Tuesday, October 07, 2008
How's Media Doing?
By James Brady
Wall Street isn't the only hurting industry in town. Madison Avenue's annual "Ad Week" just ended, with media, clients and ad agencies confronting their own woes without a Washington bailout in sight.
Being a media lifer, I focus less on the markets than on the business I've been working in since 1948, getting myself through college by working until midnight as a copyboy at the New York Daily News, by far the biggest circulation paper in the country at the time. And since I've worked on TV and been an editor and publisher--and I'm still a magazine columnist and author and write for this Web site--I've still got a fair amount to worry about.
A couple of things got me thinking about all this. CBS selling Mel Karmazin's old radio stations, the 75th-anniversary celebrations of Esquire magazine, the layoffs of old daily newspaper friends, and an informative lunch at Le Bernardin with a former magazine colleague, during which we talked about his business and about other media, new and old, good times and bad.
First the layoffs, regrettably typical of recent consolidation and cost-cutting at American newspapers. At Mort Zuckerman's, and my old, Daily News, some 25 editorial staffers were said to have accepted buyout offers. They included my pal Faigi (pronounced "Fahey") Rosenthal--tall, attractive, the most competent librarian I worked with at the New York Post before she moved to the News.
In those days before Google, there were only keepers of the morgue, or the "library." You relied on magicians like Faigi to find just the obscure item you needed to nail down a story properly, from hard, upfront news to a tasty item for Page Six.
The other Daily News casualty was the drama critic: lanky, wise Howard Kissel. He covered theater at Women's Wear Daily in my time as publisher and was later hired away by the News, thereby providing an opportunity for a promising young man named Ben Brantley, who took the critic's job at WWD and eventually became the most powerful theater reviewer in town, at The New York Times.
Next, my chat at Le Bernardin with veteran magazine publishing executive Jack Kliger of Hachette Filipacchi. After nine years, Kliger recently handed over the reins of the Magazine Publishers Association (MPA) to John Griffin of National Geographic. I asked him for his thoughts on the magazine business today, a world of sluggish advertising and falling newsstand sales, with a number of magazines failing to meet the rate bases they promise to deliver to the ad agencies.
"This has been one of the worst down periods we've experienced in the magazine business," said Kliger. "I don't want to beat up on newspapers, but if magazines have been bad, newspapers have been worse. I remember 1997 and '98 being pretty bad as well, and we got through that. TV isn't having an easier time either. Cable is doing OK.
"For magazines, I think 'the recession' is short term," he continued. "But structurally things are now even worse than '97 and '98. The auto industry story, for example, is brutal. Magazines are down millions in auto advertising. Television must be down billions."
I asked if there were any bright spots Kliger could point to.
"I don't know if the magazine business will ever again be as robust," he said. "But ads will still be very important, the dominant revenue. Magazine advertising really works. And consumers like magazines. There's value to original and trusted third-party content. Young people may not like newspapers anymore, but they like magazines. And we really do have good print journalists and editors who can learn the new digital platforms.
"I love blogs, much as I love Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park," Kliger said. "But editors are still needed to separate the wheat from the chaff, as they do in magazines but don't on blogs."
Kliger's passionate on ad space pricing. "Magazines should charge more for audience reach, as all other media do," he said. "Circulation being down is not necessarily as difficult a problem in the long term. Circulation is still promising, but the consumer is getting used to the fact you can get things free on television and the Internet. The question is, Who's going to pay for what?"
The ironic thing about Kliger's handing over the MPA reins right now? Despite reports of belt tightening at Hachette, the company's American flagship publication, Elle, is booming. Elle was up nearly 5% in ad pages in August (Vogue, In Style, Allure and Cosmopolitan were all down that month) and even further ahead in ads in the traditionally thick September issue, while category leader Vogue was down.
This buoyant trend seemed to be continuing for October. According to Advertising Age, a tie-in with hit TV show Project Runway has Elle moving from No. 6 in the fashion category to No. 2, behind Vogue.
And Esquire's star-studded anniversary? The issue ran over a healthy 300 pages, while its gala party featured a speech by Bill Clinton, whom you'd think might have been out hustling votes for Barack Obama. That's got to be a sign of something.