Magazines decline as marketing strategies change

January 19, 2010

Editor’s note: This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for To view the original, visit MinnPost.

I’m meeting some people in Las Vegas today, and I’m not sure if they’ll show up.

They’re magazine editors for Meredith Corp., the giant publishing company in Des Moines that puts out Better Homes & Gardens, Family Circle, Midwest Living and a slew of other magazines.

I’m in Vegas this week for the International Builders’ Show, the largest annual gathering in the homebuilding industry. One of my jobs is to coordinate meetings with editors and reporters who cover the building industry and my client, a major Minnesota manufacturer.

But late last week, Meredith announced that it was laying off 45 people in its Special Interest Media group, which publishes an array of magazines on home design, décor, remodeling and other topics. I don’t know if some of the editors with whom I’ve scheduled meetings will still have jobs today. I hope so.

The Meredith layoff highlights the trouble in the magazine business. While the problems of newspapers have been well chronicled, magazines are hurting just as badly. According to the Magazine Publishers of America, advertising pages in 2009 dropped nearly 26 percent from 2008, while revenue fell nearly 18 percent.

Dozens of titles lost more than 25 percent of their ad pages last year, including Bon Appetit, Business Week, Details, Fortune, Golf, Money, Newsweek, Prevention, Town & Country– the losses range across every category.

Even Oprah couldn’t escape the carnage; her O– The Oprah Magazine lost 26 percent of its pages.

Meredith’s decision makes good business sense, despite the human loss involved. The corporation’s flagships, BH&G and Family Circle, actually showed healthy gains in 2009. The cutbacks are meant to get rid of some poorly performing niche titles and focus resources on the larger, healthier magazines.

But for someone like me, whose job involves getting my clients’ messages out through the media, these cutbacks mean fewer reporters and editors covering the topics I’m responsible for. And those who remain, like their newspaper brethren, will have less time, energy and space to pursue the ideas I offer them.

That’s why I foresee more companies taking their messages directly to consumers through sponsored media. If the mainstream magazines can’t cover your products, then create your own online magazine to do it.

The same holds true for any consumer-focused company. There have never been more tools to reach consumers directly; no longer do you need a $50 million printing press, hundreds of employees and a complex distribution network. A few smart people with laptops and an Internet connection can do a lot of the heavy lifting.

My whole family loves magazines; we subscribe to more than a dozen. Yet a decade ago, that number was probably two dozen. I used to devour magazines like The New Republic and Washington Monthly; they were the best places to find smart, in-depth reporting on public issues. Now I get my policy fix online, through blogs.

More consumers are finding that they can get their own fixes online. Companies with information to share will increasingly cut out the media middleman and deliver it directly.