Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: How Magazine Publishing is Faring Around the World

By Linda Ruth, cross posted on BoSacks.com

Moving our focus out for an international perspective, Ian Watts dropped in on the Publishing Pandemic Roundtable—Bo Sacks, Gemma Peckham, Joe Berger, Samir Husni, Sherin Pierce, and me—to tell us that there are bright points of hope in a world market that is still facing the impact of the pandemic. 

Ian is the Director of Pincot Consulting Ltd, from whence he provides international circulation services to Genera Solutions, America’s largest magazine exporter. I can’t remember when I met Ian; he’s been in our business a long time. He started out with WH Smith Wholesale in the UK in the 1970’s.  

“That was a great academy for English circulation people, back in the day,” he tells us. “They did great training, hoping to invest in people they would then keep for life.” Those who left were picked up by publishers—in Ian’s case, Murdoch in the 1980’s, then SM Magazine Distribution, then Hachette, who owned an export company in the UK and COMAG UK. He’s been in international ever since. 

Following a stint as International Sales Director of Comag UK, Ian went on his own. His specialty was taking kids’ product and making it international product. He launched some big success stories internationally, including Spice Girls magazines, and later Sudoku magazines. His job now is to liaise with the 70-80 markets around the world that receive American exports and get the best deals and service for Genera’s US publisher clients.  

Ian: It’s a fascinating, exciting field. Every market around the world is an individual market with its own characteristics, facing the same issues that we face, but dealing with it individually. It’s very stimulating, learning about how these different markets manage. 

Roundtable Participants (from Top Left): Ian Watts, Joe Berger, Samir Husni, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, Linda Ruth, Bo Sacks.

Joe: Can you give us an idea as to how these various markets look for imported product? 

Ian: Due to Covid responses It’s tough everywhere. International markets are going through a hard time for their own domestic publications; and it’s harder still for import. A lot of the import sale comes from travel locations, and of course travel has been decimated in most countries. There are exceptions. Some of the larger markets, for example Australia, continue to have domestic travel; but overall travel is down 90%, and outlets are closed in many airports. The sales we are currently getting are indicative of the market for import products consisting of people who live in the market, as opposed to travelers. They could be local-language speakers, or expatriates.  

Joe: Do you see any bright spots?  

Ian: There are certainly exceptions to this downturn. The strong, heavy-edit magazines, ones that look toward American politics, and to how we might fix the world, ones oriented toward business, are doing relatively well travel outlets notwithstanding. Examples are Foreign Affairs, Atlantic magazine and the New York Review of Books. US Business magazines are highly respected, for example Harvard Business Review

Linda: New York Review of Books actually increased in sale in markets where sales of US products were dropping up to 50%.  

Ian: We saw some new opportunities arise. In many countries throughout the world, we’ve seen a resurgence of domestic kids’ magazines, so we took a look at our portfolio. Now, for example, Thrasher magazine is performing strongly in Australia and across Europe. 

Sherin: COVID aside, have you seen the political situation over the last four years causing a decline in US magazine sales? America used to be a shining star, but it seems that glow is tarnished. People used to buy magazines for US culture, lifestyle, aspiration. Do you see that as continuing? 

Ian: With the loss of sales internationally, it’s difficult to pin down changes that might be due to politics. 

Samir: For a majority of magazines, it’s pop culture that draws people. A Thrasher reader wants to know about skateboards, not about who is president of US. People really don’t give a hoot. 

Ian: Yes, for example when you’re talking about surfing, who doesn’t want a magazine from California? And the coolest kid is always the one with a copy of the physical magazine in his hand. We’ve seen outstanding recent success with Esquire featuring BTS (the Korean pop phenomenon) on the cover.

Samir:Esquire went to a second printing; and wholesalers had to pay in advance for the copies they ordered. 

Ian: They printed tens of thousands copies of the US version in Korea for a sell-out. 

Samir: Fascinating how they are working to get a younger audience without losing the older. 

Ian: Harry Styles was an even bigger success. Selling over 90%–unheard of. 

Samir: When was the last time you heard of something like that on a website or digital platform? 

Ian: Fans are so devoted they seem to get info about this quicker than we do. Politics and digital technology aside, if you have a premium brand and a hot topic, magazines still deliver what the audience wants.

