Monday, July 21, 2008

Delighting in a Magazine's Death?

Delighting in a Magazine's Death? a Q&A with the blogger behind
By Peter Beisser

The Grim Reaper, the popular, anonymous blogger behind the Magazine Death Pool at, believes the end of days is near for print magazines.

It may not mean coming into physical contact with the blade of a scythe, but appearing on the Grim Reaper's blog may prove just as deadly to a major magazine title. For nearly three years now, the unidentified industry insider regularly has taken pleasure in predicting what popular title will close its doors next. Whether it's a dip in ad revenue or pages, another redesign or a shake-up in management, the Reaper sniffs out the early warning signs and chronicles the shuttering of popular magazines throughout the industry.

While maintaining his (her?) anonymity, the Grim Reaper excused himself for a few minutes from taking pleasure in predicting who's next on the chopping block, and answered Publishing Executive Inbox's questions about his bleak outlook for the future of the industry.

Publishing Executive Inbox: In your opinion, what are the top reasons that all of these magazine titles have been shuttering in such great numbers in the last few years?
Grim Reaper: There are several reasons why titles are closing down, some with greater impact than others. A) Magazines that outlived their usefulness or relevancy, especially being in the line of fire of what's popular on the Web. B) Magazines that were right in the crosshairs of the faltering economy. C) No. 3 titles in some categories were just not going to survive. D) Magazines that were created for advertisers, not for an audience. E) Magazines that did not have a smart and profitable digital strategy. F) Too much reliance on advertisers in trouble or under the gun (i.e. automobiles, liquor).

In the first three cases, there was really not much fault to be given. The times changed. The way people consumed their media changed. The Web began to own certain areas, like gossip, personal finance and sports, so magazines were becoming more vulnerable.

As for D, the biggest mistake is to create a magazine first for advertisers, and hope the audience follows afterwards. Cargo will forever be the poster boy for this line of thinking-that men would want a shopping magazine if women had made Lucky so successful. I have a feeling we will see Portfolio fall into the same trap in the next year or so, and it will create a much more deafening crash in the forest.

As for E, it still amazes me that magazine publishers didn't learn from the first dot-com bubble about slapping their own articles online, thereby cannibalizing themselves. Fast Company and Radar put many of their current issue articles online when they hit newsstands, for example. On the other hand, SmartMoney was intelligent enough to create a site that not only stands on its own, but they created unique Web applications that they can license out.

Inbox: When did it all begin to snowball out of control? What did publishers and the industry do wrong?
Reaper: I sensed it all began to spiral out of control when I started my blog, when Time Inc. began its first round of layoffs in December 2005. The paradigm shift to digital media really kicked in the fear at that point. I do not think publishers did anything wrong for the most part except be in the wrong place at the wrong time, much like the dinosaurs.

Inbox: What are the warning signs that tell you a title is in trouble? When is the plug usually pulled?
Reaper: The warning signs I look for a magazine getting in trouble include: losing lots of ads and/or circulation in a category dominated by the Web or becoming irrelevant, publishers firing in-house sales staff and then outsourcing them, desperate attempts to pretty up the covers into something the editorial isn't, changing the editorial mission, especially to be fad-ish, and consumers basically ignoring them.

Inbox: What do you think magazine publishers can do to stop the hemorrhaging?
Reaper: With some titles, there's nothing that can be done to stop hemorrhaging. For example, I just don't see how newsweeklies are going to survive, so they may as well close up shop and move fully to the Web. I know this sounds terrible, but if you can't beat 'em, join 'em in some cases. Magazine brands and their domains can be very strong and profitable on the Web, as opposed to ink on paper. Others just need to suck it up, cut rate bases, and devote resources to Web sites that can stand alone with well-done SEO to generate revenue.

Inbox: What were your main goals for the Web site? What has the response been from the industry?
Reaper: I set up Magazine Death Pool in February 2006 as a way of marking the slow end of an era in my own special way. It functions to point out some of the foolishness and arrogance of the industry, while certainly mourning the notable titles that have passed on. I've received a lot of e-mails from professors, as well as people who get sentimental about magazines that went under a long time ago. Of course, there are a few bile-spewing e-mails, including ones from the magazines I write about. I don't mind if they post comments in response to what I write. They should have a platform to vent. Knight Kiplinger, Jr. posted quite a long defensive comment on the blog recently. Anybody whose first name is Knight deserves a spot on my blog.

Inbox: Who is going to survive, and why are these titles different?
Reaper: The titles which have the best odds of surviving are the ones that are read for the big splashy ads, like Vogue, Elle, the bridal books. People buy those magazines for their lush spreads and ads. They can not be reproduced on the Web or read comfortably on a mobile phone . . . yet.