New title launches exceed closures and audiences are growing faster than some rivals'.
"Print is dead" was a common refrain a couple of years ago.
The costly print advertisements that kept magazines and newspapers alive were migrating to the Web, where they earned only pennies on the dollar. To publishers it felt as if a hurricane were flattening their business.
As the storm has cleared, however, a new publishing landscape has emerged. What was once a fairly uniform business -- identify a group of people united by some shared identity or passion, write stories for them to read and sell advertising next to the stories -- has split into several different kinds.
Hard news is perhaps the most difficult to make profitable. It is increasingly instant, constant and commoditized -- in other words, as with oil or rice, consumers do not care where it came from. With rare exceptions, making money in news means publishing either the cheap kind that attracts a very large audience, and making money from ads, or the expensive kind that is crucial to a small audience, and making money from subscriptions. Both are cutthroat businesses.
Among magazines, however, there is a new sense of optimism. In North America, where the recession bit deepest, more new magazines were launched than closed in 2011 for the second year in a row. The Association of Magazine Media reports that magazine audiences are growing faster than those for television or newspapers, especially among the young.
Unlike newspapers, most magazines didn't have large classified-ad sections to lose to the Internet, and their material has a longer shelf life. Above all, says David Carey, chief of Hearst Magazines, they represent aspirations: "They do a very good job of inspiring your dreams."
People identify closely with the magazines they read, and advertisers therefore love them. Magazines, says Paul-Bernhard Kallen, chairman of the German publisher Hubert Burda Media, remain essential for brand-building.
Which is why luxury magazines are doing particularly well, as are those in emerging markets, where a fast-growing middle class is coming into those advertisers' sights.
In Brazil, for example, the Abril Group has made Minha Casa, a home-improvement magazine, the leader of its kind in only two years thanks to a careful focus on new homeowners.
Back in the United States, the number of ad pages in magazines has dropped for three quarters in a row, according to the Publishers' Information Bureau. But that is partly cyclical, says Nina Link, the MPA's outgoing head, and it doesn't account for the growing number of ads in digital form. Once digital ads would have been scant comfort. On the Web they are typically worth a small fraction of what they were in print.
But tablets, such as Apple's iPad, could change this. They have been around for only two years, and most magazine subscriptions on them for less than a year. The MPA suggested measurement standards for advertising on tablets only in April.
Already, though, there are signs that advertisers are accepting higher rates on tablets than on the Web, because magazines on tablets are more like magazines in print: engrossing, well-designed experiences instead of forests of text and links.
Publishers are still experimenting with formats. Some are little different from their print versions, while others are more interactive, perhaps too much so. Hearst's Cosmopolitan launched the digital-only Cosmo for Guys, which purports to shed light on feminine psychology for baffled males. An early issue included 3-D models of sexual positions that you could rotate to view from every possible angle. Who says glossy mags aren't educational?
The wiser publishers are finding ways to rely less on advertising. They are looking to make more not only from subscriptions but also from other sources. Today, Carey says, "you need five or six revenue streams to make the business really successful."
Spurred by necessity and enabled by technology, Link said, magazines "innovate in ways they never dreamed of a few years ago."
What else a magazine can do, besides sell copies, depends on its audience and subject matter. Many are turning themselves from mere carriers of ads into marketing-services companies, giving their advertisers a range of new ways to reach readers. Travel magazines' websites, for example, can track if their readers end up buying the holiday packages they write about, and take a cut.
"I count that as advertising," Kallen says. "What many people call advertising ... is definitely declining, but advertising in the broader sense isn't."
Other commercial branchings-out include a growing range of conferences or celebrity events, the licensing of magazines' names to products such as cosmetics and tie-ins with deal and coupon websites such as Groupon. Successful new magazines have been launched on the back of television programs, such as Hearst's Food Network and HGTV, and the BBC's Top Gear. As long as there are coffee tables, it seems, people will want things to put on them.