Magazine Hot List 1993: Highlights

Mind Writers

By Eric Garland

Think Garth Brooks. Think grunge, mountain climbing, yo-yo dieting. Think delivery room etiquette, laser disc rentals, Jenn-Air wall ovens. While you’re at it, think tax-free munis and the rupturing of the European Monetary System.

You are not alone.

These are the concerns of an increasing number of Americans, although Cyrus (Billy Ray) admittedly excites many more people than Cyrus (Vance) and Bosnian cease-fire talks. Still, magazine publishers who have fine-tuned their books to such topics have been rewarded handsomely over the last year. Their ad pages are swelling and their circulations are growing steadily, enough to place them on Adweek’s annual roll call of the hottest consumer magazines.

Magazines can adapt fastest of all media to emerging trends, gathering a like-minded audience and showering attention, in-depth features and arty photos on the subject. Such is the lesson of the two books that top our lists. Country America has plowed its way into the ranks of major magazines with three years of rapid growth. The Meredith publication, which began as a program guide for cable’s The Nashville Network, has leaped from $4.8 million to $13.7 million in ad sales since 1990 and is guaranteeing 1 million circulation this year, 30% ahead of 1991’s figure.  It has done so by reaching deep into the hearts of Middle America—a fertile field that often goes unsown by flashy New York publishing houses. 

Like Condé Nast, which went as far from Middle America as possible with its acquisition of the downtown rag Details in 1990. Backed by Condé Nast’s house style and resources and informed by editor James Truman’s arch sensibility, Details has emerged as the industry’s hottest small magazine. It won’t be small much longer at its present pace. Revenues exploded to $8.2 million last year (up 124%) while circulation jumped 77%. Details has laid claim to another hard-to-reach element: the youngish male who likes fashion, women, and me-too attention so much that he hardly has time to read staid old magazines.  Except one that gives him precisely that.

Some repeaters from last year have the look of hardy perennials. Parenting and Child continue their adolescent growth spurts, with Time Inc.’s Parenting now having made the Top 10 list three years in a row. Both benefit, of course, from the generation, and both showed ad revenue gains of nearly 50% last year.

Another Time Inc. product, Entertainment Weekly, returns to the list on the strength of some $10 million more in ad revenues and a circulation galloping past 1 million. Its ad pages were flat last year, only because the startup magazine no longer needs to discount its rates.  Advertisers want in.

On the high end of the celebrity spectrum, Vanity Fair continued to draw desirable readers and seductively scented ads. Tina Brown’s successor, former Spymaster Graydon Carter, must do likewise. Soap Opera Digest sops up folks on the low end of glitz. For anti-glitz (in subject matter, not its own design, which is stylish), Outside remains the pace-setter for neo-naturalists.

While Bill Clinton promises to “focus like a laser beam” on the economy, subscribers to The Economist and Financial World have been far ahead of him. The London-based weekly made its third consecutive appearance on the Top 10 list, as its fact-crammed survey of the world and business keep it a standout in its field. As revenues were up 33% lat year, to $31 million. Financial World has shown less steady form; it crashed in ’91 but rebounded so strongly last year—a 58% revenue gain—that it qualified.

Among the small books, two disparate camps hold sway. One one side are the smart -aleck, city-dwelling, irresponsibly young likes of Spin, Sassy and Spy. On the other side are sober-minded mature types drawn to the pure wide-open spaces of Walking, Backpacker, Health, American Health and Cooking Light.

There’s room for everybody in magazine country.

The 1992 List:

1. Country America

2. Entertainment Weekly

3. Outside

4. Parenting

5. Child

6. Woman’s Day

7. Vanity Fair

8. The Economist

9. Home

10. Financial World

1992 10 Hottest Small Magazines:

1. Details

2. The Walking Magazine

3. Backpacker

4. Health

5. Cooking Light

6. Spin

7. Soap Opera Digest

8. American Health: Fitness of Body and Mind

9. Spy

10. Sassy

Survival of The Fittest

By Stephen Barr

Ira Weinblatt doesn’t want to talk about the current state of magazines. Back in his office after several days away, the director of print media at Saatchi & Saatchi has a stack of mail and other pressing matters before him. No, he doesn’t want to talk—but he can’t help himself.  “Magazines are being unreasonably optimistic about where the economy is going,” launches Weinblatt. “I don’t see ad budgets swelling; I don’t see concern about efficiencies softening; and I don’t see the basis for the rate increases publishers have come up with.” He pauses, and then feels compelled to explain the motives—or lack thereof—behind his diatribe.  “This is not a negotiating tactic,” he insists.

