Looking Forward From The New Single Copy & Through The Tapestry Of A Preeminent 40-Year Career In The Magazine Industry – Those Were The Days – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With John Harrington, Editor, The New Single Copy…July 1, 2015
“I think that every major publisher would tell you that the newsstand is a major factor in launching a publication. So they need it there for that. It may certainly be smaller and carry less titles, but for the major publishers launching new titles it will remain necessary to maintain it in some way.” John Harrington
Arriving at a crossroads in one’s life is an important destination for most people as it signifies change which oftentimes leads to growth of immeasurable proportions. For John Harrington, a man 40 years in the magazine industry, it also can be a time for reflection and course redirect as priorities become the prime focus of one’s life. Either way, change is inevitable and growth of immeasurable proportions can also be defined as a collective sigh of a job well done.
But as “they” say, it ain’t over till it’s over. And it’s definitely not over for my good friend, John Harrington. While John has decided to enjoy more of his Sunday afternoons by eliminating the regularly-scheduled newsletter that he’s been doing for the last 19 years, he will still be dipping his toes into the world of magazine wholesaling, publishing and distribution by writing an occasional blog about the industry and continuing to keep his experienced eye on what’s going on in the world he knows so well, the world of magazines.
From his early days as president of CPDA (Council for Periodical Distributors Associations) when the trade group had more than 400 magazine wholesaler-distributors in the United States and Canada, to the editor of the highly successful and renowned The New Single Copy, with its continuous coverage of the magazine business, and a particular focus on the retail distribution channel, John Harrington is a man who knows his way around a newsstand.
As a partner in Harrington Associates, LLC, which publishes The New Single Copy and the annual Magazine Retail Sales Experience series of studies, which provides services to the periodical distribution industry, and works with individual wholesalers, publishers, and national distributors, he definitely knows more about the business side of magazine distribution than most people have had time to forget. He and his wife, Eileen, edited and published The New Single Copy newsletter for almost two decades.
I had the privilege of talking to John recently about his decision to semi-step away from the rigors of a regular gig, so to speak, and the new direction his life is taking, and also about the world of wholesale and distribution, past, present and future. It was an intriguing and interesting conversation to say the least and one that I know you will enjoy being a part of. And now the Mr. Magazine™ interview with John Harrington, Editor, The New Single Copy.
But first, the sound-bites:
On why after 40 years he’s decided to slow down and back away from his regular newsletter offering: First of all, I’ve tried to indicate that I’m not leaving the industry; I’m just not going to write a regularly-scheduled emailed newsletter on a deadline anymore. I intend to maybe do some work with individuals and put out a blog from time to time. I have some notes about things that I’ll probably send out in two or three weeks and I’m still going to be following everything very closely.
On the most pleasant moment he’s had throughout his 40 year career: I would have to say running CPDA (Council for Periodical Distributors Associations) and working with the wholesalers for so many years. The last years became a little difficult because there was so much pressure being put on the channel that we were putting out a lot of fires all of the time and then eventually we didn’t put out the last fire.
On the major stumbling block he had to face and how he overcame it: (Laughs) I’m not sure I ever overcame it. The old wholesaler structure of basically dense market areas, somewhat protected and controlled by publishers, I think was destined to change and the disappointment was that it did not change in an evolutionary way. It did not get modified and be allowed to adapt to changing circumstances, but instead it collapsed virtually overnight. I don’t think that you can find many instances in American business or business anywhere that the entire nature of a business was rendered obsolete virtually overnight.
On why he thinks we’re not seeing any change in the distribution model even though everyone admits that change is unequivocally needed: There’s two sides of the issue, there are the wholesalers themselves who have struggled, even though the surviving wholesalers are from fairly secure entities, parts of either larger companies or owners with sufficient finances to see things out. Their focus for the last 10 years and particularly the last five years, dealing with two major collapses of their competitors, has been basically trying to realign their paths of distribution and take cost out of the system because sales were declining and make best use of the facilities they had in place, which has been an isolated sort of activity, they’re doing it in the terms of which they understand it.
