Sunday, April 01, 2007

Superstar Smackdown: BoSacks vs. Mr. Magazine

Superstar Smackdown: BoSacks vs. Mr. Magazine
Posted by Patrick Henry on March 11th, 2007

It may sound a bit like a matchup from the card of a WWE event, but it actually was the title of more elevated clash between two print media experts at the Publishing Executive/Book Business conference and expo in New York City last week.

BoSacks is Bob Sacks (, the iconoclastic publishing consultant and commentator. Mr. Magazine is Dr. Samir Husni (, chair of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi and chronicler of the magazine industry for the last 21 years. They went to the mat over their views of the future of magazines, with Dr. Husni asserting their vitality and Sacks warning of negative trends undercutting them.

Dr. Husni, whose specialty is tracking the launches of new titles, insisted that the best hope for magazine publishing lies in ink on paper and not in digital alternatives. Magazines, he said, continue to exert a visual and physical appeal that consumers find irresistible. How else, he asked, are we to explain the enduring popularity of People, which hasn’t seen fit to change its format or editorial despite all of the competitive pressure that the Internet has brought to bear?

He said the launch of 926 new titles last year demonstrates that entrepreneurs are still willing to bet the farm on periodicals despite “horrifying stories of magazines that failed”—60 percent of them within their first year of publication. Magazines are so attractive to readers, Dr. Husni added, that newspapers are “committing suicide” by failing to be more like them in tone, style, and content.

Sacks acknowledged that magazines still have an edge over digital media when it comes to things like portability and ease of use. But he said their user-friendliness can’t hide the fact that overall magazine circulation growth “stopped dead” years ago or that a legendarily dysfunctional single-copy distribution system routinely discards up to 70 percent of some titles as unsold returns.

According to Sacks, postal rate increases and rising manufacturing costs threaten to price magazines and other printed matter out of the reach of most readers. Like the horse—once the universal service animal but now a plaything exclusively for the wealthy—the printed periodical faces the prospect that “20 years from now, only the rich are going to be able to afford a magazine or a book.” Sacks also talked about steady progress in e-paper, a digital alternative that may well give conventionally printed products a run for their money in the user-friendliness department.

The friendly smackdown between BoSacks and Mr. Magazine was a reminder that facts alone can’t explain why print survives or predict how it will be impacted by alternative media.

If magazines can’t increase circulation and decrease waste, it’s hard to think of them as anything but withering relics of a medium with a great future behind it. On the other hand, no matter how horrendous some of its inefficiencies may appear, the magazine industry still manages to put hundreds millions of copies into the hands of loyal readers who don’t know and probably wouldn’t care that seven of every 10 copies may be headed for the landfill. And while technologies like e-paper sooner or later will claim their share of the periodical market, no one has yet managed to sell a right-hand page to an advertiser in the e-paper equivalent of a conventional magazine.

Of course, perspicacious magazine publishers are covering both bets by shifting some of their activity away from print and into digital properties. During the Q&A, an executive of a well known b-to-b magazine publishing house mentioned that his company now derives $30 million of its $250 million in annual revenues from online sources. The company would have been in trouble had it not jumped on the digital bandwagon when it did, the executive said.

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