Last year the magazines industry got its first intoxicating sniff of an economic recovery.  Publishers Information Bureau figures show a 1.6% increase in consumer magazine ad pages and an 8.3% increase in ad revenues after two years of decline. Many titles—mostly in service-oriented categories such as health, personal finance and parenting—broke out of the pack with gains of 20% and more. At the same time, some of the industry’s strongest players strengthened their hands while weaker ones checked or folded. 

Time Inc, and Hachette Magazines, among other billion-dollar publishers, cut deals that clearly position them for future growth; rival glamor houses Condé Nast and Hearst opened their checkbooks to lure top editorial and photographic talent to their titles. Meanwhile, Knapp Communications had to put its two high-profile books, Architectural Digest and Bon Appetit, up for sales, while American Express essentially abandoned any hope of being a publishing powerhouse when it formed a joint venture with Time.

Although 199 promises economic vitality, years of rate-card negotiations have taken their toll. Faced with declining ad revenues, publishers made staffs leaner and meaner, invaded other media in search of cross-selling opportunities and emphasized circulation profits. But the tug of war on prices could be the recession’s most enduring legacy. “I’m not so sure we can get away from negotiations,” concedes Reginald K. Brack Jr., chairman and ceo of Time Inc. and a past chairman of the Magazine Publishers Association. “It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle, and that’s worrisome.”

For publishers who hope to push through the ad rate hikes after years of holding the line, they will find little give. “A lot of magazines had a good year in ’92 and feel that’s a reason to raise rate,” cautions Weinblatt. “We should build on what we’ve learned. We should keep going and not just jack up prices as if it’s the 1980s again.”

Publishers will continue to bolster the bottom line with circulation muscle—raising subscription and newsstand prices, trimming the rate base where necessary and pursuing strategies, such as selective binding of editorial features, that enhance reader loyalty. Dan Capell, editor of Capell’s Circulation Report, expects 30-40% of consumer titles to increase their circulation prices in 1993, about double what the number has been in recent years.

In addition, media buyers will look more closely at a magazine’s relationship with its readers, going beyond total audience and CPM to probe things like how a publisher solicits and retains subscribers and how much time a reader spends with an issue. “The pendulum is swinging back from gross boxcar numbers,” says Charlie Rutman, media manager at Backer Spielvogel Bates/Worldwide. “Must-read equals must-buy.”

Not surprisingly, most of the hot titles last year were those with a reader-service cast.  Kiplinger’s Personal Finance saw its ad pages swell 21% and circulation grow in spite of newsstand and subscription price hikes. KPF publisher Knight Kiplinger boasts that his readers spend several hours with each issue, save back copies, and consult them again two or three more times. “High pass-along readership is not a sign of serious use or editorial involvement,” he argues. “Our readers are looking for actionable information—tell me something I don’t know that can improve my life—and advertisers benefit from a reader’s inclination to act.” Proof that Kiplinger may be onto something is that the personal finance category welcomed new entries in 1992. SmartMoney, a joint venture between Dow Jones and Hearst, and Fidelity Investment’s Worth have brought a lifestyle approach to an otherwise sober subject, and both are showing good results in trial runs.

The recession also convinced publishers that cross-media deals can be a valuable ticket to growth. “We’re moving to b a consumer marketing company,” says Francis Pandolfi, president and ceo of Times Mirror Magazines. “We know promotion budgets are increasing, and we want to be in a position to show advertisers ways to spend more.” With several new hires pushing cable TV, custom publishing and newspaper buys in concert with its magazine pages.  Similar cross-media efforts are well under way at Meredith Corp., Hearst and The New York Times Co., among others.

