Monday, January 5, 2009

Shrinking Circulation: The Latest Wallops

The report last month that Newsweek magazine was considering cutting its circulation by up to 1.6 million may have sounded counter-intuitive to most people. But in these days of high printing and mailing costs and ever-heated competition from online sources, slashing the number of copies of magazines that are printed, distributed, and often just destroyed is not a crazy idea.

But yes, 1.6 million – more than half of the magazine's circulation – is a huge cut. But it follows rate cuts (which also mean reduced advertising fees for the magazine) in recent years from Playboy, Time, In Touch Weekly, Life & Style, TV Guide, and others. It's the name of the game, unfortunately.

This topic is also in my mind because today I picked up the newest issue of Starlog magazine (see my extended thoughts on Starlog's market position) and looked at the annual U.S. Postal Service Statement of Ownership, Management, and Circulation. For those of you non-magazine folks, that's the little data report that each magazine must print once a year laying out the details of circulation and mailing, such as how many total copies are printed, how they're distributed, what percentage of circulation is paid circulation, etc. As a magazine editor, I've written up my share of these reports, and I know the Post Office is very picky about how they're filled out. It is not uncommon for them to send it back to the editor and have them correct relatively minor problems.

(Side story: About 10 years ago, I contacted the editor of a major British science fiction magazine to ask why they were calling themselves the largest SF magazine in the world when their reported circulation was clearly below that of the market leader at the time, Starlog. He replied that all they had to go on was Starlog's word in the Post Office circulation filing, and there was no way to know if that was correct. I thought then and I think now that that was a silly response, having dealt directly with these circ statements and knowing they're not just hot air.)

Starlog's average total paid circulation for the past year, as stated in this year's filing, is a mere 27,868 (or 22,863 for the most recent issue; these circ statements require both types of reporting). For the past few years, Starlog had reported nearly 100,000 circulation in both categories (even that was down dramatically from the heights in the 1990s; the March 1997 issue of Starlog lists circulation figures of 257,862 and 255,920 for those categories). In the magazine's more than 30 years of publishing such Post Office circulation statements, I've never seen it much below 100,000.

So if I obsess over this particular magazine even amidst a steep decline in print circulations throughout the industry, chalk it up to a long-standing relationship with the magazine and a desire to see it remain alive and relevant. It can.

But another challenge is the drastic changes in newsstand distribution that has resulted in vastly fewer magazines receiving good distribution (for just one example, see Wal-mart's decision last year to drop 1,000 – yes, 1,000 – titles from its stores). Distribution problems are longstanding. Back in the early 1980s, the publisher of one of my all-time favorite magazines, Future Life, wrote that "We estimate that about 25 percent of all magazines are never put onto the stands at all, but go immediately into the wholesaler's shredders." The publishers, advertisers, and readers are of course paying for those destroyed copies as part of their costs to get the remaining copies.

The answer, I still believe, will be a mixture of continued traditional distribution of printed magazines and the increased distribution of the magazines through digital means, which will allow the readers (or even innovative newsstand operators) to print out the magazines themselves and not have to pay for destroyed copies.

But until that time arrives, it's going to continue to be a brutal atmosphere for print publishers, especially smaller ones in competitive market niches. Here's to hoping they hang in there and be creative.

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