On Monday, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported that newsstand sales for American consumer magazines “declined,” in the summary of the NYT, “9.1%, to 39.3 million, in the last half of 2009 versus the same period a year earlier.” Frightful as these numbers may appear, that they are not more frightful, the major-domos of magazine-publishing inform us, is cause for optimism, if not quite champagne. That’s because, in the first half of 2009, newsstand magazine sales declined 12.36%. The decline, in other words, is decreasing. The decline is in decline. Though far from stanched, though still voluminous, the bleeding, we are encouraged to believe, has slowed. The NYT quotes Kenneth Godshall, “executive vice president for consumer marketing at the industry group Magazine Publishers of America”:
“Single-copy sales are very recession sensitive — it’s a discretionary, impulse purchase…We’re encouraged that the rate of decline has slowed.”
In a blighted industry, the biggest players must also be the biggest losers. Thus, recently overhauled Newsweek’s newsstand sales fell “41.3% to about 62,000,” and Time — while remaining the leader in overall circulation for the weekly news titles — dropped “34.9% to about 90,000.”
Such losses were par for the course among major newsmagazines. The report was not, however, without a scattering of bright spots. Among popular magazines, American Rifleman and Women’s Health both posted significant upticks in circulation, prompting me, anyway, to ponder whether the authors of the Second Amendment intended the right to bear arms to embrace the Luna Bar.
Needless to say, the Audit Bureau report has elicited a range of explanations and mitigations from spokespersons affiliated with the big magazines, including Time and Newsweek. They tend to bring up three factors. First of all, these magazines are still category-leaders. They are still selling, relative to other magazines, at an enviable clip. Secondly, 2008, the touchstone for the 2009 numbers, was also an election year; and neither was it just any election. In terms of the scale and intensity of public interest – or rather, of public entrancement – the 2008 presidential election is unmatched by any other event in our era. It created a lust for news that lifted newsstand sales to an exaggerated, unsustainable level. Even if it were a bull market for magazines, a decline would have been inevitable. Finally, these declines are also, it is claimed, in part the trimmings of a new economy of distribution. Fewer magazines were packed off to newsstands in the latter half of 2009, with the result that fewer were sold, but at a more efficient rate.
Ever since Warren Buffet, the planet’s premier omniscient, predicted the decline of print media back in 1992, the print media have had to contend with an increasingly febrile conviction, among media observers, that they are doomed. They have had to live in the shadow of their own eschatology. The Audit Bureau numbers, equal parts downpour and uplift, are too ambiguous for either side of this argument to claim them decisively. Whether they mark a watershed in magazine publishers’ efforts to reverse the ebb of the past few decades, or just a lull within that ebb, remains to be seen.
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