Magazine industry ad decline slowing, but 4th quarter not good

The final tally came in this week for print magazine advertising in 2013. It is the typical good news/bad news scenario.

Ad pages — the industry’s traditional measure — were down 4.1 percent for the year. That could be read as a step forward from 2012 when the decline was 8.2 percent.

Quarterly year-to-year comparisons had improved through the year, with the third quarter off just 1.8 percent compared to a year earlier, the best performance in two years. But the fourth quarter headed back the wrong way, off 4.8 percent, indicating marketing budget cuts at year’s end and perhaps a below par holiday season.

The weak fourth quarter at magazines suggests that newspaper ad results for the period, which will be reported by public companies in February and for the industry in March will probably soften too.

We will return to the overall measures in a minute, but here is a tasty tidbit.  Can you guess which category of magazines did best, bucking the negative trend and finishing up 11.2 percent in pages for the year? (I couldn’t).

The winner, according to a compilation by Media Life Magazine was men’s titles. Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness were both up by more than a quarter for 2013. Details, Esquire and GQ, all had gains of 10 percent or better. Maxim (-16.8 percent)  and Playboy (-5.4 percent) were down, reflecting declining circulation as their genre of photo offerings are now readily available online, in varying degrees of raunch, for free.

Among the weakest performers were the three surviving newsweeklies — Time (-11.4 percent), The Economist (-16.1 percent), and The Week (-19.7 percent).

So among print magazine readers, at least, abs and prostates are hot, news not so much.

The Media Life list is detailed and can be scanned to see how your favorite titles or categories did last year.  Entertainment and celebrity magazines were strong; high-end general titles like The New Yorker, New York and The Atlantic were off.

A few notable growth categories of the last decade — like food and shelter — have now leveled off and saw a small decline in ad pages

Media Life is directed at media buyers. That group includes young professionals at ad agencies and specialized boutique firms. The buyers are notorious for moving as a herd, so being a hot title begets still more business and comparatively weak performers are scorned.

The Publishers Information Bureau, source of the statistics, also now provides an estimate of revenues. They were better than the ad page counts for almost every title and came out even or just up for the industry compared to 2012.

This measure also does not include digital advertising. That’s not an area of strength for magazines, which even more than newspapers continue to lose ad share to the digital giants and other digital-only offerings.

Tablet editions, though a small contributor to magazine finances as yet, continue to grow both audience and advertising. A separate study commissioned by the bureau’s parent association, MPA, found that the 69 magazines that measure iPad ad units increased the units by 16 percent in 2013.

The limitations of considering just ad pages as a measure of financial health disadvantage organizations furthest up the curve in digital transformation. For instance, The Atlantic’s traditional monthly print magazine was down in pages 16.8 percent for the year. But the company’s broader portfolio includes a hugely successful conference business and the strong launch of the digital-only Quartz business news site.

Especially if the tablet use is included, magazine audience is stable or up slightly for the year.  However, as numerous reports including Pew’s State of the News Media 2013 have noted, single copy sales, the highest margin circulation revenue, have crashed.

Travelers, especially those looking for something to watch or read on a plane, are increasingly choosing digital alternatives, rather than the old routine of buying a handful of magazines before they board.

Curiously, the print revenues of all magazines — $19.7 billion for the Publisher Information Bureau titles — is just ahead of those of daily newspapers. Those were $18.9 billion in 2012 but sure to decline more when 2013 full-year results are compiled.

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