On what he thinks about single-copy cover prices having huge increases while subscription prices tend to be dirt-cheap: It devalues the product in every way and the rates that they offer the new subscribers and the returning subscribers is in some ways a slap in the face to the long-term subscribers. But that’s part of what I was referring to before, and again, this is across the board virtually. There are very few magazines that aren’t well below 65 or 79% off the cover price for the subscriptions.
On whether he can envision a day when there will be no newsstands in America or that the only thing available on newsstands will be bookazines or specials and frequency magazines will be subscription only: No, but it could still get smaller. I think that every major publisher would tell you that the newsstand is a major factor in launching a publication. So they need it there for that. It may certainly be smaller and carry less titles, but for the major publishers launching new titles it will remain necessary to maintain it in some way.
On whether he thinks it’s easier to shop for new titles via a digital device or a regular newsstand: I don’t think there’s any question, bricks and mortar is the only place you can really shop for magazines, take your time and look around and see if there’s something interesting to you. There are probably three other people in the world besides you who do that. (Laughs) Maybe.
On what he’d like the industry to remember and say when they hear the name John Harrington: (Laughs) I hope they’d say he seemed to be very honest about his opinions and they were generally thoughtful and often right. And that he was nice to his grandchildren.
On anything else he’d like to add: As I wrote near the end of the last issue of The New Single Copy; one of my goals is to work on what I call a personal history of the magazine distribution channels during my time. I really don’t have the energy or the capabilities to do the research for a longer history, going back through the entire conception; however, I’ll touch on it in some way.
On what keeps him up at night: Now, nothing.
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with John Harrington, Editor, The New Single Copy.
Samir Husni: It’s rare for anybody in the magazine industry that’s been as connected as you have for almost 40 years and so involved to just leave the industry…
Some habits don’t break very easily. I can easily get over the habit of ruining my Sunday afternoons by writing the newsletter, but at the same time I can guarantee you that each morning I’ll still get up and go through the same websites and look for the same email newsletters and kind of keep track of business. So, I’m not leaving the business.
Samir Husni: If you could pick the most pleasant moment of your 40 year career, what would it be?
John Harrington: I would have to say running CPDA (Council for Periodical Distributors Associations) and working with the wholesalers for so many years. The last years became a little difficult because there was so much pressure being put on the channel that we were putting out a lot of fires all of the time and then eventually we didn’t put out the last fire.
But most of those years were good. They were such an interesting group of people, a unique culture within the publishing business. There were just a lot of times that many interesting things came out of that, a lot of experiences from working with them. It wasn’t just me, but overall the CPDA may have even extended their situation and the unique position that they operated in for a long time. I think it may have extended their vitality for a long time too.
I could go into a lot of interesting things about the wholesaler community and not just individuals, but the other thing that I was always pleased with was I just enjoyed being around the magazine business. For someone who had some writing ambitions, even being around it in some fashion was always interesting. You met interesting people; you were working on things that were in the headlines when new magazine articles and issues came out and captured the attention of the country and even the world. And you were there as part of it; you were a part of the group of people that brought it out and put it on the stands.
And in those days particularly even more so, the headlines were made by the magazines that were sold on the newsstands. So it was all interesting fun and very rewarding, all the good adjectives that you could put to it.
Samir Husni: What was the major stumbling block that you had to face during your career and how did you overcome it?
John Harrington: (Laughs) I’m not sure I ever overcame it. The old wholesaler structure of basically dense market areas, somewhat protected and controlled by publishers, I think was destined to change and the disappointment was that it did not change in an evolutionary way. It did not get modified and be allowed to adapt to changing circumstances, but instead it collapsed virtually overnight. I don’t think that you can find many instances in American business or business anywhere that the entire nature of a business was rendered obsolete virtually overnight.
Until mid-1995, sometime in July, a major chain demanded that wholesalers submit offers to service all of its particular divisions. Previously, chains had done that all of the time and for one reason or another they weren’t successful in doing it.
But at that particular time they were and it just set off a cascade of similar operations and demands taking place which literally rendered the business of magazine wholesaling unprofitable, again virtually overnight. And that was going from a profitable, comfortable business to unprofitable almost instantaneously. And it never recovered. Even today; the surviving wholesalers, and don’t forget there were about 300 different locations in mid-1995 and operated by about 195 different ownership units, today there’s basically three ownership units that represent just about all of the significant part of the business. And the business is much smaller. It’s not just smaller because of what happened then, there are a lot of factors going into that, which you’ve written about a lot, as I have, and others have as well.
