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Guest Essay

Guest Essay

Times are Changing.

By Samir A. Husni, Ph.D.

Times are changing, and so are Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. A recent ad for Time featured 12 of its recent covers in an effort to entice readers to subscribe to the magazine. Not a single cover dealt with a hard-news story. From sleep to diet, from doctors to patients, and from religion to yoga, the newsweeklies in 2004 were catering to every need, want and desire of their audience. In doing so, they were in tune with the rest of the magazines of 2004. And what a year for magazines 2004 was! Not since 1998 has the magazine industry witnessed the birth of more than 1,000 magazines in a single year.

And unlike 2003, when there was a lack of quality of new magazines on the newsstand, 2004 saw many quality launches. Major publishing companies got back into launching new titles. Time, Inc. launched six: Cottage Living, Find, Life, a rebirth, Your Diet, Suede, and All You, created especially for Wal-Mart stores. F & W Publications, which bought Krause Publications in 2002, is now expanding into anything dealing with do-it-yourself projects from writing to woodworking. Conde Nast is cornering the shopping-magazine market with Lucky, Cargo and Vitals, and Cookie is on the way. PRIMEDIA is establishing itself as the premier hobbyist publishing company. Ziff Davis is trying to reach the younger audiences with Sync. That’s not a bad move, since the average reading age is now 14 years.

There was little movement in the top categories launched; still topping the list with more than 130 titles were publications devoted to crafts, games, hobbies and models. The epicurean category was a close second. But for the first time sex was out of the top 10. Moving into its place was the ethnic category, which has been augmented with the influx of Hispanic titles. Meredith is set to join the in 2005 with a new women’s magazine aimed at this market.

One of the most intriguing details in the 2004 data is pricing: The average cover prices of the new magazines introduced rose above $6. That was true even though magazines such as All You had a cover price of a mere $1.47. Offsetting the low ones were 49 magazines with a cover price exceeding $10. And most of the startups actually give a lot more bang for the buck to readers. Their folios may be small, but their ad/edit ratios are a reader-friendly 15/85, instead of the ad-crammed 50/50 (or more) of established magazines.

Another major area of interest is the increase in the number of magazines in the consumer market. That number has tripled in the last 25 years, from only 2,000 titles to over 6,000. Needless to say, the 4,000 new ones are not covering new areas, but rather largely duplicating existing information.

For example, back in 1980 anyone interested in tattooing could find three magazines on the subject. Today there are more than 22. A few years ago, one weekly magazine dealt with celebrities and gossip. Now we have four, with at least two more coming to the marketplace soon. Rather than reinventions of the wheel, there has been a lot of duplication. Almost every category on the consumer side of the magazine business has witnessed this kind of increase.

And the new titles keep coming. You won’t hear a cry anywhere in our industry that there’s a shortage of information. On any subject you can think about, dream about or even have nightmares about, there is a magazine. We have what I call “information clutter.” There’s no end in sight, and technology is only adding to the clutter.

Research shows that people spend 45 minutes with their favorite magazine. The question is how they spend those 45 minutes. As the bombardment with information grows, the content of magazines is moving toward softer news and shorter stories with more pictures, graphs and blurbs. And we are not just talking about magazines like Maxim, The Week, and InTouch, although those have ignited the flames of change.

News magazine readership among people under 35 has dropped from 44% to 28% percent. To combat declines in readership, magazines such as Time and Newsweek are using more graphs and charts to convey information that is easier to digest. It seems as if the designers at the newsweeklies are constantly looking at new magazines like Blender and Life & Style Weekly to get inspiration to engage their readers – popcorn, as they call it because it’s quick and easy to digest. Entertainment and celebrity news accounts for 22.8 percent of content in all magazines; large news magazines lead with softer stories and have dropped their national affairs pages by 25 percent in recent years.

That doesn’t mean that people won’t read long articles. Just look at the Harry Potter books, at 700-plus pages without any pictures. What it does mean is that people won’t read stale or boring articles. The reader of the future will no longer scan the magazine but will fly through at supersonic speeds, meaning magazines will have to package that information in a way to allow supersonic reading. In short, our emphasis is going to be on the business of selling content, and the creation of that content through intelligent reporting, new gathering, editing, packaging and design, regardless of the magazine’s delivery method.

In the end, the ultimate goal is to create timely, yet timeless, addictive information that answers the simple basic question: What is in it for me?
Samir A. Husni, Ph.D., heads the Journalism Department at the University of Mississippi and is known in the industry as Mr. Magazine™.