Dancing at the Apocalypse Bonfire

Every now and then Baird Davis, a retired Ziff-Davis Publishing circulation VP will pen an article that shows up in an industry trade journal like Folio, Publishing Executive or the BoSacks newsletter. He reviews the latest AAM (formerly ABC Audit of Circulation) statistics and offer some analysis. It may not be his intention, but Baird’s articles always felt like a slap upside the head to me and many of us magazine professionals. “Wake up, already” his op-eds  seem to say.

Years ago in what now feels like another reality timeline I was a consultant to Ziff-Davis and Baird was a level or two above my report. Sometimes he would come visit one of the magazine wholesalers I was calling on and it always felt like I was reporting in to my very stern (but fair) uncle. You know; the one you always double checked to make sure your pants were creased properly, that you were sitting up straight and your tie was tied properly.

This morning in a post titled “Saving Printed Consumer Magazines in the Social Media Era: It’s Significance and Challenges” Baird deals us magazine professionals a healthy dose of reality. Like truly sobering reality.

Yeah, It’s Not Like We Didn’t Already Know, But…

It’s not as though he isn’t pointing out things we already knew. But I think that these days, those of us who have some “history” in the business are just too darn busy to acknowledge what he’s pointing out. These days, we just “carry on:”

  • The number of major publishers has shrunk
  • The number of next tier publishers with influence in the business is now nearly nil
  • There were too many overpriced and overextended acquisitions in previous decades
  • Layoffs have decreased institutional knowledge
  •  Much subscription circulation is cheaply and poorly acquired
  • The newsstand business was allowed to consolidate, wither and decline

Go and read the article. Then come on back and let’s discuss. I have a few additional thoughts we can discuss.

It’s a procrastinators joke that we will always put off until the day after what we could have done tomorrow. So I would like to imagine that some magazine professionals  hesitated when companies like Ziff-Davis and Petersen were purchased in the 1990’s for $1.4 and $1.2 billion. Davis points this out, and I will highlight it. I had already witnessed up close the impact of highly leveraged purchases when a company I worked for, Family Media, collapsed in the go-go 1990’s. And yet, I remember feeling exhilarated when I heard the price Softbank paid for my then biggest client, Ziff-Davis.

I imagine, that there were circulation professionals who wondered if it was smart to load up their files with so much “verified” and “non-paid audited bulk” circulation. And yet, if that worked and the guys in the corner offices were happy…

I know of one or two newsstand professionals who murmured “This ain’t  good” into their coffee cups when the number of major magazine wholesalers collapsed from four to three to two to one. Do you think there were a few editors who wondered how they were going to review articles, get re-tweets and Facebook likes and come up with a new editorial calendar? And do their jobs with integrity?

Who’s minding the store now in consolidated America? Where can you get “lean back” immersive news (or entertainment) that is not dependent on either advertising, a stock price or the financial backing of some leveraged private equity firm? If you live outside a major city, can you even get news about what your local county board is up to?

Pro tip answer to that last question: “Most likely, no.”

Come On Down to The Apocalypse Bonfire

As a magazine professional, I have to say that it feels like I’m at the edge of some apocalyptic bonfire. The drums are hot, heavy, and completely out of synch. There’s dancing, but no one knows the steps. There is rote and tradition, but no one understands it. No one wants to follow along. A few people are having a fine time. But most are uncomfortable and waiting for that singular “Lord of the Flies” moment. It’s coming. Soon, maybe?

image
This looks fun! Source: Wikipedia

What’s Next?

Baird offers “Suggested Next Steps” and as I often do, I find myself nodding my head in agreement. But it feels like he is offering us a West Wing moment. You know, in the West Wing television show, the music swells, President Bartlet comes out from behind the Resolute Desk, says something inspiring and we all feel a bit chagrined that he had to point out to us how to behave properly.

martin-sheen-the-west-wing-ftr
You know you want to go and do the right thing, right? Source: Parade Magazine

Baird suggests that we try and put together a committee to help the industry navigate the Covid-19 and post Covid-19 era. The goal would be to try and hold the two major players, Hearst and Meredith accountable. Good idea. But I highly doubt that these two companies having survived and thrived to this moment (Either because they long range planned themselves to this moment or arrived here through luck and the foolishness of their competitors) would put up with that.

The magazine industry does need organizations that would speak for us and remind us to do the right thing. But at the moment, we’re all down at the beach, dancing at the apocalypse bonfire. If you’re still sober, you’re wondering what will happen next.

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