That’s the biggest disappointment and frankly, while I’ve written about it and I’ve been insulated from it personally, I don’t think I’ve done anything to change the nature of the business to make it a stronger business. It’s probably more fragile today than it ever was.
Samir Husni: Almost every CEO that I’ve interviewed in the last six months, especially those that deal with a lot of single copy sales, tell me that the distribution model needs to change, that the business has to change. Yet, it seems that we’ve become experts in talking about the need to change and we accept the fact, but why do you think that we’re not seeing any change?
John Harrington: You just capsulized what I’ve been writing about particularly for the last year or two, maybe longer. There’s two sides of the issue, there are the wholesalers themselves who have struggled, even though the surviving wholesalers are from fairly secure entities, parts of either larger companies or owners with sufficient finances to see things out.
Their focus for the last 10 years and particularly the last five years, dealing with two major collapses of their competitors, has been basically trying to realign their paths of distribution and take cost out of the system because sales were declining and make best use of the facilities they had in place, which has been an isolated sort of activity, they’re doing it in the terms of which they understand it.
Then from the publishers side and I’m sure that I’ve read every interview that you’ve done, and I’ve met with many of these people myself; I think they’re overwhelmed with the enormous changes that are going on in the entire publishing business. They call themselves magazine media today; they don’t call themselves magazine businesses.
And it’s not just that they have single-copy to worry about or the newsstand to worry about, they’re trying to protect their circulations in general, their subscription circulations. You can maintain subscription circulation, although you’re likely to not be very profitable at maintaining them because there are an infinite number of ways to maintain subscriptions. And they’re seeing the advertising sales decline, not certainly at the same rate, although there have been years at which they’ve declined by 25 or 26%.
So they’re trying to deal with that part of it and they’re trying to extend their brands, that the publishing industry is using more and more, into the digital world or the mobile/digital universe.
And it’s a very uncertain thing. There are several things: one – their leadership, and that’s not the problem, but they’re all running where they are in a very different publishing environment and now they’re trying to extend and make profitable operations in a digital environment that is not what they were born to or what they were trained in.
So they’re having to deal with and adapt to a techy world. And it’s not just the obvious ones, the Apples or the Googles, Amazons and Facebooks and many others as well. I mean, they’re brilliant people, but they’re not trying to sell magazines or magazine media, they’re just trying to communicate on a broader scale, develop new technologies and exploit them in one way or another.
So you’re doing all of this in a great transitioning universe and I think it’s hard for the CEO’s of the five, six, seven major publishing companies to say, golly, I really have to do something about the single-copy, because they’ve got about ten other things they need to do something about.
Everybody can say that they have to do something about it, the distribution channel is dysfunctional and they need to straighten it out, but I guess at the beginning of the day when they make the list of what they’re going to do; they have seven or eight things above that item on their list.
And yet I do think by the fact that it has consolidated so much, they focused on it for a very short time and worked together with the surviving wholesalers. The wholesalers are really smart people and they’re great survivors. They could at least find out if it’s salvageable.
Samir Husni: Based on what I read in your final newsletter, you’re a big fan of The New Yorker. You consider The New Yorker the best magazine in the world.
John Harrington: Absolutely.
Samir Husni: Recently I bought the issue that had the Charleston church and the nine birds flying on the cover, because I wanted to have the copy that doesn’t have a label on it. The cover price was $7.99. And the subscription cards in the magazine screamed at me to get 50 issues for $50, so that’s $1 per issue. Do you think it’s fair for anybody to pay seven dollars more on the newsstand for one issue when they can get it for one dollar? And if go a few years back, The New Yorker was $2.99 or $1.99 at one time, when the subscription was .50 cents or $1 per issue. Why do you think we’re seeing this huge increase in single-copy cover prices and we’re not seeing it in subscription cover prices?
John Harrington: Why, because as I said before, and I don’t want to pick on The New Yorker, there are even more outrageous examples out there and since I subscribe to it, I really didn’t know what the cover price was. There are several ironies in that and one is they’re devaluing the product when they offer these subscription prices.
