Monday, August 13, 2012

Retweet: 'Wondering how far magazines must fall'

The sky is falling, or at least that seems to the message from media writers recently. On Sunday David Carr, the New York Times's media reporter penned a column which seemed to conclude that magazines are in serious danger. Earlier in the week Adweek asked 'are tablet-only publications dead?"

I've already made enough fun of Adweek's silly piece, there is no reason to pile on here. But Carr's new column is bound to get plenty of attention.

Carr look's at Newsweek and the struggles the magazine continues to have under Tina Brown. Carr points out some of Brown's week ideas but ultimately gives her a pass concluding that the problems at Newsweek, and at magazines, in general, are that the platform itself is suspect.

The problem is more existential than that: magazines, all kinds of them, don’t work very well in the marketplace anymore.

Like newspapers, magazines have been in a steady slide, but now, like newspapers, they seem to have reached the edge of the cliff. Last week, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported that newsstand circulation in the first half of the year was down almost 10 percent. When 10 percent of your retail buyers depart over the course of a year, something fundamental is at work.
Carr recounts the latest ABC circulation numbers and sees disaster.

But strangely, Carr seems to be confused by the ABC report. While newsstand sales did, indeed, fall dramatically (9.6 percent), overall circulation was flat (rising 0.1 percent). If this is the end of the platform someone had better tell readers because they continue to subscribe.

If newsstand sales are falling just about everywhere – and in this Carr is right as only four of the top 25 magazines reported an increase in newsstand sales – then there must be something else at work.

One could point to the rising digital sales as one factor. 5.4 million digital replicas were reported in the new ABC report, a 170 percent increase over last year's numbers. But, of course, that didn't stop some media observers from writing negatively about that number.

But I think the problem with newsstand sales is simply the decline of the newsstand, in general. Retail outlets are giving far less space to magazines, and in the case of Borders, the newsstand has disappeared altogether (along with books, CDs and DVDs, of course).

What few media commentators want to admit is the fact that magazines are a discretionary purchase. One can live without the latest issue of People or Cosmopolitan. This, along with fragmentation, explains the decline in ad pages, as well. Advertising is falling for all print products, and will continue to do so until the economy picks up. When, and if that ever happens, we might see a bump in advertising across the board, with print possibly picking up a piece of the new business.

There is no doubt that the new digital platforms will force magazines (and newspapers) to evolve. But burying the whole print platform because sales are falling in the midst of a weak economy is extreme.

No, what we are seeing is a definite evolution of publishing. But until RR Donnelley announces the closing of its last printing facility I would not write the obituary of print magazines just yet.

Update: The NYT has just posted a correction to the Carr column, pointing out that the ABC circulation figures quoted only apply to newsstand, not overall circulation.
An earlier version of this column incorrectly characterized circulation figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. It reported last week that magazines’ newsstand circulation in the first half of the year was down almost 10 percent, not their overall circulation.