the newsstand, a new study by my company found.

Contrary to what every first-year marketing student is taught (“build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path … “), magazine publishers seem content to follow each other like lemmings. There are disappointingly few uniquely designed mousetraps, just the same kind of magazines we’ve seen come out of publishing houses for decades. And when a fresh idea appears, like the “shopping” magazines started by Condé Nast’s Lucky in 2000, any publisher who can afford to start such a magazine jumps on the bandwagon.

That’s why we have a flurry of releases such as Cargo and Domino from Condé Nast, Hearst’s Shop Etc and Fairchild’s (a Condé Nast sister division) Vitals.

After the success of beer-and-babes magazines in Great Britain in the 1980s, publishers quickly moved to the United States. We now have Maxim, FHM, Stuff and even Men’s Health along with venerable Esquire and GQ (no longer Gentlemen’s Quarterly) moving closer to the “lad” image.

But the sad truth is that not only are readers deprived of diverse and stimulating articles, it doesn’t make business sense, either. Sixty percent of new magazines go over the proverbial edge the first year, according to research by journalism professor Samir Husni, and only 20 percent of start-ups reach age 4.

Having new magazines – and magazine lists – to test is crucial for direct marketers and advertisers. If publishers launch the same old types of publications, where do fresh, new names and eyeballs come from?

Having our own 2,000-magazine media directory, the Wooden Horse Magazines Database, my company set out to find what publishers really offer to the reading public and to marketers.

It was easy to find out what is being launched today. The industry organization Magazine Publishers of America, in its 2003-04 Magazine Handbook, listed regional, sports and “nesting” magazines as the most popular recent launches.

We then dug into our database to examine the existing U.S. and Canadian world of magazines. We used the same sample of 633 magazines that we did for an earlier age study (“Marketers Ignore Fastest-Growing Area,” DM News, July 26), knowing it would be representative of what’s available. Publications ranged from Saturday Evening Post (launched in 1728) and American Kennel Club Gazette (1898) to B, Bloomingdale’s Magazine and Rich Guy, which both debuted on newsstands in 2003.

Of these 633, the top three categories were “regional and local” (73); “sports” (50); and “home and remodeling” and the “nesting” category (30) – exactly the order in which MPA lists the most popular recent launches. In other words, publishers are offering more of the same.

A magazine typically focuses on one area and finds its subscribers there. For a marketer this is helpful because you can be fairly sure of having few dupes between the list for Lubbock Illustrated and Pittsburgh magazines. But what’s the de-dupe ratio for a list from Golf Illustrated (1914), 1998’s Travel + Leisure Golf and Fringe Golf (2001)? How many unique names will you end up with?

It gets even trickier if you select a list from the even more general “home and remodel” category. After all, “sports” contains many different magazines. For example, subscribers of Bass & Walleye Boats probably would not show up on American Cheerleader’s list. But how many readers of Elle Décor (1990) also would appear on the subscriber list of Martha Stewart Living (1991) or Style at Home (1997)?

The reason this should concern you is a dirty little secret the magazine industry doesn’t want you to know: We have run out of readers in this country. You may have heard about the recent, mind-blowing study by the National Endowment for the Arts in which it found that book reading has decreased 10 percent since 1982. Fewer than 47 percent read any form of literature in the previous 12 months. A similar statistic exists in the magazine world, but it is usually tucked in among other, more palatable facts. It is called the “Annual Combined Paid Circulation Per Issue,” and it hasn’t moved since 1990.

Based on this statistic of magazines measured by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, U.S. magazines grew very nicely from 245 million copies in 1970 to 366 million in 1990. Then they stopped dead. The year 1991 saw 365 million. In 1992 it was 362 million. Year 2000 showed an up-blip to 379 million. But the last number we have is for 2003 – a miserable 353 million.

No matter how many new magazines launch, the number of them sold, as an aggregate, has not changed for nearly 14 years. We have run out of magazine readers, and publishers are just stealing them from each other. Keep that in mind when you rent your next list and when you settle in with a glossy, new magazine to read.

Whether as a marketer or as a reader, it’s about time that we get a few new, bright magazines on the newsstands.

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