As for Time Inc., it completed a two-year process of retooling its ad sales force. The moves included the June promotion of Don Logan to president and chief operation officer, which further boosted the drive to sell Time’s 27 titles as a group and together with other Time Warner ventures. “Not everybody loves it inside or outside the company,” admits Brack, “but after 12-18 months of hand-wringing, things have settled in.”

The trend by publishers to sell along function lines has yet to convince all agency executives. “Magazines still have to come to grips with what they are and what they want to be,” says Backer’s Rutman. “They’ve has a difficult time demonstrating what can add value and what just adds things.”

These suspicions are even more pronounced when considering the merchandising craze, such as mall tours, contest, fashion shows, giveaways and other niceties that aren’t always relevant to reader needs and advertiser objectives. “Invariably the sales rep shows up with five pages of what the magazine can do, tosses them out, and sees if the advertiser wants one,” says Janice Clements, director of media and marketing services at McCabe and Company. “Every media buyer is looking for added value, but most magazines come in with off-the-shelf, generic ideas.”

Indicative of how sore publishers are after years of elbowing over rates, they complain that merchandising has become a way for advertisers  to squeeze out extras from those who refuse to give price breaks. One small publisher has even taken to opening his books to show advertisers that his profit margins are not extravagant. “I can’t keep taking more out of my bottom line, and they’ve seen that I’m right.”

And what about those price increases—will they finally stick? Yes, says Brack, who is looking at rate hikes of about 4%, but not for all of Time Inc.’s titles.  Pandolfi says Times Mirror will be asking for 6% more and will probably end up at 3-4%. Jumps of 7-9% are what set of Saatchi’s Weinblatt.

“I haven’t had time to sound out publishers on these numbers,” he explains, “but they’re going to be difficult to justify. I don’t see the incentive to pay them. We have finite budgets and our own pressure to provide more value. If I can’t sell these increase to my clients, the money won’t go to the magazines.”

Is that a negotiating tactic?

Stephen Barr writes regularly about the publishing industry for Adweek Magazines.

Editors of The Year: Year of The Woman

By Judith Newman

Do not call them Seven Sisters. They’re more like college girlfriends who meet at a 20th-year reunion, squeal, air kiss, and spend the rest of the evening surreptitiously checking out each other’s thighs. While each editor of the so called Seven Sisters will argue relentlessly about his or her magazine’s uniqueness, they are united on at least one subject: their anger at being patronized by media snots who still venerate the FiloFax ’80s and call women’s service magazines cultural dinosaurs. 

“The truth is that the bulk of the U.S. never changed in the 1980s,” insists Redbook’s Ellen Levine. “For masses of Americans, there was not glitz. There was mostly pain and struggle and single-parent families and trying to get by”—even when there were two incomes. “I hate the way the term Seven Sisters has been used to create a negative aura around women’s magazines,” Levine adds. “What utter nonsense to think these magazines are any less important because they’re not publishing cowboy writers from Montana!”

Admit it. We laugh at those headlines only the ghost of Donna Reed could have invented (“Chip Chip Hooray!”  for a cover story about chocolate chip cookies). We roll our eyes at the melodrama (“Could a Rubber Band Kill You? Yes, If You’re Allergic to Latex”) and mock the sentimentality (“Mrs. Burt Reynolds…proving that if you believe in fairy tales and wait long enough, they really do come true”). We wonder what kind of scary pathology is at work among the women who buy all those wide-eyed statuette from the Danbury Mint.

We even make dire predictions. Only a few years ago, media pundits smugly assumed one or more of the Sisters were toothless crones, destined for that great Amana Radar Range in the sky.

And guess what? Not only have none of the magazines folded, but most of them are bigger cash cows for their companies than they’ve been in years. “The question ‘Do we need so many of these magazines?’ come from the advertisers, who don’t want to advertise in all of the,,” says Steve Greenberger, vp/director of print media at Grey Advertising. “Well, the truth is, the readers need the,.”

