Outlook 2005: Magazine Publishers Should Expect to See More of Same

Magazine publishers and circulation managers spent most of 2004 ramming their fingers into the business dike, plugging holes like increased production and distribution costs. These problems are not going away this year and likely will multiply as magazine vendors scramble to recover their own rising costs. No wonder publishers ask themselves whether they’ll have enough fingers.

Last year exhibited the same problems magazines have faced for at least a decade: merger mania demanding larger and larger profits, higher production costs and readers fleeing magazines for other communication and entertainment forms such as television, the Internet, instant messaging and cell phones. At least postal rates held steady, but a big increase is expected in 2006.

Some commercial successes, like Condé Nast shopping magazine Lucky, spawned lots of copycats in 2004, with more planned. Last year also saw the success of nesting magazines, and publications with “country” and “cottage” in the title multiplied.

The only close-to-innovative marketing was launching All You, a Time Inc. magazine designed for exclusive distribution at mass merchandiser Wal-Mart Stores. It was pretty much a no-brainer, given Wal-Mart’s 15 percent nationwide magazine retail share.

All the signs suggest this year will be more of the same. Business as usual will find publishers and circulation managers stretching like Gumby to fit as many fingers as possible in the dike against the bleeding red ink.

But then, after running out of fingers and toes trying to plug all those holes and staring 2006 in the eyeballs, will you wish that you had taken a different road in 2005?

What if, instead of playing Twister on company time, you had focused on what will bring in readers and, subsequently, advertisers? What if you had gone back to basics, giving readers what they want? Like preparing a rich, entertaining environment for those who love to read and a bulleted, fact-filled scan for readers who want their information fast, done at the same time and on a medium with no paper costs and hardly any distribution costs?

A dream? Not at all. E-paper is a reality. It just needs an industry to endorse it to blossom. Companies such as Xerox, E Ink Corp., Epson, Philips and university research labs like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are ready to roll out erasable “screens.”

These screens have the width of human hairs, require no external power, are flexible enough to be rolled into a cylinder about a half-inch wide, are capable of moving images and will be ready for the mass market in a few years.

E-paper lets you target readers much more than today. The same editor or writer can create a 4,000-word tale for those who want to kick back in the window seat with an entertaining story and a graphics-filled page of educational bullets for the time-challenged. Except for the computing power, you pay no distribution costs. No paper, no ink, no printing – and no negotiations with the U.S. Postal Service.

In 2005, while you invest in this new world, prepare for what it takes to enter. First, pay your writers better. You will need them. And streamline your subscription process to actually be customer responsive. Readers will not wait six weeks to get their first issue anymore, not when their new television satellite channel can be turned on in seconds.

Also, shave time where you can in your production process. Even without prep and press time, it is probably too long for today’s environment. A magazine is not expected to have the responsiveness of a newspaper, but readers now expect a certain timeliness.

So will magazines keep slipping down the slope into oblivion or will they morph into a vibrant new communication medium capturing the engaged, active readers whom advertisers want? The answer may emerge this year.

Meg Weaver is publisher of Wooden Horse Publishing, a Watsonville, CA-based magazine news and resource Web service and media directory. E-mail her at [email protected]

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