The misleading numbers and headlines and the industry that does not care to promote and defend itself!

February 10, 2011

It is amazing that the industry that I love and cherish does not even take the time to defend itself or at least try to explain some of the numbers and some of the misleading headlines that the prophets of doom and gloom continue to use to predict the magazine industry’s demise…

Some media pundits, such as my friend Bob Sacks, takes an article written by Ad Age’s Nat Ives and e mails it in his e-newsletter under the heading “All Magazines See Declines in Single-Copy Sales.” The story in fact, never mentioned “All Magazines” and that statement is dead wrong. Vogue, Fortune, All You, Martha Stewart Living, Food Network Magazine, and Rolling Stone among others, all saw their number go up. In fact the intro of Ives story read,

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) — Magazines have lost a little bit of paid circulation — again.
Glossy publishers still counted more than 308 million paying readers in the new semiannual circulation report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations despite the latest drip of declines. That’s a hefty customer base even if it’s down from nearly 312 million in the report a year earlier. And it’s not certain that magazines are merely helplessly losing ground among the media passions Americans will pay for. Many publishers are slowly charging loyal readers more while shedding less committed, less profitable consumers…

The article goes on to say,

Single-copy sales fell 7.3% in the second half of 2010 compared with the second half of 2009, a bigger drop than the 5.6% decline that came in the first half of last year. Newsstand sales previously plunged 9.1% in the second half of 2009, 12.4% in the first half of 2009 and 11.1% in the second half of 2008.

So, what is the problem? Well, those numbers reflect the ABC numbers, the Audit Bureau of Circulation which audits and reports those numbers twice a year. Do you know how many magazines the ABC audits and reports on? In 2009 that number was one short of 500. Do you know how many magazines were distributed and sold on the newsstands in 2009: 9,200. That means that ABC does not measure the status of 8,700 magazines. Of course that 8,700 number includes all the specials, one shots, book-a-zines and other special interest publications that publishers are now flooding the marketplace with.

I, by no means, am saying that the total circulation numbers are up. My friend John Harrington of The New Single Copy newsletter reports that the total units of all magazines sold on the newsstand last year was down by 8%. My question to the media pundits and the industry as a whole, can you please tell me how many specials can you find at any given time, on the newsstands and at the check out counters, with the TIME magazine logo? How many with the People logo? How many spin-offs from Fine Cooking? Fine Gardening? Reader’s Digest? Taste of Home? US Weekly? Better Homes and Gardens? Good Housekeeping? etc. etc. The list goes on and on and on. Who is buying those special issues and are readers buying those publications (with cover prices at least three times the regular issues cover prices) instead of the mother magazine? Are those sales effecting the sales of the mother magazine? Who is keeping track of those sales and the revenues they are generating? Are we victims of our own marketing techniques or there is a method behind the madness?

The sad part of the whole numbers ordeal, is that nobody questions numbers any more, including my own numbers. We’ve become a society consumed by lists, numbers and catchy headlines whether those numbers and headlines reflect reality or not. How much money are magazine publishers making from the newsstands as a whole, even with the 5, 6 and even 10% decline in their newsstands sale? And how big is the single copy revenue share from the total circulation magazine revenues? The MPA figures show that number at only 10% while the remaining 90% comes from subscriptions.

And here are some more questions for you to ponder. How many magazines, out of the 9,200, offer any subscriptions to readers? My educated guess, based on the number of new consumer magazines and their frequency, is less than one third at most. So what are those non-subscription magazines doing and how much revenue are they generating? How are the announced numbers this week compare to those of other media industries? Remember when three television networks each had 70 million viewers at any given time? What happened when the total number of television channels changed to 600 plus? Does any of those 600 channels command a 70 million audience on a regular basis? Is TV dead? Is Cable dead? You get my drift.

We have more magazines than ever. We have more options than ever. And just like television, the more channels we have, the fewer time we spend with each channel. Change is the only constant in our business. Why don’t we promote that and why don’t we give the numbers and the headlines yet another look. The magazine industry, compared to many other businesses, is still thriving, kicking and alive. You do not have to believe me or any of the media pundits. Just ask the folks who put more than 800 new titles on the market place last year alone.

Numbers lie, headlines mislead, and the medium is NO longer the message. An industry with more than 300 million active customers and more than 9,000 magazines to choose from and another 800 or so on their way, is NOT an industry on its way out. New technologies are helping and preparing the way to amplify the future of print (More on this in a later blog). Last time I checked we are in the communications business. Let us start to communicate with our customers and for now, ladies and gentlemen, restart your engines… the race is not over!



  1. I am so glad Dr. Husni is addressing this issue, as I most definitely think that it has become a problem that the only real fight back I have seen against these misleading death tolls filled with misinformation is the ad campaign they are including in some magazines; what about the audience we are trying to gain as readers? If the world at large (including the non-readers out there) believe that the magazine business is down the toilet (when it is NOT), you’ll lose your entire target audiences, including the ones who have been very faithful readers. Dr. Husni is completely right in that it is high time these factual errors are corrected, and that a better and more educated opinion of the magazine industry is formed, because for a lot of us, we just couldn’t do without our beloved magazines . . .so don’t go rain on our parade! 🙂

  2. Dead on Samir! Dead on! If we keep talking this way, we’ll talk ourselves right out of business.

  3. Which part of the headline writing business do we not wish to understand? If a snowstorm is coming to the northeast it is our historically sworn job as journalists, to blow it out of all proportion and declare that this might be the worst storm of the century. When a hurricane is on the way to the south the headlines will always read “Will this be the next Katrina?” and when sales of magazines continue to go south we declare that this must be the end of literacy as we know it.
    Boring, mundane and matter of fact headlines don’t sell newspapers, magazines, or books. If you really want to kill the industry tone down the headlines and see what happens.

    Here are some suggestions:

    Nothing happened to Angelina Jolie this week.

    Snow Storms in NY Happen Every Year

    The Sun came up and then went down today

    Journalists do what journalists do. Cover a story to the best of their ability and tell the honest story. Editors have always had the tendency to upgrade the fear factor. A strong headline sells the story or the publication. It is a proven fact in our industry that fear sells. When we cover our own industry the same rules applies.

    I don’t write any of my headlines nationally famous editors do.


  4. My issue is always with the articles, not with Bob emailing them to his list. Although, I really wish some people who have subsribed to the list would understand that he’s aggregating the news, not writing it. I get a lot of emails and phone calls from people who want to know what I think about the “latest BoSacks” article.

    I do wish that Bob would sometimes toss a caveat into the mix. He does do that sometimes, but it would be nice if that were done with articles about circulation because most of the publishing industry really doesn’t seem to understand circulation and they are clueless when it comes to newsstand circulation and distribution. Almost every time there’s a Baird Davis article released into Audience Development that Bob picks up, I know that the next day or two is going to be spent putting Baird’s article into context for someone and explaining, again, that Bob is aggregating that article, not writing it. If they want his opinion, they should email him, or wait for the next “Bo Speaks Out” piece.

    That’s my problem with these Audience Development pieces. Most people who subscribe and have circulation backgrounds, can put what is written and said into context, or dismiss it if they think it’s nonsense. But if they don’t have the background, then it becomes proof of whatever it is that is bugging them about circulation at the moment.

  5. […] Magazine targets the misleading figures behind the death of print […]

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