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Jewish World Review Dec. 30, 2002 / 25 Teves, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports

Rosie's demise tops list of 2002 highlights | You know it was a quiet year in the world of magazines if the death of Rosie is 2002's top story.

Rosie magazine, the periodical formerly known as McCall's until it took Rosie O'Donnell's first name and her editorship in May 2001, suspended publication after its December issue amid a firestorm of lawsuits.

While we wait to see if Rosie's publisher, Gruner + Jahr, resurrects McCall's, which had been doing fine since 1876 until O'Donnell got her hands on it, we called up the country's premier magazine expert, Dr. Samir Husni, for a year-end wrap-up.

Husni, a University of Mississippi journalism professor, is such a serious student of the rough-and-tumble magazine industry that he has trademarked his nickname, Mr. Magazine.

I reached him by cell phone as he was tooling across Mississippi.

Question: Was this a good year or a bad year for the magazine industry?

Answer: Actually, it has been a surprisingly good year for many magazines, including the new magazines. We've seen a lot of new launches. Ad revenues have been higher than 2001. We were up about 3.3 percent; however, the total number of ad pages was down.

The total numbers of magazines sold on the newsstands have also witnessed a slight increase, which is the first time since 1996 that happened. So, all in all, we start 2003 with a lot of positive news.

Q: What was the biggest development of the year?

A: We had two major things. One, of course, was the demise of Rosie magazine. It started with a buzz and ended with a buzz that continues now in the courts. We also had the launch of a new celebrity-driven weekly, In Touch Weekly, which is the first mass weekly to be published in this country since 1991.

It's like US Weekly and People and is competing with them head-to-head on the newsstand. The last time we had a major launch of a weekly magazine from scratch was in 1991, when Entertainment Weekly was launched.

You name the category. We have seen magazines from Budget Living, which is designed to help you spend smart and live rich, to Luxury Living. We have the extreme on both sides - for those who have and those who don't.

Q: How many magazines are out there, and which ones do you think are the best ones?

A: We have now a little more than 6,000 magazines available for the general public to pick from. To me, it's so hard to differentiate among those magazines, just as it is to differentiate among your children.

However, it depends on the area you are interested in. If you want a man's magazine that can make you giggle and laugh and not be ashamed of taking it home, you will pick up a copy of Maxim.

If you want a magazine to help you fix your stuff and live a balanced life without all the extras, you pick up a copy of Organic Style magazine or Real Simple. If you want a magazine just for the fun of it, and you are ashamed of buying National Enquirer, you pick up US Weekly.

Q: What is your favorite new magazine?

A: So far, In Touch Weekly is a good runner-up for the best launch of the year. Budget Living is also another runner-up. We've seen over 700 new magazines this year, more than in 2001. We are reaching the end moment in trying to decide which one will really be the cream of the crop, in terms of doing something different and unique, that we've not seen before. It's getting tougher and tougher to launch a magazine you have not seen before.

Q: How tough is it for a new magazine to survive?

A: The odds are now that six out of every 10 new magazines will not make it to the end of their first year. Sixty percent will die, and only one out of 10 will remain in business after 10 years.

The gates are wide open. We are seeing a lot of start-ups. But there's a big, deep cliff right next to the gate, and a lot of those people just get out of the gate and all of a sudden are down the cliff.

Q: What should the average person know about the magazine industry that they don't?

A: One thing they should know is that it is a very subsidized industry. You are able to subscribe to a magazine like Rolling Stone for 38 cents a copy. But the ink and the paper of that magazine costs the publisher more than 38 cents, so it's an advertising-driven industry.

Advertisers have been footing the bill so the readers are getting that magazine. This is going to change. For the past 10 years, we've had a marvelous joy ride with advertisers, because the economy was booming. Once the economy starts going down, readers are going to expect to pay more for their magazines. They are going to expect to have higher cover prices, higher subscription prices, in order for their favorite magazines to continue delivering the type of content they are looking for.

Q: I've always used the magazine industry as an example of what happens when you have a pure free market in something. It's so rich, so diverse, so consumer friendly. If you can't find a magazine that you like, there's probably something wrong with you - yet there are 700 new ones coming out this year. Am I wrong in saying that there are almost no impediments to either entry or exit from the magazine industry, which would be sort of a definition of a pure free market?

A: Actually, there is none. It's a 100 percent business that depends on supply and demand. There is not one category that you're not going to find magazines in. In addition, we are the best medium that reflects society. Magazines have been in this country the best reflectors of society.

Look at the newsweeklies. How often are you going to find a political cover on Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report? We've had topics from the new teen virginity to arthritis to the Billy Graham crusade on the covers of the newsweeklies when we have terrorism taking place all over the world.

So magazines are a really a creature of reflection, and they are becoming more and more interested in more of the everyday needs of society. Politics have never been that high on the American agenda, in terms of your daily needs, wants and desires. We prefer much more to see something about Britney Spears and Justin, whether they are breaking up or getting together, than to read about the troubles of Senator Lott.

Q: So magazines are a good reflection of America's tastes and interests?

A: Oh yeah, definitely. That's why we've witnessed a big growth in the metropolitan or regional magazine. The magazines that are making you feel at ease at home, to redecorate, to fix the stuff at your own home.

If there are any aftereffects of Sept. 11, it was that it re-energized that down-to-home feeling that your neighbors, your neighborhood, your city, your region is more important than the whole. That's why we've seen a big growth in all these magazines.

Q: Next year, is there anything really big or interesting that's coming along that you can tell us about?

A: Well, Lifetime is going to launch a magazine called Lifetime for Women based on the Lifetime for Women television channel. The guy who used to be the head of Time Inc.'s distribution services is launching another new magazine called Justice, which is going to be about crime and justice and you name it. We are going to see a lot of new automotive titles. Conde Nast is going to launch a new pocket-sized magazine called Teen Vogue, to catch on all the teenage magazines that are selling like hotcakes.

Q: So the magazine industry is perking along pretty well.

A: Yeah. We are still alive and kicking. All these prophets of doom and gloom have once more proven that they are wrong.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald