What Publishers Can Learn From the Latest Magazine Shake-Up

Rodale, Wenner Media and Time Inc. are undergoing rapid change

The print industry sees continual decline as consumers and marketers shift attentions toward the digital space.
Men's Journal, Men's Health

Two more publishing companies sent the latest signal about the decline of the print media business this week.

On Tuesday, Wenner Media announced the sale of its 25-year-old Men’s Journal to American Media Inc. That followed the sale of Wenner’s Us Weekly to AMI in March.

The next day, healthy-living publisher Rodale announced it is looking to sell some or all of its brands, including Men’s Health and Women’s Health.

Meanwhile, more changes are afoot at Time Inc., which has spent nearly its entire three years as a stand-alone company fighting off merger and sale rumors. Earlier this month, the publisher of Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune and others cut around 300 positions in a round of layoffs and buyouts. Just today, Time Inc. announced it is moving 40-year-old monthly Food & Wine to its Birmingham, Ala., facility.

The continuing decline in print advertising combined with an inability to adapt quickly enough to digital innovations is driving the descent, said Ken Doctor, a media analyst and founder of Newsonomics.

“There’s been double-digit decline in print advertising for a few years, so the sales of these publications could indicate the companies trying to circle the wagons, or they want to get out and take a smaller amount of earnings because they fear there won’t be as much money on the table in a couple of years,” Doctor said.

Rodale, which announced a strategic review and possible sale, actually saw its circulation grow in 2016. Data from the Alliance for Audited Media shows Men’s Health’s total circulation stood at 1.8 million in the last half of 2016, up 5 percent from 2015. Women’s Health saw 3 percent growth. But increased circulation doesn’t necessarily translate into more revenue.

One media buyer who spoke to Adweek suggested that “marketplace chaos” results from the pressure to figure out what’s next.

But a pivot to the digital-only space doesn’t look all that rosy either. Doctor noted that the Google-Facebook digital ad duopoly takes up 99 percent of ad revenue online, leaving just 1 percent for everyone else.

John French, CEO of Cygnus Business Media who spent five years selling off a slew of b-to-b titles, fears the business side of the publications haven’t been listening to the editorial side.

“The perceived avenue of just getting content out online is seductive, but did anyone ask the reader first?” said French, who now heads up media advisory firm French LLC.

According to French, readership of magazines in the 20- to 30-year-old demographic is higher than ever, and launches of new magazines keep popping up. Those magazines, however, tend to be about more specific subjects rather than general interest publications.

“There’s something counter-intuitive happening with readership growing in that young demographic,” he said. “In five years, most magazines will probably become special interest.”

“Airbnb went from nothing to being one of the largest exchange sites in the world,” he continued. “And what did they do when they hit a high level of success? They launched a magazine. Same with HGTV.” (The partnership between HGTV’s owner, Scripps Networks, and Heart Magazines had another hit recently with the launch of a magazine about Food Network star The Pioneer Woman.)

French pointed out that people want some “uniquely theirs.”

“The days of the mass appeals of magazines to 30 [million] to 50 million people at a time might be over, but enthusiasts and niche interests will succeed,” he said.