Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The death of magazines is making a good story, but it all may turn out to be merely good fiction in the end

There is a good reason why birth notices, if they are published at all, are put in the back of the newspaper, while obituaries can sometimes find their way to the front page: they make for a better story. Today the death of magazines, or newspapers for than matter, is getting alot of attention. It would make for a good story for the cover of, say, a big magazine, don't you think?

The latest avalanche of death notices probably got their start with the release of the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations report. The headlines could have read "Magazine prove very resilient in the face of tough economic times," and could have recapped the one percent gain in overall circulation the industry experienced. But thanks to a post by the New York Times's David Carr, with the provocative headline Wondering How Far Magazines Must Fall, media observers seem to have pounced.

I like Carr's work a lot, so I have very little negative to say about his column. But his one mistake, noticing that newsstand circulation had fallen ten percent, but not noting that overall circulation was up slightly, had to quickly be corrected by NYT editors. Carr has moved on, as he should. But that isn't preventing other media observers from writing those obituaries and citing Carr's column.

Mag circ was up slightly in the last
ABC circulation report.
These are, indeed, tough times for magazines. And it is true that one must wonder about the long term future of many publishing firms. But I don't lose any sleep worrying about magazines.

Magazines are simply a collection of articles, edited and compiled by editors. The line between a newspaper and a magazine (and a book, for that matter) is a thin one. If anything, the magazine idea is expanding. TV networks create television magazines, websites are now creating tablet magazines, and anyone with a PC can now both print and digital products that are like magazines.

The truth is that the death of the magazine makes a great story, the same way Judith Miller can weave a great tale.

It is easier, I suppose, to talk about the death of someone or something than it is to talk about the changing nature of that same subject. If a great personality dies one can recount their lives and achievements. A story written in medias res requires the subject to be interviewed, or the topic to be analyzed.

Thanks to the new digital platforms of mobile and tablets I have great hope for magazines. But between now and sometime in the future, much pain will be felt by magazine publishers. Many, especially in the B2B area, have seriously lost their way. Many publishing firms have cut back so much that they have thin benches and are forced to bring in inexperienced managers from outside the industry. The new CEO of Time Inc., for instance, immediately brought in consultants once hired. One would think that a new CEO would be hired for what they bring to the job.

My biggest concern is that the ad community is losing faith in the magazine platform. Rather than new advertisers flocking to the new digital tablet editions, many are simply leaving magazines (and newspapers), in general.

This is, by the way, a serious mistake. The whole reason to advertise in a particular title is targeting. But too often we get obsessed with overall circulation numbers – it's a bad measurement of a magazine's worth as an advertising vehicle, though it is the easiest for many reps to sell.

The dark, dirty secret of many B2B titles, of course, is that much of their circulation is wasted. A trade journal, for instance, that has a circulation of 75,000 will fight with one that has 80,000. Both will claim to reach the needed decision makers, even if there are only 10,000 of them or less. How many people are there in the market, one needs to realize, that have the ability to buy an asphalt paver? If there were 80,000 of them the entire country would be paved over.

Tablet magazines, with their interactivity, their ability to be archived digitally, will make a fantastic advertising platform. Try it and see.

But some media observers are already writing the obituary of the tablet magazine platform, proving that nothing is too young to be seen as dying in the eyes of some people. It must be hell living with these writers.