Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Because of Niches, Magazines Still Strong

Because of Niches, Magazines Still Strong
By Steve Tarter, Journal Star
Jan. 20--PEORIA -- While the Internet casts a giant shadow over much of the print world, magazines remain in the sun.
Newspaper publishers fret that younger readers go online for their news, but magazines continue to command loyal audiences, many of them young.

"There are more magazines than ever before," said Samir Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi known as "Mr. Magazine" with a Web site dedicated to the subject. "There are more specialized magazines today than there were in the mid-1960s." Husni said magazines have changed, most notably with the demise of "the 800-pound gorilla," he said, referring to general-interest magazine.

Richard Stolley, formerly of Pekin, was an editor at Life when the fabled weekly folded in December, 1972.

"Everybody was devastated. Subscribers were upset. It was a grim experience," said Stolley, who started his media career as a 15-year-old sports editor for the Pekin Times in 1944.

At the time Life went under, its circulation was 8 million, Stolley said. "We picked up the Look subscriber list (after that magazine closed) but that only hastened its demise. Production costs were astronomical. We were losing money on every magazine," he said.

Other magazines have replaced old titles, but with a different approach.

"We've seen the demise of Life, Look and other general-interest magazines but since the mid-1990s, there's been a big explosion of titles on the marketplace," said Husni.

"Publishers no longer launch magazines looking for a million readers. The new face of magazines are niche titles that may never exceed 10,000 in circulation," he said.

Husni estimated only 10 percent of the magazines published today fall into the general-interest category, down from 30 percent just 20 years ago.

While niche titles proliferate the magazine industry is seeing other changes. "The big three newsweeklies -- Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report -- have lost 1 million readers in combined circulation over the past 16 years," said Mark Glaser, who writes an online media column for the University of Southern California's school of journalism.

"But the magazine business as a whole remains relatively healthy because of the rise of so many niche publications and the staying power of glossy entertainment news," he said.

Magazines have met the challenge of the Internet, note observers like Ed Moran, director of product innovation at the New York-based consulting firm Deloitte & Touche USA.

"There's something very seamless and easy about reading a magazine. They're high-quality, have high-resolution images. They're easy to scroll through and they don't need an Internet connection," he said in an interview with Media Life magazine. "Online can be a pale representation and I think that's something we tend to forget." Said a report from Washington, D.C.-based Bivings Group, a firm that creates Web sites for national companies: "We can expect that the pressure on magazines to 'change their ways' is less forceful than the pressure facing newspapers.

"Many experts in the newspaper industry fear the evolution of the Internet and theorize that newspapers must either 'change or die' -- either leverage the Internet or face being replaced by it," the report said. "In contrast, it is unlikely that magazines, complete with their glossy photos, eye-catching headlines and tangible qualities could actually be replaced by the Internet." That's not to discount the impact the Internet has had on the magazine industry. Many magazines now maintain Web sites for additional communication with readers -- through forums, blogs, games and contests.

"Digital editions of magazines are more like a TV channel than a magazine. The good ones are not competition to print, just a different medium," said Husni. "The problem with many of the (magazine) Web sites I've seen is that they are one-way streets. We send readers to the Web from the print side and we never ask them to come back.

"Rather than looking at technology as a competitor, we need to look at it as an add-on." There's room for all media when the focus is on a subject people want to know about, Husni said. "Look at celebrity magazines. It's not just People. We have six different celebrity titles that are all successful because we have the Internet and TV feeding the addictiveness of the public," he said.

Being able to adapt to change is key, Husni added. "I tell people that newspapers are not dying but committing suicide because they refuse to change content," he said.

An example of how specific some magazines get is Garden and Gun, one of the hottest new magazines in 2007, Husni said on his Web site, "What started as a celebration of the sporting life and the Southern land has evolved into a magazine full of experiences and sights and sounds that engages not only those living or intrigued by that lifestyle but also by those who appreciate the art and culture of the South," he noted.

While most young people have gravitated to the Web, some magazines still count on a youthful audience. "When reading for pleasure, boys prefer magazines over books and newspapers," said Kristen Harrison, a professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois.

Harrison, who is doing a research project with another U of I professor, Bradley Bond, said video game magazines are among the most influential with preadolescent boys. "If you look at these magazines, video game characters (displayed in magazine ads) are depicted as superheroes having bodies with oversized muscles," she said.

The U of I team concluded exposure to gaming magazines promotes a drive for muscularity in young males, a drive that might lead to steroid use.

Conversely, a thin body appears to be the model for many girls' magazines, said Harrison.

Young people remain interested in working on magazines, said Jim Burwitz, who teaches a class on magazine production at Bradley University.

"I'm pleasantly surprised how strong the interest is in four-color publications. People say it's a dying medium but it's far from its way out," said Burwitz, editor of Pathways, the alumni publication for the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria.

Trade magazines like Pathways often provide jobs for those interested in the magazine field, he said.

Genevieve Diesing, a 2007 Northern Illinois University graduate who interned at the Journal Star last summer, recently was hired by a magazine in Chicago. As associate editor at the Chicago division of Schofield Media, an international publisher of trade magazines, she writes and edits copy on several different industries.

"I like what I'm doing now. It doesn't require the same passion as newspaper writing but it pays the bills and gives me experience while I try to get my foot in the door at more commercial magazines," she said.

Meanwhile, magazines continue to evolve. Two popular titles, CosmoGirl and Popular Mechanics, are slated for development as webisode projects. The online series will feature two- or three-minute episodes that will launch on the magazines' Web sites.

If successful, the Fox TV-Hearst Magazine collaboration might even be expanded to the network TV level, noted Advertising Age.