Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Magazines’ clogged circulation

Posted by metaphorical on 18 January 2007

The NY Times is having a little cat-fight with People magazine. Last week, it put out a press release:

NEW YORK–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Jan. 10, 2007–The New York Times Magazine is the number one publication in advertising pages for 2006, according to The Publishers Information Bureau (PIB). For the year 2006, The Magazine had a total of 3,965 ad pages – a gain of 181 pages over the previous year. This is the fifth consecutive year that The Magazine has ranked in the top five among all national magazines measured by PIB.

For the period Jan. 1, 2006 through Dec. 31, 2006, PIB ranked the top national magazines according to total ad pages:

1. The New York Times Magazine

2. People Weekly

3. InStyle

4. Forbes

This week, People struck back, as Women’s Wear Daily reports. After all, the Times magazine section is a section of the paper; we buy the paper, not the magazine section itself:

Told of the ranking, which put People at number two, People’s publisher, Paul Caine, argued it compared apples and oranges, since the Times’ magazines are officially considered part of the Sunday magazine category and aren’t sold on their own. “Lots of magazines have a lot of ad pages — controlled circulation magazines, for example, or in-flight magazines. I saw one for truck drivers that was superthick.” (Incidentally, some Times folks have taken to calling the ad-driven T supplement and its offspring “the in-flight magazine of the Times.”) Caine added, “The phone book probably sells more ads than us, but PIB [Publishers Information Bureau] makes a distinction for a reason.” People’s ad pages were down 2.9 percent in 2006 compared with 2005, to 3,741.18. A spokesman for the Times defended the list, saying it had compiled the ranking for several years without complaint.

The Times’ ranking also didn’t mention that People’s PIB-reported ad revenue of $872.7 million, up 2.6 percent from last year, is twice that of the PIB-estimated New York Times magazine’s $427.1 million. In fact, within the Sunday magazine category, Parade and USA Weekend significantly outpaced the Times’ magazine in PIB-reported revenue, if not in pages.

The question is, does People really want to open this can of worms?

The not-very-secret secret about magazines is we how no idea how many readers actually read them. Circulation figures are fine, but some frightening percentage of subscribers don’t even break the shrinkwrap. Some frightening percentage of the remainder read an article here or there.

Internet advertising isn’t great, but it’s a jillion times better. The Googles and Yahoos are able to count page views, click-throughs, and, increasing, by working with advertisers, actual sales. They can even offer advertisers a mix of all three, as a way of providing just the right balance of risk and reward (page views are high-risk, in that one knows nothing about whether it ever leads to a sale.

Something like that can be done with set-top boxes and PVRs as well. They can monitor whether people watch ads or not. Or not monitor, and have the equivalent of a page view. Ultimately, there may even be ways to track when watching an ad leads to a sale.

Print magazines like People will never have this. There may be some ways that print can support the web, as may be the case with newspapers, but the Web will, eventually be dominant. That’s because magazines exist for readers, but don’t exist without advertisers.


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