Everything’s Gonna Be All Right (Just Different)

Permanent Musical Accompaniment to this Post: 

I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Magazine Innovation Center’s ACT 7 conference at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS last week. The Magazine Innovation Center was founded in 2009 by Dr. Samir Husni of the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism in response to the crisis the magazine publishing industry found itself in after the start of the Great Recession of 2008. To me, the ACT conferences (ACT means Amplify, Clarify, Testify) serve two purposes: The first is to give a small group of magazine professionals a chance to meet together and exchange information about the business in a setting that is outside the usual “industry conference” setting. The second and in some ways more important one is to allow undergraduate and graduate students of journalism and magazine publishing a chance to learn from and interact with industry professionals.

This was not my first time to an ACT conference. In fact, it was my fourth. I attended the first in 2010, the second a few years later. Last year I was incredibly privileged to give a presentation on launching a magazine onto the newsstand. This year I served on a panel that discussed what publishers needed to know in order to have a successful launch.

Overby
The Overby Center, home to the ACT Conference.

I return to the ACT conferences because I thoroughly enjoy the intimacy of the conference community and it pairs well with the depth of experience of the presenters and panelists. There is a very collegial and community feel to the meeting. If you’ve ever been to a International Regional Magazine Association meeting you may know what I’m talking about.

The other reason is the students. These are some pretty incredible people. Their mere presence defies all of the stereotypes you read about Millennials and Gen Ys. I’ll discuss that more in a bit.

If you want to know what some of the panels were like, check out Dr. Husni’s blog to see what I am talking about.

This week, the newsstand business is buzzing with the news that TNG, the largest magazine wholesaler in North America is purchasing Ingram Periodicals, LLC (IPI) from the Ingram Content Group. IPI is the exclusive magazine distributor to Barnes and Noble, Jo Anne’s Fabrics, and several hundred independent bookstores. B&N may account for as much as 75 -80% of IPI’s business according to several industry professionals.

As soon as this news was released, my email and my phone blew up with comments and questions about what all of this will mean. What is the future for the newsstand side of the magazine business?

So?

Obviously TNG will get bigger. Most likely, the IPI warehouses will close. Some IPI employees may get to stay on in the TNG organization. Others will not find jobs and will leave the industry. Will TNG look to acquire Media Solutions next? Hudson News? What will this mean for One Source, the distributor to Whole Foods who uses IPI warehouses? How will they wield all of this accumulated power?

Much of the commentary I heard was negative. Depending on your point of view, working in the newsstand business is pretty much nothing but a long hard slog from one bit of “bad news” to another bit of “bad news.”

But let’s be realistic. What’s been going on in the newsstand distribution business since the massive consolidations of 1995 – 1997 is nothing other than change. We often don’t like change but so what? It may be personal to us but to the people who implement change, it is not personal.

Change in our business came as regional retail chains gave way to large powerhouse national chains. Simultaneously, TV Guide gave way to cable television. The seven sisters of the check-outs gave way to other forms of entertainment for women. Adult entertainment magazines, the third leg of the profit triad for magazine wholesalers, retailers and national distributors lost circulation to VHS tapes, then to DVDs, and finally the internet. Those three sources of newsstand circulation were what made magazine racks in retail stores the “must haves” for retailers. Unlike our European cousins, our industry focused on check out exposure and not the mainline.

We have two large national magazine wholesalers because the large national chains that carry magazines want it that way. We lose circulation because there are many other things (like Netflix and YouTube) that compete for people’s leisure time and pocket change. Retail shopping patterns are changing. Perhaps you’ve heard of Amazon?

Throughout the past decade, we’ve heard call and response after call and response for the newsstand business to “work together”. To “solve” the problems of the newsstand. I would suggest to you that the newsstand may be the way larger publishers and retailers want it to be. Mostly out of sight, mostly out of mind. Frankly the folks in the executive suites have other things on their mind: Events, mobile web, video, subscriptions, and newsletters.  Newsstand is and always has been a small piece of the circulation pie. Just a very visible one that people like to write about.

I’ve always liked this business because I like magazines and I like characters. And there are still a lot of characters and magazines in this business. When I started this blog, I talked about surfing the waves of change. You can surf. Or you drown. It is up to us who work in this business to affect as much change as we can on behalf of our publishers. You want change? Make it so.

Why do I think “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right”?

At the close of the ACT 7 conference, Samir called a number of students up onto the stage at the Overby Center. These students were seniors in Samir’s class and their final project was to create, edit and print a magazine. I was fortunate enough to get to see some of these magazines and they were pretty impressive. as with other ACT conferences, I got to see and sometimes interact with Samir’s students.

MICACT7 Finale1
Dr. Samir Husni awards prizes to Ole Miss seniors for creating magazines as part of their final projects.

After seeing these students, let me tell you, when it comes to the magazine business, everything’s gonna be all right.

Just different. Very different.