Twitter is aflame this morning with reports that Barack Obama prefers to read his magazines from the newsstand, in print. Most of those tweets reference this New York Times article, which really says nothing to that effect.
“A writer before he was a politician, Mr. Obama is a voracious consumer of news, reading newspapers and magazines on his iPad and in print and dipping into blogs and Twitter…During the day, Mr. Obama reads newspapers on his iPad and print copies of magazines like The Economist and The New Yorker.”
That’s it, I promise. Not exactly a resounding endorsement of the print magazine.
We could ask, what would it mean if Obama consumed his magazines in print? (Answer: nothing in particular.) Instead, it might be more productive to ask, what does it mean that newsstand sales of magazines are down around 10 percent?
In order to evaluate the severity of the situation, there are a few other relevant statistics in play. The bad news for the magazine industry was Tuesday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The Audit Bureau recorded only a slight net decline in magazine sales, 0.1 percent; the loss in newsstand sales is generally considered an indication of a collapse in magazine appeal, especially among women and “prestige” audiences. Publications like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, Christine Haughney’s blog post for the Times notes, suffered even worse at the newsstand, along with celebrity magazines like People. How bad? About 18 percent declines for those three aforementioned magazines. Struggling numbers could be symptomatic of our repression economy. Newsstand sales are tied to shopping behavior in supermarkets, where consumers can exercise conscious restraint over impulse purchases. But the merely modest growth of digital sales, which John Harrington, an industry consultant quoted in Haughney’s blog, called “minute compared to even newsstands and subscriptions,” signal a more endemic problem. The magazine industry is falling apart, and the decay seems to be accelerating. Improvements in home and food magazine sales point to the real issue. Harrington told the Times, “by the time the magazine comes out, it’s old news.”
Unlike newspapers, which have pivoted to online content generation more successfully, magazines are struggling to differentiate their digital content from competitors and to monetize their web presences. The shrinking of long-form content to a niche market—a luxury good consumed by a quasi-elite demographic—has shoved magazines into new and uncomfortable market spaces. Attempts to redesign print magazines, rebooting classics like Newsweek (newsstand sales down 9.7%) with sexy infographics and big pretty pictures, failed to retain the industry’s bread-and-butter business: large sub-elite audiences whose reading habits have changed the most over the last decade. Serious “news analysis” is not a compelling sales point for those audiences. Thus, the relative success of The Economist and The Financial Times can be attributed to the distribution of their consumer demographic, specifically, the concentration of their audience into elite channels. The migration of celebrity, fashion, and lifestyle content into digital publishing spaces has damaged the value of print publications with non-luxury demographics; and those who once shelled out for long-form are seeing bigger bonuses in making the move online, too.
Sales reports from the first half of 2012 indicate that the magazine industry is in deep water with no life preserver. Digital sales need to increase substantially to ensure long-term survival. Magazines have reached the point of no return in the print-to-digital transition. Without a serious commitment to the digital transition, the magazine industry will downsize itself.