Joe: Stateside we see a trend to bookazines eating up a lot of mainline and checkouts. Do we see that in overseas markets? 

Ian: Very much so. If you go into a WH Smith, most of the prime real estate is bookazines. 

Sherin: Can you give us a picture of the import market in Europe? 

Ian: Of course, in many markets, sales are predicated on the ability to read English. And then, we get back to the unique features of every market. In France, for example, they’ve had structural problems over the past years. Not only pandemic-related; they suffered the loss of their major distributor, NMPP, in 2020. NMPP was a coop owned by publishers to distribute magazines and newspapers, and it was preserved by law from 1947 under the Bichet law whose intent was to ensure that news be available throughout the country, and accessible to all. Since the 1950’s, NMPP never made money. It was repeatedly bailed out by the government. Reality hit this year. Another distributor was established and picked it up, but there was a hiatus. We stopped shipping, only restarting in September. In Germany, they kept the train outlets open because Germans desperate for reading matter went into the stations to buy knowing that they are the go-to range stockists. In Italy, almost as a matter of principle, the news kiosks stayed open, but sales are badly down. Spain’s economy is driven by tourists from Northern Europe, and no one is arriving.  Throughout Europe we need the traveling public back. The vaccine is rolling out fast in Britain, and Portugal and Cyprus have been the first to step forward to say they’ll allow British travelers in from May. The progress of the vaccine in continental Europe has been initially much slower, but the EU and country governments are beginning to get things moving. 

Joe: What about Australia and New Zealand? 

Ian: Still a good market. New Zealand is a small market, with only 6 million people, but it has the highest literacy rate in world. The NZ market was hit hard when Bauer closed its publications. But we’re seeing a bit of a resurgence as former Bauer employees set up “me too” titles to replace what was lost and creatin former Bauer title are relaunched by independent publishers. Also, they’ve been able to securely lock down those two islands, so they haven’t been hit as hard by COVID. The same thing is happening in Australia. The news agencies have always been considered essential retailers; they never closed and have even seen increases in some sectors, like crafts, kids and puzzles.  Their complaint is that there is less US product arriving. Some publishers decided to cut export, and others closed entirely, so not enough was being shipped. Despite this reduction in supplies, they are only 11% down—a good number. We’re going back and saying now’s the right time to get back into this market.  South Africa also had a distributor that exited last year, but fortunately in that market there still are choices, we found a new distributor, and despite hiatus issues sold through well. We’re finding the people there desperate for reading material.  

Sherin: Do you see growth possibilities in South America and Africa? 

Ian: The only market worth anything from a North American or British point of view is South Africa. They have a problem with the emigration of bright educated youngsters. But they have a good audience in the older sector and an emerging middle class. Zimbabwe had its moment but since the devaluation of their currency the market has disappeared. We have small representations in Uganda, and throughout east Africa. In those markets few people have the money to buy magazines at the prices we’re asking. 

Samir: Will the increasing diversity that we’re seeing in American magazines help in Africa? Ian: Perhaps it ought to; however, in some the South African market, the readers don’t necessarily self-identify by race; they see themselves as middle class, aspiring people. They may be more likely to buy a GQ than an Ebony.  

Sherin: what about India’s enormous, well-educated, and upwardly mobile population? 

Ian: Imports tend to be too expensive for India. Also, to some degree the population has bypassed print and gone straight to mobile.   

Linda: There’ve been a few successful publishers who have the scale to print in India and sell at local prices. 

Ian: We’ve been down that road. By the time you’ve negotiated your contracts, factored in freight and been paid in rupees, it really doesn’t pay off. 

Samir: How is the Japanese market doing? 

Ian: There are 1.25 million Japanese, with only a maximum count of 150 retailers taking English-language press. Yet they are innovative. They were the first country to start to sell single copies online. The distributor treats Amazon Japan as one of its retailers—and it is now the largest newsstand retailer in Japan. Our distributor even owns a bookstore https://bunkitsu.jp/ where customers pay an entry fee and we are told this is a great success. With space under pressure at retail, Europe needs to go in that direction as well. Magazine Heaven has a large online store; and the UK’s largest, Newsstand.uk, was growing 20% annually before COVID. It’s an exciting development. The trick is going to be to have a brand that becomes known in the real world. WH Smith, for example, would be a powerful brand for an online store.


Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: “I Used to Be Somebody” – Planning Your Next Act With Carl Landau

By, Linda Ruth

Editor’s Note: The “Pandemic Publishing Roundtable” started a few weeks after the closing of most Barnes & Noble stores instigated a smattering of new articles proclaiming the end of that storied chain and the end of magazines at retail. While it is true that prior to the pandemic the future of single copy sales of magazines was at best a tenuous proposition, it’s death didn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. So once again, I was aggravated with the conventional wisdom of those who write about magazines. 

I reached out to my colleague, Linda Ruth and together we came up with the idea of starting a weekly roundtable discussion with other members of the publishing community. We could talk about almost anything. We could invite other publishers, distributors, consultants to come and talk with us. 

As we were all isolated from our places of work, the meetings became a great help this year in maintaining a feeling of connectedness to something, anything. 

The article below, is the write up my colleague, Linda Ruth wrote and was posted in the BoSacks newsletter, and on his website. Joe Berger January 19, 2021

Carl Landau, founder of Pickleball Media and publisher of the podcast and newsletter I Used to Be Somebody joined the Pandemic Roundtable—Joe Berger, Sherin Pierce, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, Gemma Peckham, and me—to talk about what to do after you finish doing what you’ve been doing all this time.

Joe: You used to own and run the popular Niche Publishing Conference for the magazine industry, and sold your company a couple of years ago, so I’m very interested in hearing what you have to say about second and third acts. 

Carl: Yes, I sold Niche Publishing to Second Street Media a year and a half ago. They are a platform for contests—they bought us for our database of 18,000 publishers. I worked for them part time for a year to help with the transition—which was a peaceful one. The year gave me my first opportunity since my paper route when I was 14 to have a part time job. It was refreshing.   After that, my wife and I planned to travel. Then COVID hit. This left me thinking about what to do with my time, experience, and energy. And my mind turned to podcasting.

Eight years ago I did a podcast—Events: What Wakes You up at 3 am. It was a lot of fun, and garnered some interest, but I had a full time job, and really couldn’t sustain it. What I enjoyed most about it was building the audience.   And I love podcasts; I listen to four or five of them every day. You’ll find that media companies selling for a lot of money are podcast forward. Several that produce podcasts have sold for over 200 million. Now there are hundreds of thousands of podcasts, and smart companies looking for growth areas turn to them as another way to build audience. 

Sherin: Podcasts are great because they’re so portable. You can be out for a walk and learning about a subject. 

Joe: The podcasts that are successful—where does their money come from? The events they throw? Advertising? 

Carl: Sponsorship. Some podcasts have audiences of millions. That’s bigger than mainstream news. I just sold my first sponsorship, starting in March, after 12 episodes. My first weekly episode came out in October.   For me, the demographic that is most interesting is the Baby Boomers. There are 80 million of us. Ten thousand people a day turn 65. And that will continue another 5-6 years. For baby boomers, there are at least 25 podcasts about money, by financial advisors. I was more interested in what boomers might do for a second act.   Twenty years ago, you were done at sixty. Now continuing on is the rule, rather than the exception. 

Carl Landau of Pickleball Media – Source: https://pickleballmediahq.com

Linda: Do you think that’s because of the nature of the people turning sixty, or because Social Security has been pushed back? 

Carl: I think it’s a combination. We’re also living a lot longer. If you’re going to make it into your 80s, that’s a lot of post-retirement time on your hands. 

Bo: Does what happens vary by industry? In publishing we have a consistent pattern of getting rid of institutional memory. When you turn 65ish—you’re gone. You make too much money and you get to save the company’s bottom line. It is a historic pattern.  

Carl: I see that everywhere, in every industry. An amazing amount of wealth and intelligence is concentrated in this group—and yet it is mostly ignored by the media.  I Used to Be Somebody is for people who had successful careers and now want to do something entirely different. I like to get emotionally involved with them, find out who that person is, what they’ve done. That’s my format, and it’s how I engage my audience, which has grown in this short time to almost 1300 subscribers. 

