BoSacks Readers Speak Out: On Saving Printed Consumer Magazines

By BoSacks Readers on June 07, 2020

Dancing at the Apocalypse Bonfire 

By Joe Berger 

Every now and then Baird Davis, a retired Ziff-Davis Publishing circulation VP will pen an article that shows up in an industry trade journal like FolioPublishing Executive or the BoSacks newsletter. His articles review the latest AAM (formerly ABC Audit of Circulation) statistics and offer some analysis. Whether or not he intended it, to me Baird’s articles always felt like a slap upside the head to all of us magazine professionals. “Wake up already” the op-ed always seemed to be saying. 

Years ago, in what now feels like another reality timeline, I was a consultant to Ziff-Davis and Baird was a level or two about my report. 

Occasionally he would come visit one of the magazine wholesalers I was calling on and it always felt like I was reporting in to my very stern (but fair) uncle. You know; the one for who you always double checked to make sure your pants were creased properly, that you were sitting up straight and your tie was tied properly. 

This morning, in a post titled “Saving Printed Consumer Magazines in the Social Media Era: It’s Significance and Challenges” Baird deals us magazine professionals a healthy dose of reality. Like truly sobering reality. 

Yeah, It’s Not Like We Didn’t Already Know, But…

It’s not as though he isn’t pointing out things we already knew. But I think that these days, those of us who have some “history” in the business are just too darn busy to acknowledge what he’s pointing out. These days, we just “carry on:” 

  • The number of major publishers has shrunk
  • The number of next tier publishers with influence in the business is now nearly nil
  • There were too many overpriced and overextended acquisitions in previous decades
  • Layoffs have decreased institutional knowledge
  • Too much subscription circulation is cheap and poorly acquired
  • The newsstand business was allowed to consolidate, wither and decline 

Go and read the article, and then I’d like to add a few thoughts. See what you all think.

It’s a procrastinators joke that we will always put off until the day after, what we could have done tomorrow. So I would imagine that there were magazine professionals who hesitated when companies like Ziff-Davis and Petersen were purchased in the 1990’s for $1.4 and $1.2 billion. Davis points this out, and I will highlight it.

Personally, I had already seen the impact of highly leveraged purchases when a company I worked for, Family Media, collapsed in the go-go 1990’s and yet, I remember feeling exhilarated when I heard the price Softbank paid for my then biggest client, Ziff-Davis. 

I imagine, that there were circulation professionals who wondered if it was smart to load up their files with so much “verified” and “non-paid audited bulk” circulation. And yet, if that worked… 

I know of one or two newsstand professionals who murmured “This ain’t good” into their coffee cups when the number of major magazine wholesalers collapsed from four to three to two to one. Do you think there were a few editors who wondered how they were going to review articles, get re-tweets and Facebook likes and come up with a new editorial calendar? And do their jobs with integrity? 

Who’s minding the store, now, in consolidated America? Where can you get “lean back” immersive news (or entertainment) that is not dependent on either advertising, a stock price or the financial backing of some leveraged private equity firm? If you live outside a major city, can you even get news about what your local county board is up to?

Come On Down to The Apocalypse Bonfire 

As a magazine professional, I have to say that it feels like I’m at the edge of some apocalyptic bonfire. The drums are hot, heavy, and completely out of synch. There’s dancing, but no one knows the steps. There is rote and tradition, but no one wants to follow along. A few people are having a fine time. But most are uncomfortable and waiting for that singular “Lord of the Flies” moment. It’s coming. Soon, maybe?

What’s Next? 

Baird offers “Suggested Next Steps” and as I often do, I find myself nodding my head in agreement. But it feels like he is offering us a West Wing moment. You know, in the West Wing television show, the music swells, President Bartlet comes out from behind the Resolute Desk, says something inspiring and we all feel a bit chagrined and then go and do the right thing. 

You know you want to go and do the right thing, right? Source: Parade Magazine 

Baird suggests that we try and put together a committee to help the industry navigate the Covid-19 and post Covid-19 era. The goal would be to try and hold the two major players, Hearst and Meredith accountable. Somehow I highly doubt that these two companies, having survived and thrived to this moment (Either because they long range planned themselves to this moment or arrived here through luck and the foolishness of their competitors) would put up with that. 

The magazine industry does need organizations that would speak for us and remind us to the right thing. But at the moment, we’re all down at the beach, dancing at the apocalypse bonfire and wondering what will happen next. 


“This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

T.S. Eliot’s words (The Hollow Men) would seem to apply to the newsstand these days, and quite possibly even to the broader magazine business. 

In the last few years of publishing The New Single Copy (last issue in June 2015, how time flies), I began saying that the largest publishers appeared to be “disenchanted” with the distribution channel, and “disinterested” might have also applied.  Since then, I have not observed anything that changes that observation. 

Meredith and Hearst clearly regard themselves as media companies who also publish magazines. Conde Nast appears to be moving in that direction as well. 

MPA is now the Association of Magazine Media and has moved its office to Washington; one would imagine concentrating on postal matters.  Its audience measuring service, Magazine 360, includes video, digital, and I’m not sure what else.  Subs and single copy are in there somewhere. 

I really cannot say where the rest of the publishing community feels its future lies, but I am sure their past relied, especially at retail, on a major commitment and presence of the largest players.  Can the rest of the players drive an industry-wide effort to revitalize publisher consumer marketing? Not likely. 

In the first half of this past decade, Baird and I implored relentlessly the largest players to focus on strengthening retail.  Clearly, without success.  Is there any reason to think the current situation is any more welcoming to such a proposal? Not much optimism here.  Sorry. (Submitted by John Harrington, Former publisher of The New Single Copy)


Re: Australian government says the media is responsible for reader's defamatory comments 

So, Facebook isn’t responsible for fact checking posts, and doesn’t give publishers the functionality they need to practically manage comments, and they’re off the hook but publishers, and potentially all individuals, are liable for comments put on their posts?  

Meanwhile, Facebook can’t find a place to put all its cash and publishers are left to pick up the pennies that come their way, which may just cover their higher liability insurance premiums. Maybe. And Facebook remains free to continue to facilitate the demise of democracy. 

Just want to make sure I have this right. (Submitted by a President)


Re: Meredith, HBR, Mondadori and more on how post-pandemic magazine offices will change

Office space rental rates are going to plummet. After the 'rona, so many companies are going to realize they don't need people in the office. (Submitted by A print sales person)


The role of media spending in overall corporate social responsibility.

Hello Bo-- I wanted to let you know about an online session next week that will, in part, talk about the issue that you and I have discussed a number of times: the role of media spending in overall corporate social responsibility. We're threading that conversation into the full rollout of the Ethics in Advertising program. 

On Monday afternoon, there will be an overview session with the director, Wally Snyder, to kick off the full program. After Wally's session, I'll be doing a breakout (at 3p) focused on the intersection of media spending and corporate social responsibility.  I really can't think of a more important time to support credible journalism and quality editorial, so I'm thrilled to tackle this topic as part of the industry conversation. 

Registration for this session is free. 

(Submitted by Linda Thomas Brooks Managing Director of Connectiv)

By BoSacks Readers| June 07, 2020
Categories:  Readers Speak Out

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