magazines

Newsweek announced it would cease its print publication. Spin went digital-only. The Daily is shutting down. People are now looking to micropublishing, or, as Craig Mod calls it, “subcompact publishing,” for hope in the future of magazines. It seems 2012 has been a rough one for the ink-stained wretches of the newsstand.

But let’s get a bit of context.

It turns out that in 2012, publishers launched 195 print titles, according to MediaFinder.com, an online database of US and Canadian magazines. That’s an increase from the 181 that launched in 2011.

What’s more, lest you think that Newsweek and Spin are examples of an accelerating trend, only 24 magazines went from print to digital-only this year, compared to 29 last year. And better, only 82 magazines in total shut down this year, compared to 152 in 2011.

These figures are not merry enough to swing the economic pendulum for the increasingly tough magazine business. Less rosy figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations earlier in the year showed magazine newsstand circulations had dropped 10 percent just in the first half of 2012, and advertising was down 8.8 percent as compared to the same time last year, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.

However, if there is a lesson to draw from this news from MediaFinder – which gels with data gathered by the University of Mississipi’s Samir Husni – it’s that magazines aren’t dead yet.

Still, magazines are pretty clearly in a transition phase, and the numbers for 2013 and beyond could well slump back from “Wow, that’s not as ugly as I thought it was going to be” to “Yeah, that’s awful.”

In the year ahead, we’re likely to see more experimenting with publishers moving from the “go large” approach that the iPad-only Daily tried, which included employing a 120-person team and a $30 million annual budget, to a much leaner niche approach, represented by Instapaper founder Marco Arment’s two-man, iOS-only The Magazine. The costs of keeping the latter alive are much lower than for the former, but the ambitions are also much more modest. Arment’s lean operation likely needs only 10,000 to 20,000 subscribers to make it a financially self-sustaining (as distinct from profitable) enterprise, and it is a very targeted publication, appealing only to lovers of technology who also happen to own devices carrying iOS6 and are willing to pay $3 a month for about eight stories.

One thing you can bet on, however, is that high-end titles will be over-represented among the print magazines that do launch in the years ahead. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy recently made this point with regards to newspapers, pointing out the costs of subscribing to the New York Times ($630) and the Wall Street Journal ($500) effectively makes them luxury products. In the past 11 years, Cassidy notes, the newsstand price of the New York Times has increased from 75 cents to $2.50.

But in this high-end price range, the newspapers can reach the sorts of readers that print advertisers want to connect with. Those are the well-moneyed people that are worth brands forking out the extra bucks for, even though they could otherwise get wider reach for much cheaper by buying digital ads with the online equivalents.

And that logic transfers neatly to print magazines, which have been even more reliant on high-quality ads that speak to a wealthier audience and have been more difficult for digital media to replicate. That’s why magazines like Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar, have been somewhat insulated from the assault on magazine ad revenues – at least when compared alongside their mass-market brethren, such as Newsweek and Time.

That’s also why online fashion retailer Net-a-Porter plans to launch a high-gloss print magazine in the coming months. I don’t want to denigrate [the retail] side in any way as it pays the rent,” said CEO Mark Sebba at an event in November, “but advertising revenue increasingly pays the rent as well.”

Among the most high-profile magazine launches this year was Bloomberg’s luxury lifestlye monthly Pursuits, Rodale’s Best Life, a high-end men’s lifestyle magazine which made a comeback after folding in 2009, and Jason Binn’s just-for-elites Du Jour.

Digital hasn’t killed magazines, but it sure seems to have changed their shape. Now they’re smaller on one end, and more exclusive on the other. Whether or not those are changes for the better is up for debate.

[Image courtesy Thomas Leuthard]