Joe: Your company is called Pickleball Media. Should we be looking for a pickleball magazine to come out sometime soon? 

Carl: There is one. Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the US. Close to 5 million people play it, and no one’s heard of it! If it weren’t for pandemic, it was going to explode this year. This is what’s really helped me in this transition. Getting out of the familiar thing I’ve been doing for 20 years has energized me incredibly. I’ve been doing all this new stuff, podcasts, pickleball, and learning new things. It’s been really fun having this year to explore these opportunities. And that happens a lot with the people I interview. One big time lawyer took up photography and poetry. Those are the stories I explore in my podcast. It’s been really inspiring talking to these people. Having a podcast gives a forum you can talk to people you’d never have otherwise met. 

Linda: Could you distribute podcasts for other people? 

Carl: I wouldn’t, but there are lots of people who do it. There are so many opportunities, so many directions to go in. There is room for another event in the field, focusing on teaching people how to do podcasts, how to sell sponsorships. Right now I’m teaching older people how to listen to a podcast. So far I’ve taught 40 people, and it’s helped them a lot.   This is a field that costs next to nothing to get in. 

Sherin: What you need is good equipment and a good story. 

Carl: That’s right, and the equipment costs like nothing. You can get a good microphone for eighty dollars. I use Zencastr to record for $20 a month and it’s like I’m in the same room with my guest. Between the prep, recording, and editing, one episode takes 8 hours to put together.   I use Lidsyn for distribution and that’s $20 a month, and it gets you on Apple, Spotify, and 20 other platforms. They provide a report, too. I Used to Be Somebody is already in 60 countries. We have over 60 people in India alone that listen to my podcast.   Joe: How would somebody begin their second act?  

Carl: I’m the jump in the pool sort. My wife is more the ease into it sort. You could do it either way. But some people, if they jump in too soon, feel that they haven’t given themselves enough time to get a sense of what they could do. And a lot of times they end up doing the same thing they were doing—which is not what you want to end up doing.  Go within your network, talk to your friends. Ask them what they could envision you doing that you’re not doing, maybe haven’t considered. These are the kinds of things that come out in my interviews; it’s why interviewing is the most fun. It can take six or eight before you get comfortable. The way to bring it to life is, don’t worry so much about what your questions are, but make it a real conversation. 

Bo: It’s worth pointing out that you have a magic way of engaging. You did it in the Niche conferences, where you got people to engage with you and, most magically, got them to engage with each other. I saw that same methodology in the podcast.

  

Carl: Most of the people I interview have been interviewed dozens of times. I try to make it new, to humanize them with questions that they might not get as often. 

Joe: Is there a way to track if people listen to the ads? 

Carl: Not that I know of, and the download reports I get also don’t tell anything about the audience, except how many listened and where they’re from. That makes podcasts different from other media. What’s helped a lot is before I started the podcast I started the newsletter. You know your newsletter audience, and you drop the newsletter promoting each podcast.   Beyond that, audience growth tends to be word of mouth. Someone likes your podcast, and tells a friend about it, and the friend goes back and starts at episode one and listens on through. 

Sherin: AARP would be a huge audience. They have a ton of members in the demographic, many of whom would benefit. 

Joe: I can also refer you to a company called Get Set Up. It’s an interactive learning platform for adults 55 and above—taught by seniors, for seniors. 

Carl: Over half of aspiring entrepreneurs are Baby Boomers, and 1 in 5 people who remain working after age 65 are self-employed. It’s really different from what we’ve seen in previous generations.

Editor’s Note: You can download the Podcast, “I Used to Be Somebody” on Sticher, Apple and many other podcasting applications.

Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: Jerry Lynch of MBR (Magazines & Books at Retail)

“We have opportunities available to no-one else” Article by Linda Ruth

Editor’s Note: The “Pandemic Publishing Roundtable” started a few weeks after the closing of most Barnes & Noble stores instigated a smattering of new articles proclaiming the end of that storied chain and the end of magazines at retail. While it is true that prior to the pandemic the future of single copy sales of magazines was at best a tenuous proposition, it’s death didn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. So once again, I was aggravated with the conventional wisdom of those who write about magazines.

I reached out to my colleague, Linda Ruth and together we came up with the idea of starting a weekly roundtable discussion with other members of the publishing community. We could talk about almost anything. We could invite other publishers, distributors, consultants to come and talk with us.

