Now we have fresh reports to underline just how bad some — but not all — mags are doing. In a nutshell, their circulations and ads are dropping but the publishers are making it up selling digital editions. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, which counts such things, total paid and verified subscriptions for magazines declined by 1 percent in the first half of 2013. Worse yet, newsstand sales dropped by 10 percent. Both declines were following last year’s pattern.
Among the worst hit were so-called celebrity magazines. Good. Those are the rags we see while waiting at the grocery check-out line behind the guy who forgot his wallet and is bargaining with buffalo hides. “Is GloDoMo expecting?” (No.) “Gin & Mike — Splitsville?” (No, and who cares?) “Rush: “I lost 90 pounds!” (Again?). Who buys that junk anyway? Also hurting are women’s titles. In the first half of 2013, Cosmopolitan showed a 24 percent decline in newsstand sales. Glamour dropped by almost 29 percent and O, The Oprah Magazine, fell by 22.7 percent. But their digital versions — which replicate the format of the print editions — are booming. Those versions still make up only 3.3 percent of total magazine circulation, but that’s twice what it was one year ago. The trend is clear, so sell your stocks in paper, trees and axes.
Here’s a contrary stat: Readers Digest. It was founded in 1922, and was the best-selling consumer magazine in the nation until 2009 when it was surpassed by Better Homes and Gardens. But that bland, feel-good publication still reaches more readers with household incomes of $100,000-plus than Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Business Week and Inc. combined, and with its global reach, is the largest paid circulation magazine in the world. Go figure, iPeople.
I subscribe to a bunch of magazines (Mensa Monthly, Yale Physics and, of course, Blast! — The Demolition Digest, although the NRA says I have the right to unlimited magazines. Being a big mag fan, I give a few subscriptions to others as Christmas presents, and can see how desperate some publishers have become for my continued business. You may be experiencing this too: In July, I start receiving letters and e-mails telling me to re-new my Christmas gift subscriptions NOW. Here I am, opening my mail in100-dgree heat and the letter is covered with pictures of snow flakes and mistletoe. Last year I received nine such pleas from Texas Monthly and 12 from the New Yorker. Pitchforks & Torches simply tossed a brick through my window, with a renewal form attached, but the brick had snowflake stickers.
Big, daily newspapers are also dropping their antiquated ways. (When I got my first big scoop I ran into the city room yelling, “Stop the chisels!”) The papers no longer give away their content via the Internet; they are now charging. Indeed, today almost 20 percent of their customers are reading their news on-line. The New York Times and its International Herald Tribune (soon to be re-named the International New York Times) has 676,000 on-line subscribers. This means more people are reading The New York Times today than ever before. But it’s harder to charge other outlets. Most news, especially local news, originates with newspapers. Radio and TV stations only read it to you. Blogs, on-line news groups and talk shows are basically parasites feeding off established news organizations, or as Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New Times put it: “In Baghdad I never saw a Huffington Post or Slate bureau.”
For centuries news traveled no faster than the fastest horse. Now hardly a week goes by that some 12-year-old Harvard dropout comes up with a new box that is better than last week’s box. Today we have “old media” and “new media,” which reminds me of the radio talk show host who kept referring disparagingly to the printed press as “old media.” He was telling me this on commercial radio which was born in Pittsburgh on KDKA, Nov. 2, 1920. That was 93 years ago. What constitutes old media?
Despite the early obituaries, just as with any other business, magazines are changing forms to keep up with the changing times, or are going out of business. Same for newspapers. From the fastest horse to iWhatever to the NSA picking our brains, maybe literally, only the methods of transmittal are evolving. Some people will always be willing to pay for information and entertainment, and other people will always be willing to sell it. That hasn’t changed and won’t. We are simply riding faster horses.
Ashby is chiseling at email@example.com