In 1992, the proof was in the pudding. (No, not the Mexican chocolate pudding recipe feature in the Feb. 2 Woman;s Day.) The Seven Sisters showed ad growth across the board, with four of the —Woman’s Day, Better Homes and Gardens. Family Circle and Good Housekeeping—posting gains of $25-30 million in reported revenues. Only Ladies’ Home Journal lost pages last year, a downturn some attribute to editor Myrna Blyth dividing her time between running LHJ and Metropolitan Home, which Meredith ultimately sold. Blyth points out that LHJ grew steadily in 1989 and 1990, when its competitors were in a tailspin, “and we were up 7% over last year through April 1993.”

Some of this good news is, undoubtedly, a certain accounting sleight-of-hand. Virtually all of the magazines have cut circulation and rate bases, and various incentive deals have reduced ad rates. “They’re getting away from the numbers game and talking about an efficiency game,” notes magazine analyst Marty Walker.

Still, demographics determine destiny. There are now more women in their 30s and 40s—the traditional age group for these magazines—than ever before. “It’s the old pig-and-snake analogy,” says Better Homes and Gardens editor-in-chief David Jordan.  “If you think of a boa constrictor swallowing a pig, think of the pig as the baby boomers.  Wherever it happens to be in the snake, it has warped the snake out of shape at that point.”

Yet another contributor to the revitalization of the sisters is deeper pockets.

“What’s really happened that people don’t talk about is the trading up of ownership,” says John Mack Carter, the legendary editor of Good Housekeeping who is also director of magazine development at Hearst. “In the late ’80s, many of them were owned by entrepreneurs and independents who let them get into trouble. But then Redbook was bought by Hearst, Ladies’ Home Journal was sold to Meredith, McCall’s was taken over by the [New York] Times Magazine group, Hachette bought Woman’s Day. The larger companies recognized these magazines—the youngest of which is over 50 years old—as brands with brand-name intrinsic value. And they’ve been able to make the necessary investments to fuel their recovery.”

Ever the gallant, Carter also points out what should be obvious but is seldom said out loud:  “The primary reason these magazines are successful, and will continue to be successful, is that they are women’s magazines, targeted to women. Men are not nearly as faithful readers.”

But are these magazines speaking to women today, or to our mothers? Each magazines has dealt with the time warp question somewhat differently—but deal with it they do. “Every editor is working extremely diligently to make their magazines focus on women in the ’90’s,” says Greenberger. Or, as Family Circle’s Jacyln Leo puts it, “The days when we could get a woman’s attention simply by putting a chocolate cake on the cover are over.” (Although Better Homes did just that last moth, with a sweetheart chocolate cake for Valentine’s Day.)

In he effort to shift their age demographics ever downward, some of the Sisters are paying less attention to the needs of older readers (the average age for the magazines is 42.5, according to Simmons Marketing Research). In fact, with articles like “Sex and the Single Mom” and “Menopause in Your 30s,” Redbok’s Levine seems all too glad to shoo them out the door. Yet the average reader has not gotten markedly younger in the last four years (she’s actually become slightly older), and the advertising is not more markedly upscale.  (One editor gleefully mentioned that Fred Hayman’s chi-chi perfume, 273, would be running in her book, which startled Fed Hayman’s account manager:  “Well, there was talk of some barter arrangement…but right now that’s wishful thinking at best.”)

Levine and Kate White of McCall’s have been particularly successful in bringing their distinctive voices to their magazines. They’ve led the domesto-porn sweepstakes with articles like “What Other Couples Do in Bed” and “The New Secret to a Sexier Marriage.”  (Disappointingly, that secret was not nipple clips or nurses’ uniforms, but learning to talk to each other.)  Both are courting at least the perception of controversy.  Levine was particularly pleased with a recent Redbook piece on married women and abortion, despite letter she received like the one hoping “…you hear the screams of dead babies in your sleep.” Only Good Housekeeping steers clear of sexual issues entirely.