At CPDA, the wholesalers; we were pointing it out and crying about it when most publishers were saying it was 25 or 35% off newsstand price; we thought that was damaging sales, which it was.
It devalues the product in every way and the rates that they offer the new subscribers and the returning subscribers is in some ways a slap in the face to the long-term subscribers. But that’s part of what I was referring to before, and again, this is across the board virtually. There are very few magazines that aren’t well below 65 or 79% off the cover price for the subscriptions.
You can maintain subscription levels and produce numbers to satisfy your advertising rate base in the subscription business. You may not be profitable at it, but you can maintain the numbers to sustain your advertising sales. It’s not a great business model for the long-term.
Samir Husni: We keep hearing that newsstands in America are only 8% of the total picture. Can you ever envision a day when there will be no newsstands in America? Or that they will continue to exist, but everything we’ll be able to buy will be bookazines or specials and the regular frequency magazines will be subscription only?
John Harrington: No, but it could still get smaller. I think that every major publisher would tell you that the newsstand is a major factor in launching a publication. So they need it there for that. It may certainly be smaller and carry less titles, but for the major publishers launching new titles it will remain necessary to maintain it in some way. How they maintain it is a whole different question.
In the last year or so the question that I’ve asked everybody I’ve talked to is where is the bottom? And everybody says they don’t know. Which is kind of a frightening situation because you hope the bottom isn’t zero. And at the same time there’s nobody that seems to be trying to do anything about it, like promoting the sale of magazines at newsstands in some way.
It’s very hard to reach consumers on that, I realize, but there has to be ways in which they could do it, especially in the digital universe where communicating with readers is an easier thing to do and can be done at a totally different cost than it used to be.
And there would always be some level of newsstands; I mean, look at bookstores and terminals, they’re still a per-location-base to sell more magazines per location on average than any other type of outlet. And they have much larger selections too, at least the bookstores anyway.
And it may end up limited to those types of accounts, but I can’t see there not being newsstands. Certainly, digital newsstands haven’t proven to be a way to find new publications.
Samir Husni: Do you think it’s easier to find a new publication via digital devices or it’s easier to see it displayed on the newsstand?
John Harrington: I don’t think there’s any question, bricks and mortar is the only place you can really shop for magazines, take your time and look around and see if there’s something interesting to you. There are probably three other people in the world besides you who do that. (Laughs) Maybe.
Samir Husni: (Laughs too).
John Harrington: You can’t shop at a digital newsstand. I mean, you can go to it if you know what you’re looking for and maybe find it. Even so-called mixed industry media doesn’t lend itself for shopping a newsstand carrying forty or fifty titles. As far as I’m concerned, no, you can’t shop a digital newsstand, but you can shop a traditional newsstand, whether it’s in a market or a bookstore.
Samir Husni: Are we going to see a bolder, more specifically vocal John Harrington as he now becomes more of an outsider looking in on this industry? Will you now be able to produce that magic wand and tell the magazine media world what it should do in regards to wholesalers and distributors?
John Harrington: Well, as soon as I learn and discover what it is we need to do, I won’t be shy about promoting that. (Laughs) The big frustration is we know all the reasons why the situation is where it is and it’s not just limited to newsstand. We don’t know how to get it to where we’d like it to be. And in fact, for the broader publishing business, they’re trying to determine where it is. I read very definitive statements from all the CEOSs of these companies and yet I sense that there’s a sort of feeling that if something can be said strongly enough and often enough, it’s what’s going to happen. But I’m not sure it will when they turn their backs.
I’ve been trying to raise a lot of questions over the years, so maybe I’ll keep raising questions. I know the first blog that I’m going to put out is going to be a specific suggestion, it’s not going to be outrageous, but it’s something that I’ve been noodling around and trying to work out the details for.
Samir Husni: John, since you’re closing a chapter in your life and since Baird David retired and Dan Capell passed away; who’s going to be the next generation of industry newsstand and circulation watchers? Have you groomed anybody to take your place?
John Harrington: (Laughs) No, no one in my family is going into that business; I can assure you of that. Joe Berger is a publishing consultant and he has a blog and he does some very interesting stuff on it, but the last time I talked to him he said that he’d been so busy trying to help his clients that he hadn’t been able to blog very much.
