June 1, 2007

Down For The Count

For magazine industry watchers, the first week or so of the month has long carried a special significance. Going back as long as anyone can remember, that was when the Magazine Publishers of America released the previous month’s advertising numbers for about 230 magazines, based on data from the Publisher’s Information Bureau.

This month, however, there will be no May “PIBs,” as they are known in short-hand, just as there were none released last month.

Earlier this year, the Magazine Publishers—the leading trade organization for the industryannounced that it was going to scale back the monthly PIB release and instead make it a quarterly report. In a media age where transparency is the buzzword, the organization said it had decided that context was more important than frequency.

“People were looking at the monthly figures and trying to read trends into them,” said Cristina Dinozo, the association’s communications director. “There just isn’t enough of a trend in monthly numbers. You need a few months to have a trend.”

Monthly data, while no longer publicly released, is still available to PIB subscribers. What is missing, however, is the organization sorting through those numbers to publicly breakdown the numbers magazine-by-magazine and ad category-by-category. Those breakdowns helped produce the snapshot-of-the-industry stories in newspapers and the trade press.

While the association downplays the significance of the reduced reporting schedule, many magazine analysts observers believe it is also an effort to mask the bad economic news that dogs the industry.

As long-time magazine industry analyst Martin Walker, chairman of Walker Communications, put it: “Undoubtedly [there is] some validity to the fact that quarterly reporting will obfuscate some of the ‘bad news’ about advertising lineage and revenue.”

In recent years, those numbers have not been pretty, particularly the PIB ad page figures, which are considered more reliable than the ad dollar data.

On average, ad pages grew by about 5% a year in the 1990s for the 230-plus magazines the PIB tracks. But since 2000 the industry has seen an average annual decline of more than a tenth of a percent in pages (about .12%). Even if one allows some time for a post 9/11 recovery, industry performance in the last few years has been disappointing. Pages were up less than one percent (.7%) for 2005 and an even flatter one-tenth of one percent for 2006.

What’s at the root of the problem? Many in the industry cite the economy. “Everyone blames the economy whether it’s good, bad or indifferent,” Walker said. But he acknowledged that certain economic factors, such as the slumping auto industry, have played a role in declining ad pages over the past few years.

Many publishers, however, worry that the bigger problem is the emergence of the Web as a medium of choice for readers and advertisers. The Web’s niche audiences allow companies to target specific consumers. Meanwhile advertisers, concerned they are not getting accurate counts of who sees their products, have begun expressing dissatisfaction with magazine audience measurements.

The industry has tried to respond to some of those advertiser concerns—with decidedly mixed results.

A year ago, the Audit Bureau of Circulations launched its Rapid Report service, whichputs circulation estimates online much faster than the release of its traditional six-month reports. But only a few publications signed up to be included. Another service, Readership.com, which was designed to continuously measure how many people read specific issues of magazines, never got past trial runs because of lack of funding.

The problem has gotten serious enough that some of the nation’s biggest advertisers—including Kraft, Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola—are reportedly considering ending their advertising in magazines if they don’t get issue-by-issue circulation guarantees.

Ultimately, reducing the number of public PIB releases won’t do anything to solve the larger issues the magazine business is facing, Walker says, but it will likely lead to less, or at least less frequent, bad news about the industry.