All have beefed up coverage of health care (usually with the first-person I’ve-been-to-hell-and-back narratives traditional to women’s magazines), crime, and political issues that affect women. Good Housekeeping has opened a Washington office; Ladies’ Home Journal has a news section produced by CNN. Jane Chesnutt, editor-in-chief of Woman’s Day since Levine left two years ago, has won plaudits for her coverage of spiritual issues. Some of the magazines are even making efforts to do celebrity pieces that don’t read like press releases. “Kathie Lee Gifford told everyone watching her show not to buy our July issue—she hated the story we did on her,” says Levine happily.

Perhaps most significantly, the magazines have acknowledged that working women (with jobs, if not careers) probably don’t have time to make smiling snowmen out of ice cream, cone, twigs and Red Hots. Nutrition and convenience are paramount. Most dinners featured in their pages require less than 30 minuted to prepare—with the help of some of the convenience  foods that are among the magazines’ biggest advertisers.

The tone of most of the books also has shifted. There’s less preachiness, less talking down to the reader and more just between-us-girls journalism. And there’s a move away from what Kate White calls the Cape Fear tactics of the past (i.e., scare the bejesus out of the reader and then tell her what product or service to buy to eradicate the problem). Even the fear that has fueled the entire women’s magazines industry—fear of fat—has been tempered somewhat by articles that stress body acceptance and prove that not every woman could or would wear a thong bikini.

Finally, there’s a recognition that real life problem can’t be solved by baking the perfect cheesecake. For example, in a recent issue of Redbook, New York Times science writer Lisa Belkin wrote a harrowing story about a mother of prematurely born twins who had to make tough decision about life support. This was no fairy tale; both children died. Personal stories without happy endings are increasingly common. Of course, some things will never change.  In the longest-running advice column in magazine history, Ladies’ Home Journal’s “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”, the answer is always “yes.”

Although they worry about it constantly, keeping in touch with their readers is apparently not too difficult for the editors. Readers “are extremely eager to let us know what they think,” says John Mack Carter, who’s been known for his responsiveness and sensitivity since 1968, when a group of feminists stormed his office and refused to leave until he offered them a chance to write several features for the magazine. Myrna Blyth has instituted a 900 call-in number; Family Circle has a stringer network across the county; Jane Chesnutt has given senior editors “phone pals”—readers they call once a month to see what’s doing in the Real World.

Indeed, editors of the Seven Sisters seem to be under more pressure than other top editor to prove their “we’re just regular folk” status. David Jordan’s Better Homes is stationed in Des Moines, Iowa; Chesnutt can boasts a small-town Texas upbringing; Levine live in deepest New Jersey.  Only Carter snorts at the idea that the other editors’ weekend houses outside New York City keep them in touch with America. “Oh, please,” he says.  “We don’t go there to study supermarket trends. We go because it’s much nicer than living full-time in New York City.”

Still, Family Circle’s Leo makes a valid point when she says that the purported differences between the coasts and the heartland are narrowing: “I mean, when you think about the fact that a woman in Wyoming has more cable access than I do living on Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street…Sure, the coasts own fashion and communications and movies. But you know what?  We’re provincial. What goes on outside New York City and L.A., in many cities, is as sophisticated, if not more sophisticated. I don’t mean to imply that everyone in the country is wearing Giorgio Armani, but on the other hand neither am I.”

Even with this year’s successes, some media wags insist the women’s service magazines are, over the long term, in trouble. “What I said in the 1980s I still say: They’re on their last legs,” predicts analyst Walker. “Each year they become less profitable. More and more they’re competing with broadcast, although there are some things broadcast will never be able to do, like delivering recipes.”

But the editors insist that as the times change, so will their magazines. “It’s so easy to dismiss women’s service magazines as anachronisms,” says Carter. Leo finds it particularly ironic that the Sisters were out of favor in the era of so-called family values. “We never abandoned our family advocacy position at the time everyone was genuflecting  to the ’80s and all the glitz they represented,” she says. “Actually, I think the real time for these magazines is now, when the country is more interested in family issues than ever.”

Egg is dead. Ditto Fame, Manhattan inc., Model, Taxi, Connoisseur, Smart and 7 Days. The Seven Sisters gambol on.  Chip chip hooray.

Judith Newman has written about past Adweek Editors of the Year James Seymore, Anna Wintour and Robert Gottleib