Thursday, September 06, 2007

And now, grim words from The Reaper

And now, grim words from The Reaper
He's a magazine insider--no names, please
By Diego Vasquez

The golden era of magazines is over, as the recent chill in ad pages and large number of high-profile closures can attest, so why not have a little fun with it? That's the idea behind the blog, the snarky site launched nearly two years ago to predict what publications would be put down next. Thus far this year, the site has correctly forecast the deaths of Jane, Stuff and Premiere, and it has a hall of fame dedicated to the best shuttered magazines over recent decades, including Fame, which closed in 1990, and Revolution, which went under six years ago. The site is run by The Reaper, who won't give his real name but claims years of experience in magazines and lots of contacts feeding him gossip. The most recent magazine to appear in The Reaper's sights is the long-struggling Business 2.0. Just yesterday Time Inc. announced it was folding the title, after months of speculation. The Reaper talks to Media Life about reading the signs of an impending death, who's going next, and why it might be pricey Condé Nast launch Portfolio.

How did the site start?

You know how they say the suicide rates are highest during the holidays? A number of things were happening at the same time in December 2005.

It was the time of Time Inc.'s first round of massive layoffs. Some very high-level executives were telling me of bleak prospects for their own properties. Private equity companies were setting their sites on stumbling publishing ventures. The flow of ad dollars out of magazine publishing was really picking up steam, while the Magazine Publishers of America was continuing to stumble getting into a fighting stance (not that it would have mattered).

The train was leaving the station, so the Reaper was born to take note of this passing of an era.

How do you peg the magazines most likely to expire?

Some magazines are such obvious "Dead Men Walking" that somebody has to say something. I do my research and speak to others in the business.

Additionally, I get a steady flow of emails from people inside the magazine publishers themselves, and a few from subscription agents who tip me off when somebody has pulled their business.

What are the tell-tale signs that a magazine is about to go under?

There are definitely warning signs that the road has gotten rocky, whether it's corporate abandonment, constantly changing editorial directions in an attempt to get anything going, key executives not being replaced, betting too heavily on newsstand sales, abnormally high turnover, or putting out a magazine that readers neither need nor want.

How often are you right?

Looking back, it seems I've had a pretty good number of correct predictions. There are others that are still hanging around for some reason, some rather mysteriously, but time is always on The Reaper's side.

Which magazines look particularly vulnerable to death right now?

Tango, Hollywood Life, Radar, TV Guide, Sound & Vision, Kiplinger's Personal Finance and, in the long run (meaning two years), Portfolio.

Tango and Hollywood Life have tiny circulations with minimal advertiser support. Tango cut back its frequency last year to quarterly. There are no signs of health in either publication, so they must have sugar daddies or inherited millions or somehow they are barely staying up through levitation.

Radar is a special and admirable publication that is just plain cursed with the wrong investors every time it comes back to life. Investors need to have a great team and a truly intelligent veteran in charge with a very clear and seasoned direction of what to do.

Compare either of Radar's last two investors to the people who just bought Dennis Publishing. It's like night and day.

TV Guide has dwindling circulation and buzz, and is just becoming an antiquated concept, much like Premiere magazine was. Between TiVo, DVRs, the web, and cable guide channels, the audience is getting older and smaller for TV Guide.

Sound & Vision covers an area where all the new developments have failed (SACD, DVD audio), and all you need to know is online. The best editors have left. Does one really need a long-term magazine subscription to find out about new great speakers and plasma TVs? You buy these things once.

Personal finance is one of the toughest categories to be in during the internet age. Kiplinger's not only is the No. 3 title, which is not a great place to be in these days, but they fired their whole sales staff and replaced them with sales rep agencies. They have the oldest audience, and it's getting smaller and smaller. Kiplinger's is becoming less and less essential. And they have no real digital strategy in place, which the other two titles (Money, SmartMoney) do.

Why Portfolio?

Portfolio is a larger, more expensive version of Cargo. Nobody asked for it, but Condé Nast believes advertisers will. Readers have not demanded a new business magazine at a time when magazines are already in trouble and there've been too many of them.

Condé Nast does not have it in its DNA to do anything humbly. I think Portfolio is a curiosity piece and once the bloom is off the rose, the newsstand sales will eventually tell the tale.

Like Cargo, Portfolio will not catch on with readers in the long run. Advertisers will eventually detect that there is no reader commitment or desire, and it will eventually fold.

Which magazine's demise this year most surprised you?

None of them. None at all.

All the titles that have passed so far closed for very good reasons cited by myself well before their closing: Jane Pratt leaving Jane, FHM throwing caution to the wind and going way, way down-market in desperation, Stuff being the odd man out at Dennis Publishing.

Which magazine that should have been killed off years ago is still thriving?

Spin. Although I am not quite sure I'd call them "thriving." It's more like keeping their head barely above water.

Spin was a great brand that lost its way and the sizzle of that brand. It primarily represented one thing, alternative and grunge rock, and once that passed, the title slowly became a relic.

Even though it exists now, it's still very much an outdated brand with not much clout. I don't know how they will thrive with record companies moving their budgets online.

Which magazine category is most vulnerable this year?

Shelter, and also parenting.

For shelter, the housing boom is over, and ad pages are down significantly.

For parenting, mothers are finding all their information online. There's no shortage of web sites and message boards devoted to this topic. Younger mothers are not replacing the older mothers who have outgrown the titles.

Have there been more or fewer deaths than usual this year?

I feel like the anti-Samir Husni. The year is not over yet, but we're still moving at a steady pace. There are major titles, both big and small, that have taken my boat ride, and I don't see that ending anytime soon.

Diego Vasquez is a staff writer for Media Life.

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