How Bad Is It, Really? The Promise and Possibilities for Regional Magazines.

It is pretty apparent that the nation is still deep in the grips of a recession. Visits by consumers to retail stores are down and that means that the opportunity to make a sale is down. Now that the magazine circulation industry has had a chance to fully digest the news from the latest round of ABC reports and MagNet, we have to ask ourselves two questions:

“So, how bad is it, really?”

and

“What are we going to do about it”

The fast, glib answer is that it is pretty darn terrible. Continuing in that train of thought you can reach the conclusion  that the only thing to do is to cover yourself in sack cloth and ashes and go about the streets with torn clothing while wailing and gnashing your teeth.

But in today’s world, you’d likely be mistaken as the former owner of a McMansion who found himself homeless. Then you’d get arrested for vagrancy.

I caught a glimpse of a better answer to those two questions over the weekend while attending the annual IRMA (International Regional Magazine Association) conference in Reno, NV.

IRMA, is an association of state and city magazines that has banded together over the past fifty years to share information and their experience. They work collectively to promote their publications. Smaller and more loosely organized than the larger and better known CRMA (City and Regional Magazine Association), I found the round table discussions and presentations surprisingly frank, open, informative and, unusual for the market that we have lived in for the past three years, exhilarating.

These publishers were not necessarily upbeat about the economy or the short term outlook. But they were deeply committed to their brands, optimistic about their entrepreneurial abilities, and the ability of their staffs.  They were not willing to dump or bury their print magazines and eager to further explore the digital side of publishing.

Supposedly, we publishers are all dinosaurs lamenting the loss of our paper empire and cursing the cool kids on the other side of the office who tweet away all day on their fancy tablets. For these publishers nothing could be further from the truth. They are committed to their print brands and dedicated to using digital to enhance and expand their reach. All of them were engaging their audiences to some degree with social media. Interestingly, however, I gathered from some of the discussions that the web and mobile applications may hold more immediate potential for brand extension and profit than tablet editions.

My former Athlon Sports publishing colleague and fellow independent newsstand consultant Joe Luca, invited me to join him in a roundtable discussion, “The Modern Newsstand Environment” We opened with the question, “How Bad is It, Really?”

The answer is, “Not so great.”

This is true: If you’re a celebrity magazine, a major national check out title, or a middle of the pack mainline title. Or an adult entertainment magazine.

But if you are a regional magazine, we see a wealth of opportunity. Our goal in the presentation was to point them in that direction. While these publishers do not have the clout or wherewithal to change the existing paradigm of newsstand distribution, they do have a chance to live within today’s margins and have a successful run.

I recall reading many commentaries in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s lamenting the “Malling of America”. The theory is that the growth of national chains and franchises was removing what was unique and interesting about the various regional cultures of contemporary America.

But American’s love their hometowns and the uniqueness that surrounds all neighborhoods, towns, and cities continues to exist in spite of the ubiquity of McDonald’s, 7-11, Victoria Secrets stores and shuttered Borders bookstores. All politics are local, former House Speaker Tip O’Neil famously said. All regional magazines have a deep and abiding love and wealth of knowledge about the markets that they serve. The only other local organizations that may have a deeper knowledge of their local market is, ironically, the city newspaper. Today, however, the hometown newspapers is likely owned by a far away conglomerate saddled with unseemly LBO debt. So who really knows the neighborhood better? Our bet is the locally owned and operated publication.

During the presentation, Joe Luca demonstrated time and again that attention to detail at the local level would reveal opportunity after opportunity for the savvy regional publisher. Open check out pockets, previously ignored chain authorizations. We discussed the need to focus on special issues, the placement of temporary displays during peak seasonal issues and the need to engage, engage, engage the retailer, the wholesaler and the national distributor about the benefit of local magazines. These are the steps that will help a regional publisher grow single copy sales. Even in a down economy.

The problem our newsstand industry has is that consolidation of warehouses and national distributor operations resulted in the need by these companies to economize and cut costs. Local warehouses were shuttered. Sales representatives were laid off. Deep knowledge of individual markets was lost. None of this is unique to our business, or even surprising when compared to other businesses. But newsstand sales isn’t called the “Single Copy” business for nothing. You build sales volume copy by copy. Nickel by nickel. The loss of these warehouses was inevitable, and you can’t help but wonder if the resulting efficiencies of scale paid for the loss of unit sales and retail sales volume.

While regional publishers have the local knowledge that could help the wholesalers and national distributors, newsstand sales is usually the smallest part of their business and the last item on their check list. They don’t speak our language. They can get frustrated when we try to explain to them how we work. And I don’t blame them for that. It’s understandable.

So what was our conclusion?

Be fearless. Question everything you read and ask questions. Ask a lot of questions. Don’t be afraid to tackle your single copy sales. We’re here to help. Realize that you do have potential to sell more copies, more efficiently, and with more profitability.

Below is a copy of the presentation we made to the conference. Do you read your local city or state magazine? Do you think they have a good handle on the place where you live?

IRMA Newsstand 2011

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2 Replies to “How Bad Is It, Really? The Promise and Possibilities for Regional Magazines.”

  1. Matt, It was great meeting you and I absolutely loved being a part of the conference. What a great group of publishing people. Very cool too to meet you and revisit PA Mag – one of the first titles in my sample box back when I started working for the old Capital Distributing Co.

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