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The Delicate Balance

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Successful or not, it's clear that efforts like these will have to continue if fashion magazines are to retain their place of influence -- to say nothing of their profits. Though the print magazines themselves are still thick with ads, the September issues are not the record breakers of years past. On average, the category's ad pages declined around 29 percent. Vogue and Condé Nast siblings W and Allure were off more than 30 percent.

In the first half of this year, most of the major fashion titles grew or maintained their overall circulation. But newsstand sales, widely considered to be a vital indicator of consumer demand, fell at least 10 percent at several titles. Some of that can be blamed on the disruption in wholesaler delivery that caused many magazines to go missing from racks earlier in the year. The long-term trend, however, is one of people buying fewer magazines at the newsstand.

From 2004 to 2009, the large-circulation magazines shed between 11 percent and more than 52 percent of their single-copy sales, per the Audit Bureau of Circulations. (Elle, essentially flat at 298,167, was an exception.)

Meanwhile, it's no help to the fashion mags that designers -- their bread-and-butter advertisers -- are spending on digital media (which enable more direct communication with consumers and potentially more measurable results) to reach shoppers. And while the money that high-fashion brands are spending on digital media is modest, it is growing.

The sites themselves are also getting more sophisticated and attractive for consumers to visit and use. On Ralph Lauren's home page, visitors can explore the collections, shop online and even browse a visually rich online lifestyle magazine with articles on sailing, polo and other sports aligned with the brand.

Other designers are paying increased attention to social media. On its official Facebook page, Gucci publicizes its catalog and fashion shows with its 425,000 fans directly. As part of its social media strategy, DKNY created an imaginary publicist character, DKNY PR Girl, to Twitter about the brand (2,733 followers).

Do these developments mean that the fashion editor is heading toward extinction? Probably not -- but it's clear that her regal days are now past. "Editors are still a big endorsement," says Barry Lowenthal, president of agency the Media Kitchen.

"We still need the editor to endorse [the product] and give it buzz. But increasingly, they're becoming less and less important." Noting that client Armani Exchange has 52,000-plus fans on its official Facebook page, he says, "If you have 52,000 fans telling you you're fabulous, do you really need an editor to tell you it's pretty fabulous?"

The power of the editor is unquestioned in The September Issue, the Vogue documentary. Shot in flusher times -- just a few years ago -- it pays homage to the Condé Nast culture of exclusivity and decadence and Vogue's remote and exacting Wintour. Today, Condé Nast is trimming expenses while Vogue's editors are looking for bargains to feature in their pages. One can't help but wonder how it will go over with moviegoers in the current economic environment.

But a view shared widely among fashion magazine observers is that at a time when people have less money to spend, the editorial voice matters even more. "The role that editors play is more important than ever when people are buying less," says Dennis Santos, vp, media director at PGR Media, which handles media buying for Tommy Hilfiger. "Consumers still want to hear from this blue-chip editor."