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Publishers Challenge Audience Report

Fall study shows widespread readership declines

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Magazine publishers are demanding explanations from GfK MRI after its fall magazine audience report showed more than two-thirds lost audience versus a year ago, many of them by double digits.

Some year-to-year audience fluctuations are common, but the fall report was unusual. About 70 percent of the 220 magazines measured were down, according to MRI. Big decliners included Wired, down 22 percent to 2.5 million; Bon Appétit, down 17 percent to 5.8 million; O, The Oprah Magazine, down 10 percent; and New York, down 14 percent.

Print ad buyers use the semiannual report to decide where to spend clients’ budgets, so declining audiences are the last thing publishers need. Until now, the overall magazine audience had held steady, giving periodicals needed ammo at a time when newsstand sales and ad revenue were falling. The fall MRI report showed the total magazine audience down 3 percent, though.

Publishers’ unhappiness doesn’t end there, though. Some are complaining that the report under-represents their digital audience.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Until recently, magazine measurement firms focused on their print audiences, but readers are now getting magazine content on mobile devices and online as well as in print. To that end, MRI, along with rival Affinity, has begun measuring magazines’ digital footprint, a step that some publishers hoped would boost their overall numbers. MRI’s fall report was its first to include such comprehensive data.

One publisher, whose title saw a double-digit audience decline, fumed, “Magazines with robust readership are showing declines, and magazines with significant digital platforms are not seeing those recognized. MRI is going to have a lot of explaining to do.”

Another publisher, Bon Appétit’s Pamela Drucker Mann, said it was a “challenge” to understand why Bon App’s audience fell 17 percent, given strong year-over-year newsstand sales for the past several issues under new editor Adam Rapoport.

“We did speak to MRI about this, and they said it typically takes syndicated research 12-18 months to reflect an editorial change,” she emailed. “Therefore, we conclude these numbers to reflect reader fatigue toward the former Bon Appétit editorial product and the exact reason Adam’s team was brought on to reshape the editorial vision of the magazine.”

Howard Mittman, publisher of Wired, said the problem was the methodology itself. MRI gathers the information by conducting in-person surveys with 26,000 interviewees.

“The last wave had Wired showing a healthy double-digit increase, and this latest wave has us showing a double-digit decline,” Mittman emailed. “Frankly, I believe any drops, or increases, are less a symbol of a magazine’s audience than they are a shining example of deficiencies in the research collection process itself. Do you really think a Wired reader is going to spend that amount of time completing a written and online survey? If so, they're not likely the affluent, intellectual readers we target anyway.”

Anne Marie Kelly, MRI’s svp of marketing and strategic planning, said MRI stands behind its research.

While it’s true that MRI changed its questions with this survey to capture digital readership, she said, “We did a lot of testing to make sure this question would be understood by all consumers and would not impact the print numbers.”

As for the digital data, she said it's only preliminary and won’t be part of MRI’s official ratings until the spring when a second wave of research will have been done.

As for the decline in print audience, she suggested that circulation, which has been on a downward trend, played a part.

“Circulation is down,” she said. “There are fewer magazines out there. We don’t know how much of those [readers] have migrated digitally. I’m not saying it’s good news. But we’re in the middle of a transition.”