As some major magazine brands hibernate this winter, it is time to reinvent our business model and create the “Must Have” rather than “Nice to Have” magazines

November 29, 2009

Three established brands are entering a period of hibernation this coming month (and, unlike bears, they did not have too many ads in the previous months that they had to hibernate, but rather just the opposite). All three brands, Ladies’ Home Journal, Playboy and Reader’s Digest, are skipping their January issues and combining them with the December one to create one double issue. Is it a sign of the times or is yet another proof that the current American business publishing model that depends on advertising as THE major source of revenue for most magazines is no longer working? A quick look at the prices all three brands charge their subscribers should be enough evidence to illustrate that non of the three magazines make much money from their subscribers. None charges more than a dollar, if that, per issue for a one year subscription. Does it really takes a genius or a Ph.D. in economics to figure out that the subscription price is not bringing any “real” money to the bank accounts of the aforementioned magazines?

I do not believe that the issue is a choice of either and or, but rather the problem is all. It is a sign of the times for all three magazines and it is the economic model of publishing. If you take a look at the three aforementioned magazines and ask yourself the simple question of what are those magazines offering their readers that is so unique that they can’t find any other place, what would be your answer? Take a look at the covers of all three magazines and tell me where is the WOW factor? What makes you pick up a magazine, and specifically these magazines, from the nation’s newsstand? Fighting the flu? A dog celebrating Christmas? Or yet another celebrity showing a little bit more of herself?

On today’s crowded newsstands, and in this media age, the room for good enough magazines is slowly, but surely eroding. The creation of a necessary, sufficient and relevant publication is, now more than ever, the only way to survive in this and any economic media climate. We can no longer afford to have a “nice to have” magazines. We are entering the age of the “Must Have” publications, that is if we are interested in survival. All three magazines have been lately experimenting and testing different versions of their covers, different designs and different content and content presentations. The goal is one: stop the bleeding circulation, reinvent the brand and last but not least stay relevant. Will it work? Well, if we keep in mind that brands, like humans, while aging, may have a face lift, a botox shot here and there, and some plastic surgeries that may add a nicer appearance to them, yet as we know for sure, all the plastic surgeries will not prevent humans from dying. So rather than fixing the problem with some cosmetic surgeries, why don’t we look at the real problems and attack them. Ask yourself the simple question, What makes my magazine needed, wanted and desired by my readers? If you can answer that, than add the six-million dollar question to your answer, “How much are readers willing to pay for the magazine?” If your answer does not cover the cost of the creation of the magazine and the cost of delivery, then you are better off pulling the plug on your magazine title and creating another magazine that can provide better answers to the aforementioned questions. We have to accept the fact that magazines are like humans, there is a time to be born and a time to die. Our customers have way too many options for them to choose from, so if you are not creating a unique magazine with unique content for a relevant audience, you can rest assured that you are not doing yourself a favor and that you are trying to avoid the unavoidable.

We are living the media age, and we have to be different and relevant to stay alive. Any other combination is not going to work. So as you hibernate this winter, try to reinvent your business plan as you reinvent your magazine. In marketing, folks always look for a Unique Selling Proposition ( USP). In journalism, we are always looking for Unique Selling Features (USF). What is yours and how much is it worth to the customers (readers) first and the advertisers second. The answer to that question may hold the key for your future success.

I would love to hear your comments on the aforementioned magazines and on the future of our business in general. Do you think our American business model is still viable? Can we continue to create “good enough” magazines? Which magazines do you consider “Must Have” publications. As the media landscape changes, we better be ready and willing to change and create publications that our readers not only want, but rather are willing to pay for to get what they want.



  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for noting the matter of relying on advertising for the main source of revenue. Many magazines (no, not all) can charge readers much more, deliver a much better product, and be free of much of the advertiser entanglement if they reduced (not eliminated) their addiction to advertising. Let’s just rebalance the mix a bit.

    As for Playboy — let’s see what happens in light of the new AMI deal. I’m hoping most of the mags that have combined issues in 2009 and early 2010 will un-combine them in the near future.

  2. Not exactly on topic but very much part of the conversation. Read: http://bit.ly/5GDCun

  3. If you’re talking about must have and newsstands, you also need “must display.” Along with everything else, publishers need to make sure that retailers are considering keeping displays in their stores and displaying product prominently. This is another area where we are losing ground.

  4. Like the consumer brethren, far too many trade magazines are nice-to-haves that rely on advertising and that need to die. Can’t charge “more” since 99% or so are completely free. Your comments please on (1) the likely level of merges and deaths; (2) the future of charging for these; and (3) other business-model changes most likely to occur in this space.

  5. I concur. Good enough is not good enough anymore!

  6. Subscribing to a magazine is much like joining a club. It takes a commitment of time in addition to annual dues.

    Too many magazines offer information rather than engagement. These days one of the bigger costs on the part of the consumer is time rather than financial investment (especially in a world of $5.00 annual subs).

    The question ‘Why should I invest 30 minutes in this magazine” is probably more important than “why should I spent 50 cents an issue to subscribe”.

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