Monday, May 25, 2009

The continuing decline of the magazine biz

I most often post about newspapers, and to a lesser extent about broadcast, when discussing media fragmentation, because those are the media most often used in advertising supported by trade promotion funding. Media fragmentation is creating problems for other media as well, of course, and the readers of this site are mostly marketers with interests beyond just trade promo.

Or at least that's the rationale I use when I get off-topic. In reality, I sometimes just use this blog to post about things that I find interesting that may have only a very tangential relationship to trade promo.

In any case, the magazine sector is continuing to have problems. Conde Nast killed off Portfolio recently, joining a number of titles that have disappeared. The survivors are dropping their circulation guarantees, as Newsweek and Time have done and as New York is now doing:
New York's circulation will fall to 400,000 from 425,000, while the magazine's introductory subscription price is jumping to $24.97 from $19.97.
While raising subscription prices may seem counterintuitive in the face of declining circulation, the idea (don't know if it works or not) is to make the remaining circulation more attractive to advertisers. And, of course, to cut costs.

Newsweek's efforts to survive are more drastic. They have loudly proclaimed their move away from straight reporting to "interpretation" of the news (I mentioned it last year in this post -- Newsweek wants to be The Economist when it grows up).

The makeover has recently hit the newstands, and I enjoyed reading this devastating review by Michael Kinsley:
The next page of content is headlined "Scope," with the explanatory subhead "news, scoops and the globe at a glance," which is pretty much what Meacham had said Newsweek was not going to cover anymore. But never mind the headline. Most of the page is a picture of Miss California in a white bikini. I know she's Miss California because of a quote from Donald Trump just over her right shoulder, with the added information that he had "allowed [her] to keep her crown." Her breasts are covered by a table of contents of the Scope section. These contents include "InternationaList" (short dispatches from foreign parts; no list that I can see); a source-greaser (flattering profile of a figure who may prove useful) about CIA director Leon Panetta; something called the "Indignity Index," described as "an unscientific appraisal of dubious public behavior" (comedian Wanda Sykes gets a 12 for a rude joke about Rush Limbaugh, Keifer Sutherland gets a 68 for some kind of unpleasant encounter at a party); a short, serious essay by Melinda Gates about building institutions in underdeveloped countries to help poor people save money; and so on.

I say "and so on" as if there is some pattern or similarity here. But the only thing these various features have in common is nothing more about Miss California. It's been said that the test of a newsmagazine is whether you would grab it if you'd been trapped in a coal mine for a week and had one hour to catch up. And after a week trapped in a coal mine, perhaps an hour with a picture of Miss California in a bikini will be more useful than any explanation of why she's in the news. But the new Newsweek maintains the same irritating practice as the old one of half-explaining, which is no use either to those who already know the story or to those who don't.
The newsweeklies, as I noted last year, have dumbed themselves down to the level of People. It doesn't appear that this makeover has changed much. My comment back then stands: "
Newsweek trying to reposition itself as intelligent reading seems to me kind of like Lindsay Lohan trying to rebrand herself as Grace Kelly -- it's a worthy effort, but unlikely to succeed."

(As an aside: It's probably fair to note that Kinsley was writing in The New Republic, which is a left-of-center opinion magazine -- which is what Newsweek apparently is trying to be. So maybe there's some bias involved in his review.)

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