Survival and the Future of Print Publications
Comments on the industry’s precarious future
By Publisher Jim Pasero

So how does a magazine make it to its tenth anniversary issue, especially when one out of two magazines never see their second issue? It’s a miracle.

It’s a miracle because 1) as we will mention in greater detail below, the industry of generic news magazines is in serious decline, and 2) the entire print industry in America and beyond is being devoured by the Internet. And that is worrisome. The Internet, for all its strengths, is not a source for good journalism, rather it feels more like Talk Radio gone mad. A little of it goes a long, long way.

Several times in the last few years we have researched other magazines to examine our long-range financial prospects. Despite the hundreds of magazines published in America, finding a comparison to BrainstormNW magazine has not been simple. BNW is not a regional news magazine in the sense that Time magazine, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report are national news magazines, because our editorial content is more eclectic. Which was fortunate for us, because the economic models for these national news magazines is collapsing. Overtaken by the Internet, they are shadows of their former selves, kept financially afloat by parent companies not wanting to surrender the prestige and brand of these well-known publications.

The economic model for print newspapers is not as dire as news magazines, because most papers are still somewhat financially successful. But the line on the financial chart for traditional newspapers goes aggressively down.

The closest match we could find were national “thought” magazines such as The Weekly Standard, The Nation, The New Republic, and The American Spectator. The comparison wasn’t perfect, because all four of these magazines are national. Their editorial focus is concentrated on politics and ideas, where BNW, because of its smaller market, has a more eclectic editorial focus combining lifestyle coverage with politics, business and ideas. However, despite the difference in market size, BNW compared somewhat favorably in circulation numbers with these national magazines: 25,000 for BNW versus 60,000 for The New Republic, 60,000 for The American Spectator and 195,000 for The Nation.

Now comparing BNW to a national “thought” magazine may be a bit self-serving. However, after 10 years of publication, we’re entitled to some self-congratulatory comments. Anyone who has ever seen Oregonian editor Sandra Rowe speak publicly knows that she too is fond of self-compliments.

One reason BNW compares favorably to national “thought” magazines is because our influence as a cultural leader in our region is often greater than our circulation numbers would suggest, allowing us to continue to stay in business and struggle with a sometimes daunting business model. Today, all quality print publications struggle with their business model. The New York Times has 18 million readers a day, but 17 million of them are reading the paper free on the Internet — not a good model.

The Bancroft family recently sold Dow Jones (The Wall Street Journal and Barron’s) to Rupert Murdoch because the nation’s best paper was financially underperforming. The Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and countless other respected daily newspapers have made dramatic staff cuts to stay profitable.

Our research of comparable business models led us to C-Span founder Brian Lamb’s network show, “Q & A”, where he had recently interviewed a group of editors and publishers, including Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. of The American Spectator, and Peter Beinart of The New Republic. You can’t argue about the influence of these four publications. The American Spectator, under Tyrrell’s leadership, led the assault on Bill Clinton during his presidency, and The Weekly Standard, under Kristol’s guidance, gets a lot of the credit for pushing America into war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Magazines with that much influence have to be money makers, right? You would think so, but you would be wrong.

Of these four leading “thought” magazines, three of them operate as for-profit magazines: The Nation, The New Republic and The Weekly Standard. The American Spectator is published as a nonprofit magazine.

The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel discussed the magazine’s financial situation with Lamb. The Nation began publishing in 1865. So is it profitable? “We’re for profit, though we’ve made a profit for only two out of 142 years, but we’re working on it.”

The two years that the liberal Nation magazine has made a profit are recent. “It’s a terrible thing to say,” said vanden Heuvel, “but George Bush in the White House certainly animated subscriptions.”

The Nation is kept afloat by a circle of patrons who subscribe to the publication at rates 10-100 times higher than the average subscription. That patron circle is led by actor and liberal activist Paul Newman.

The Weekly Standard, the world’s leading neo-conservative publication, though for profit, also loses money. Kristol told Lamb that he and Rupert Murdoch meet once a year to go over the magazine’s financial statements. “We try to take our losses seriously,” said Kristol, conceding that the owner of NewsCorp covets the publication’s influence and importance.

But is Murdoch getting his money worth? Kristol pondered the question. “I don’t know,” he told Lamb. “I’ve often wondered about this … I do think that one thing you can do when you have a magazine is that you provide a critical mass. You bring people together. You recruit young people, and people stimulate each other.” R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. publishes The American Spectator as a nonprofit publication, which has caused him grief, lots of grief, especially when his most prominent donor, Richard Scaife, was helping fund the Arkansas Project through the magazine’s foundation. The Arkansas Project funded journalists in the 1990s who were investigating Clinton’s background. The White House struck back at The American Spectator with vengeance for the magazine’s political work. Tyrrell talked to Lamb about “how the government tried to run us out of business … how we were dragged before grand juries.”