As we were all isolated from our places of work, the meetings became a great help this year in maintaining a feeling of connectedness to something, anything.

The article below, is the write up my colleague, Linda Ruth wrote and has also been posted in the BoSacks newsletter, and on his website. Joe Berger December 21, 2020

Winding up 2020, and our year of, our group—Joe Berger, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, and me—hosted Jerry Lynch, President of MBR (Magazines and Books at Retail) to talk about what we’ve come through, and what lies ahead. Jerry Lynch talked about his faith in our industry, the unique opportunities available to us through ecommerce—and a big announcement he is almost ready to make.

Joe: We’ve spent the year reacting to the challenges that COVID threw at us; it seems, in general, we do a lot of reacting. Is there a chance for us to not be such a reactive industry?

Jerry: The challenge is going to be figuring out where retail, as a result of dealing with Covid is going to go, where it will end up, and when.  Contrary to what you’d expect, we don’t fully know what’s going on. Consumer habits have changed, and some of those changes are going to stick, but perhaps not all of them. Some of the things that businesses put in place as the result of the pandemic might have to be unwound as consumers start to change again. And additional opportunities will arise.

Meanwhile, we’ve had some positive changes; mass market and grocery are the classes of trade that have done best for us.

Bo: People have to eat. Of all the necessary resources available to the public, grocery is paramount. We have to eat 3 times a day.

Sherin: The club stores, Sam’s and BJs have done well too, although Costco has stopped carrying magazines. Why is that? 

Jerry: Costco has a unique way of judging performance. Magazines don’t fit nicely into their way of operating, and the resulting metrics don’t allow our performance, in my opinion, to be judged properly.  The timing of their decision—we had hoped the removal of magazines was temporary–did bump up against COVID, as well. We have some ground to regain there. Some retailers removed checkout entirely, seeing it as a distraction at the front end when they needed to move customers through for safety reasons.

We’ve seen some good consumer feedback around the category, and that’s giving us an entry point back in. 

Bo: People trust magazines more than any other medium. 

Joe: What is the role MBR has in presenting magazines at retail? 

Jerry: We see our role as overarching. Our involvement would be along the lines of providing good research, helping craft the story. COVID set us back. 

Sherin: If a retailer walks away from magazines, as, for example, Home Depot did, do you strategize with wholesalers how to get them back on distribution?  

Jerry: We do try to come up with a concerted effort, but remember that it’s driven by retailers in terms of who they want to talk to. That’s primarily the wholesalers and larger publishers. Our role would be to help coordinate, to make sure we’re delivering the same key messages having to do with the benefit of the entire magazine category in the store. 

Sherin: The Old Farmer’s Almanac had a direct relationship with Home Depot before anyone else, then the wholesalers got involved and turned it into a category issue. When, after years, the whole chain was lost it was a big hit.

Jerry:  Many times a decision about the category comes from higher up,  executives other than the buyer of magazines.  Those decision-makers may not have enough information or the correct information which doesn’t allow for a good understanding of the category. Where we can We work with the merchant to ensure they have the right information to take to upper management to help make our case.

Bo: My experience in our industry says there is great need for improvement, training and experience. How savvy are the buyers?

Jerry: Mixed. Book chains, terminal operators, for example, are great; in other classes of trade where publications used to have a dedicated buyer the category may now be one of many that the buyer/merchant has responsibility for or be treated as an add-on. It’s difficult to gain the expertise when the time isn’t there

Joe: and it can change in the same chain from one buyer to the next.

Sherin: Having those relationships was easier when you could go and see the buyer. They used to be happy to talk to you. Once the wholesalers took over the relationships, more of the communication went through them; the buyers have been harder to talk to. Our wholesalers need to stand up for the category and educate the retailer why magazines are important; it’s not just feeding your stomach, you need to feed your head.

Jerry: Other factors come into play as well: the decrease in sales volume, the pressures of consolidation at retail. Full service by wholesalers is seen as a real plus for retailers. That has been around for many years and recently SBT was an added big benefit for many. However, that has also allowed some retailers to be less vested/engaged in the category We need to build a love/passion for the category that gets us over those humps.  That passion is built from the product itself, the actual content of a magazine.