One of the frustrations and I don’t know what somebody else would do, but one of the frustrations is how often can you raise the same issue and offer the same suggestions or directions; it’s probably the challenge that every editor faces. How do I make this issue of the magazine different from the last one? So, how many times can you say the same thing in a slightly different way?
Maybe it’s you and Bob Sacks. You’ve been doing so many interviews lately; you’ve probably touched on more newsstand issues than I have, particularly after I reduced my frequency to basically every other week. And Bob is out there every day with something.
Samir Husni: John, what would you like the industry to remember and say when they hear the name John Harrington?
John Harrington: (Laughs) I hope they’d say he seemed to be very honest about his opinions and they were generally thoughtful and often right. And that he was nice to his grandchildren.
Samir Husni: Anything else that you’d like to add?
John Harrington: As I wrote near the end of the last issue of The New Single Copy; one of my goals is to work on what I call a personal history of the magazine distribution channels during my time. I really don’t have the energy or the capabilities to do the research for a longer history, going back through the entire conception; however, I’ll touch on it in some way.
And I really do hope to do that. I’ve done a few interviews over the last year or two with some of the old-time wholesalers who are no longer in the business, but still around. I intend to do some more and talk to a number of people. So, while it’s not going to be something that gets into my personal life, it is going to be hopefully a recapping of the events that took place that changed the business through the current time.
But I also think there will probably be an emphasis on the old business because it was so unique. It was a family-owned business, somewhat large in scope; most of them were in the second or third generation and some even into a fourth generation. There were some genuine characters in it.
But I think it will be a fascinating story about a group of people who regarded themselves as a brotherhood and a lot of my contemporaries, people my age, as I was working my way through the business, swore up and down as they left to go off to college or wherever they went when they left home for the first time, that their fathers would hand them a list of all the wholesalers in the United States and Canada and tell them if they needed help for any reason, call the nearest wholesaler. And they did. (Laughs) And they were helped. There was no question.
A wholesaler in Maine felt a connection with a wholesaler in California or Oregon. The wholesaler in Portland, Oregon and the wholesaler in Portland, Maine felt a connection with each other and might even call each other up once in a while and talk to each other. They had relationships literally like that. They understood the pressures and the changes in the business. It was a very unique thing.
It was a relationship too among many of the suppliers. There were family relationships that existed between the suppliers, usually on the circulation side and the newsstand side of the publishing businesses; they had much bigger departments in those days, and the national distributors.
I’d say maybe a year after I got into the business and was working my way through and beginning to understand it a bit more; I was at a conference or a convention and I was talking with somebody from one of the publishing companies and was a newsstand circulator, a guy about my age, but he’d been in it longer than I had at that point. And I said to him, you know what amazes me about this is the family connections; somebody is always related to somebody else. There’s nobody that’s just a loner in the business. I told him that he and I might be the only two people who were not related to somebody else in the business and that I wasn’t entirely sure about him. (Laughs)
And some people moved from the wholesaler side to the publishing side and back and forth. A lot of the wholesalers became wholesalers after spending 20 or 30 years as publishing reps and managed to find a small agency somewhere that they could make a down payment on and take over if they didn’t have any family in the business.
And I heard that distributors encouraged that among their reps and sometimes might even help them by giving them a low-interest loan to buy a small agency. It’s really a fascinating sociology that’s worth writing about.
The thing about national distributors is really how all of that is defined. Now technically, Time Inc. is a national distributor, but it’s actually the circulation distribution arm of Time Inc. But on the other hand, some of the others are so-called pure national distributors. Traditionally, when I came into the business and there were 400-plus wholesalers, there were a dozen national distributors and their function was two-fold. One – they were billing and collection agencies for publishers because a small publisher and even large publishers couldn’t be doing collecting from 400 wholesalers on a monthly basis.
But the other was they were essentially a bank and they advanced publishers a certain amount, say 50% from the day they went on sale, so they kept a cash flow in the business. And if a publisher didn’t sell 50% with that issue, it was deducted from the payment of the next issue. And there’s not much of that going on today, I can assure you. So national distributors as we knew them then through the function they once performed are no longer there. Not the way it was anyway. That was very unique.
Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?
John Harrington: Now, nothing.
Samir Husni: Thank you and best of luck in your future ventures.