Grim Industry Averages Overlook Many Cases of Individual Success.

By Bob Sacks on October 16, 2014

There is an age-old phrase that claims that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch, meaning in un-apple terms that one wrong person can negatively affect a whole group. I was wondering if the reverse can be true. Can one person or even a small number of persons show exemplary leadership and change the bunch in a positive direction? 

Here is what I'm getting at. The latest reports from AAM on circulation seem dauntingly negative when viewed as whole. The last AAM report was filled with sad statistics such as: of the top selling 25 titles, only three improved their sales, and of the top 100, there were only 24 that showed positive momentum. It is those negative figures that everybody is focused on, and perhaps it is understandable to do so. As an industry trend, it isn't pretty.  But what about the winners in that multitude of industry misery?  

As reported by John Harrington of, the "Food Network Magazine was up 12.1% to an average of 448,734, and its dollars were $9.0 million, 15th among audited publications. Sports Illustrated grew 14.7%, an average of 68,132, and the dollars were $8.7 million, #16. Women's Health grew by one percent to 300,790, and its $7.5 million put it 21st." So, although the statistics seem to point to a whole bad batch, it is not really true for all. 

Is totality really the only effective way to look at the industry? Are we actually one big company and it's sink or swim together, or are there thousands of separate companies and titles that have their own hidden successes as well as some failures? Clearly when looked upon as a single unit, the trend is-well, the best you can say-not great. But hidden in the mix are wonderful examples that break from the trend and are outstanding when viewed as singular success stories. And if there are success stories in the batch, perhaps the whole barrel doesn't need to be thrown away. Perhaps we can learn from the few stalwarts that the end isn't quite here. 

Our State is an unaudited regional magazine from North Carolina. I recently spoke with the publisher Bernie Mann, who described how that title has done nothing but grow for the last fifteen years. That growth includes newsstand and subscriptions. Our State is not part of the national trend of magazines, just like Food Network, Sports Illustrated, and Women's Health. 

What this means to all of us is that we aren't dead as an industry. I will admit that there may be some industrial pruning, but evidence has shown that consistent growth is a possible outcome for some titles and even some genres. 

With our predilection for schadenfreude, we humans love a story of things gone wrong, and we get distracted by the negative news, of which there is plenty, and forget that there are successes happening everyday, too. 

Dr. Joe Webb, a friend and well-known industry analyst, said to me last month in an email that, "what I try to remind people is that when industries are in transition, you get mixes of horror stories and success stories. The success stories are notable for their differences or for some aspect that they are doing better or doing it in a new format, but still at the core of them are some basic time-tested industry characteristics. In the case of content, it is to attract and maintain an audience with some compelling aspect that the audience desires and returns for. It's that easy, and it's the hardest thing to do in publishing, because it's nested in a swirl of culture, economics, technology and society." 

Joe went on to say, "when you look at lines on a chart, like economic data, it's easy to forget the millions of transactions and decisions that create them. Lines on a chart, no matter what the direction, falsely imply a simplicity of creation. Nothing can be further from the truth."

At the final reading of any industry chart, there are winners and losers. Let us not forget that there are, indeed, winners in this time of adjustment and change. My analysis is and always has been that print will survive and be very lucrative for those titles that "get it right." The substrate doesn't always matter in the pursuit to attract and maintain an audience with compelling content. Hasn't it always been about a publisher's ability to create something the audience desires, returns to and is willing to pay for?

By Bob Sacks| October 16, 2014

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Bob Sacks

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