Bo: The magazine business is in the communication business and as an industry, we’re horrible at communicating our own presence.

Jerry: Yes, we talk about our problems all day, yet we do less well talking about our successes. We have to talk to our retailers, with good data, in a retailer-friendly format, saying what magazines mean to our mutual customer. If we treated retailers the way we do advertisers we might get somewhere.

Samir: The impulse buy, going to the store to browse magazines, has dropped off with the worsening of placement and display of magazines. When I go into a store, I might find one lane open, ten lanes self-checkout. I tell them, if I wanted to do it myself I’d stay at home and order from Amazon.

Jerry: Labor at the front end is the largest expense line by far.

Last week’s roundtable included (clockwise from L-R): Bo Sacks, Joe Berger, Jerry Lynch, Samir Husni, Linda Ruth, Sherin Pierce.

Joe: One of the opportunities we’ve been talking about is ecommerce.

Jerry: The MBR has been working with a small group of members to get ecommerce off the ground for publishers. It’s way more complex than you’d think. It’s becoming a critical item for most retailers, but there is a direct relationship between the retailer’s ecommerce sophistication and where magazines fall as a priority. As they get better at ecommerce, their interest in our category grows, so we can gauge where to put our resources based on how far along the road the retailers have traveled. Different retailers also handle ecommerce differently: in some cases, they have an ecommerce division that we need to approach; in other cases, the buyer is our link to the ecommerce people; it’s different from chain to chain.

Bo: Over the next few years we’ll continue to commodify ecommerce, making it simpler and smoother. At the end of the day, we’ll solve it, it will get more easy than it is today.

Samir: The increase of ecommerce even from Hearst, Meredith, and others, selling their own subscriptions, is up 40% YOY. How closely are you working with ANC?

Jerry: The wholesalers will be key in this. We need to work with them to ensure that, if a store offers say, 100 magazines via their online portal, every one of those 100 magazines are available in the store for pickup. You can turn items on and off at a store level. But—going back to SBT—without tracking inventory by the store the retailer won’t know how many copies they have.

Joe: Except we do through O/R. And we have more than enough inventory.

Jerry: But in an SBT environment, that O/R information often isn’t transmitted to the retailer. Long term, especially as we expand the selection, we need to solve this, because we don’t want to get sideways in operation and disappoint a customer. That will hurt us with the consumer and the retailer.

Joe: There is one additional customer to keep in mind that we don’t want to disappoint, and that’s the publisher. Too many of them are turning away from this business now.

Sherin: To that point, there are some forward-looking buyers. Harris Teeter, for example, is testing the OFA on its e-commerce site.

Joe: I keep coming back to the question of why wholesalers are not working with publishers to get a site up inclusive of all magazines in that warehouse. We have a few indy retailers that have it, but if I were a magazine wholesaler today I would use my warehouse as a source of eCommerce, and I’d set up affiliate relations as well.

Jerry: ecommerce provides a huge opportunity to link the two sides of publishing back together. Everyone in publishing, from all aspects of publishing, from circulation, from advertising, is looking at it. And the opportunities are enormous. Take one example: suppose people could buy a subscription for Prevention on the retailer eCommerce site, and next time they were in the store they could pick up that copy or have it added to their click and collect the order. That’s convenient. That opportunity doesn’t exist anywhere else. It only exists at retail. 

Or, another example, imagine the possibilities of an eCommerce generated shopping list leading the consumer to the  Food and Wine magazine next to the in-store wine display. Again, that’s an opportunity that exists nowhere else.

Sherin: Our industry has not kept up with our customers, what they want and need. Some of our customers are now buying from Amazon, or from specialty chains because newsstand hasn’t been able to provide the support to keep up with the demand.

Jerry: E-commerce has not been a high priority for retailers. But that is changing and has changed. Now it is.

Sherin: Walmart carries every one of our publications through our trade distributor because they got tired of waiting for the newsstand.

Joe: We as a group know many publishers who want seats at this table. They want to participate and help and make this happen. So how to do this?

Jerry: I expect to be able to make an announcement soon, of a step we have taken in the direction of making this happen. Let’s get together in six weeks and talk about it then.

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.