The View From The Tree: A Tale of Two Bit.lys
Are these the best of times or the worst of times to be in the magazine business? It depends upon whom you ask. And it depends upon what exactly you mean by "the magazine business."
Consider two recent and at first glance diametrically opposed statements about the business from insiders:
From UK blogger "Private Fraser" (http://bit.ly/11gpZXS): "Compare today's circulation of nearly any magazine with 2008 and see how far they have fallen; compare the balance sheets of nearly any publishing company over the same period and scratch your head at what has happened to those profits; and particularly compare the number of people who are employed in our business and wonder whether there will be anyone left in five years' time."
And from Mary Berner, head of the Association of Magazine Media, a.k.a. the MPA (http://bit.ly/10daQRG): "There has never been a better time to be in the business of Magazine Branded Media. Sure, it is a time of transition, but if you ignore the pundits and the potshots and focus on the very real strengths of the industry, then you'll be able to see why this is true."
So Who's Right?
As a fellow cynic, my heart is with Private Fraser. Plus, as a "production and distribution guy," I've seen more than my share of talented colleagues who've been downsized out of the industry, declining newsstand draws and sales, and political shenanigans that hamstring our industry's major distribution channel, the U.S. Postal Service.
Still, things don't look as bad as they did a few years ago. The downsizing seems to have slowed, and some publishers are even adding employees. Sure, some titles are shrinking or closing down, but that happens in all markets. The demise of Newsweek gets the press coverage and lamentations about the death of weekly news magazines. No one mentions that Bloomberg BusinessWeek is thriving after a near-death experience and that The Economist is still methodically churning out money.
Magazines' ad pages went from "Flat is the new up" about five years ago to "Slightly down is the new up," and then to "Down single digits is the new up." These days many magazines are reporting that their pages are actually up versus a year ago.
But I don't know of anyone who thinks there's never been a better time for magazines. In fact, even Mary Berner doesn't seem to believe that. Note that she referred not to "the magazine business" but rather "the business of Magazine Branded Media."
(Kudos to Berner for citing, in the same press release, BoSacks, a long-time thorn in the side of the industry's establishment who had offered to fix the MPA by serving as its president. Hmm, barely reformed hippie BoSacks as head of the industry's largest trade association? As they say in the South, that would have been "more fun than firecrackers in church.")
Like many, I snickered in 2011 when the Magazine Publishers of America changed its name to MPA, the Association of Magazine Media. But it's starting to make more sense.
Magazine publishers, at least the successful ones, are no longer just magazine publishers. They are using their publications as springboards to thrive in a variety of "magazine branded media." That's not exactly a new concept: Publishers like National Geographic, Rodale and Kalmbach long ago built strong book businesses. But in the past few years the aggressive pursuit of multiple "ancillary" enterprises has become the rule rather than the exception for publishers.
In the early days of the Internet we moved cautiously, dipping our toes into the water with "retread" magazine articles and a few banner ads. Now we have sophisticated "digital-first" and "digital-only" offerings with an ever-growing list of ways to "monetize" our Web traffic. The search engines are learning to filter out spam and to favor websites with content that people actually want, which is boosting traffic for many publishers' websites.
Then there are apps, white papers, e-newsletters, product endorsements, e-commerce, TV show tie-ins and spinoffs, online job listings, bookazines, custom research, webinars, sponsored and custom content, events, e-books, videos, and seemingly another new way every day that a publisher is making money online or offline. Such magazine-branded, non-magazine ventures are no longer ancillary to many publishers. They are part of the core.
"We now have 10 platforms at Dwell Media," Michela O'Connor Abrams recently told Samir "Mr. Magazine" Husni. "The magazine is about 55 percent of the business and four years ago it was 94 percent of the business." Other "magazine" publishers have gone even further, with their non-magazine ventures generating more revenue than their magazines.
The ink-on-paper magazine edition is still crucial to the publishing mix. Just ask WebMD, Politico and a growing list of formerly Web-only publishers that now have their own dead-tree editions. They have discovered that publishing a magazine creates a halo effect, lending credibility and a sense of permanence to everything bearing that magazine's brand name, regardless of the medium.
So here's my final answer: Yes, it's a pretty good time to be in the magazine business, as long as your business isn't overly dependent upon the actual magazines.
D. Eadward Tree is the pseudonymous Chief Arborist for Dead Tree Edition (http://deadtreeedition.blogspot.com). Mr. Tree is an old print dinosaur who doesn't know his RSS from a hole in the ground, but pay him a few bucks for an article and all of a sudden he thinks he's some kind of new-media pundit.