He summed up The American Spectator’s ’90s this way: “We had been exposed to the kind of harassment that no magazine in the last 50 years has been exposed to.”

Despite past trauma, and the magazine’s subscription numbers declining from a peak of 300,000 in the Clinton years to 60,000 today, Tyrell is still passionate about his product and its niche. “It is important these small magazines continue to exist because they introduce ideas and questions into mainstream journalism that mainstream journalism is just too bulky and fatuous to take up,” he told Lamb.

For many years, The New Republic, which began in 1914, did not make money but had its losses covered by owner Martin Peretz. Peretz owned The New Republic from 1975- 2007. At the magazine’s peak, when it was the leading voice for the “New Democrats,” such as Bill Clinton and Joe Lieberman, the publication counted almost 100,000 subscribers. Today, circulation is half that. In response, this year The New Republic dropped from 44 issues a year to 24.

While things seem glum in the world of print publications, not all are pessimistic. Brock Yates, author of the movie “Cannonball Run,” decades-long columnist for Car and Driver magazine, author of several books on auto racing, and former frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal op-ed page, is hopeful about the future of print publications and newspapers, and he doesn’t believe his sentiments are based merely on nostalgia. As he recently told BNW, “I think there will always be a place for print and it’s because of its portability. Print can be picked up and used in a totally different way.

“Certainly if you want to find out instantaneously what’s happening, you use the Internet, and that’s certainly true with a segment of the population. But there’s a substantial side of the population that wants to read and spend time with printed information.

“If you like a sports columnist,” says Yates, “you don’t want to read 1,000 words of a sports column on the Internet.”

Yates also sees the growth of the book industry as another hopeful sign. “The book business is doing quite nicely. People want to pick up a long, interesting story, a novel, and deal with it over a relatively long period of time.” Just ask the fans of Harry Potter.

David Olmos is less optimistic than Yates about print’s future. Olmos has in recent years backed up his sentiments with a career move. After almost a decade as the editor of the Los Angeles Times Health section, Olmos left the paper to become director of publishing and communications for the California Healthcare Foundation. Olmos thinks that when newspapers chase younger readers, they are not playing a winning hand.

“I recall that in my days at the LA Times there were a flurry of projects and committees and focus groups to figure out ways for daily papers to attract younger readers. A lot of papers tried different approaches, but I’m not sure any of them were successful. Because younger people aren’t willing to sit down with a newspaper; they are not interested,” says Olmos.

Olmos points to the Chicago Tribune putting out a daily special edition for younger readers. “They filled it up with entertainment, music and events, but, again, I don’t know that it was all that successful.”

Olmos has a point. Newspapers have been “dumbing down” content for more than a decade in a desperate chase after a younger audience. And the results are not good. An article in the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Journalism Review, “What Newspapers and Their Web Sites Must Do to Survive,” discussed a study done by Belden Associates asking if younger readers were responding to newspapers’ often frenetic attempts to get them involved with their paper’s online editions. What the study found, according to the article, was that “only 9 percent of online newspaper readers were ages 18 to 24, and only 25 percent were ages 25 to 34 — results remarkably similar to newsprint edition readership.”

So with a depression hanging over the shrinking industry, is print media still powerful? “Yes,” says Olmos, “I think newspapers’ power and prestige remain pretty strong. They maintain a lot of impact on policy and other issues. And that influence is tied to holding people accountable, the watchdog role that papers play if you mess up.”

Olmos, like many others doesn’t believe that the Internet serves this purpose in the same manner. “I read the San Franciso Chronicle every day. I find it essential for giving me some idea of what the issues are in my community. I don’t know that there is another source that so efficiently gives me that information as does the daily paper, and they have had a lot of cuts. And, still, most of the time they are doing a pretty damn good job of it.”

But he warns that none of this should be taken for granted, especially the newspaper’s job of playing its traditional role in informing the public. “This is all going to be threatened,” says Olmos, “if newspapers don’t find a new business model to support their investigative reporting. Investigative reporting needs resources, that kind of work is a loss-leader, and to me it’s scary that that type of reporting could be threatened, because you don’t see that kind of work on the blogs.”

Last month, the Financial Times asked Mort Zuckerman, owner and editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report, and Forbes’ 188th wealthiest American, to predict the future of print media. Zuckerman, whose own publication is struggling financially, admitted the crucial role that newspapers and magazines play in running a democracy, but added problematically that after awhile even wealthy people get tired of losing money.

Read also about the future of: Books, Checks, Deindustrialization, Music, Newspapers, Privacy, Post Office, Telephone Land Lines, Television, and Things

BrainstormNW - October 2007

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