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?

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.

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.

Some Places Remembered

In the very first post of this blog I pointed out that one of the reasons I started it was to write about some of the great “characters” I met. During the years when I traveled frequently I met many people who left indelible memories with me. Most of these people were friendly, hard-working and interested in doing a good job. Some of them were complete characters. A few of these “characters” were very lucky to avoid incarceration.

Earlier this week I wrapped up rolling over all of my files to the new year. More than 90% of them are now completely digitized (They never get printed and filed). That meant it was time to clear out some old “analog” files, folders and binders. That also meant it was long past time for some of the old “wholesaler” files to make the final trip to the shredder.

But before that last trip, here’s a few “memories” to share:

  • The “old” Rep Room at CLCC’s (Chas. Levy Circulating Company) 1140 North Branch location was one of the loudest places I ever worked…
  • That is, until it moved to 1200 North Branch. Then it was one of the more unsettling places to work because I could never get used to the feel of the building trembling when the semis would back into the loading dock and bump the wall.
  • Whenever I drove to Southern Michigan News in Jackson, MI in the first quarter of the year, it always seemed to snow. I would always keep a count of how many cars were off the road and in the ditches on I-94. It was a big number.
  • Ron Lankerd, the GM of Western Michigan News in Grand Rapids wouldn’t let me park my foreign-made car close to the building. He is a GM man.
  • While working for a publisher early in my career, I was sent on a trip in early November that took me from the ARA agency in Spokane, WA to the wholesaler in Coeur D’Alene, ID, and finally on a circuit of all of the wholesalers in Montana (There were at least five at the time). When I arrived at the agency in Missoula, the manager looked up from his desk and said, “You’ll probably never get out of here if it starts snowing. Can you work a tie line?” It did start snowing and I did (barely) get out of there. I really didn’t want to work that tie line.
  • Ladies of a certain career choice used to walk the street next to Buckeye News in Toledo, OH.
  • The state of Iowa serves the best pie.
  • The state of Minnesota serves the next best pie.
  • I never found a decent Chinese restaurant in Mankato, MN. Hopefully things are better now.
  • The original location of Iowa Periodicals in Des Moines, IA (pre-consolidation) was next to the airport and you could hear the Iowa Air National Guard practice take off and landings.
  • While the wind chill made it -50F in Chicago last week, I worked at Badger Periodicals in Appleton, WI one week when the thermostat read -40F before the wind chill.
  • Ohio Periodicals in Cincinnati, OH had one of the smallest Rep Rooms I ever worked in. I believe Tom Doddy liked it that way. That is one of the numerous reasons I like Tom Doddy.
  • I often wondered if the pipes that ran next to the Rep Room (located in the basement) at Klein News in Cleveland, OH carried toxic waste.
  • There was a “warehouse cat” in the pre-Anco Lexington, KY warehouse.
  • One of the owners of M&M News in La Salle, IL brings his dog to work. Dogs, warehouses and magazines all go together better than you would think.
  • I used to time how long it took for the donuts I brought in to disappear from various break rooms. In Jackson, MI, they consistently were gone in about 5 minutes. At Ludington News in Detroit, they took about an hour. Steubenville, OH took most of the morning (it’s a small office). Lima, OH, about the same. Dubuque, IA seemed to prefer bagels.
  • Pat’s Donuts in Lima, OH are incredibly good.
  • The security guard at the Ludington News parking lot often seemed pretty angry about something and I always wondered what it was.
The former Ludington News building. Source: Google
The former Ludington News building. Source: Google
  • The rep room in Ludington News was surprisingly nice.
  • The reps in Ludington News were all pretty nice to work with.
  • Actually, everyone at Ludington News was good to work with.
  • The Scottsbluff National Monument in Scottsbluff, NE is very impressive.
  • I always seemed to have to go to Gopher News in Minneapolis in either the dead of winter or the height of mosquito season. Timing is everything.
  • The warehouse at Wholesale Distributing in Burlington, IA was a former WWII era Quonset hut. John Sandell, their owner, was one of the most interesting (in a good way) people I ever met.
  • For a few years, I would take a trip in early spring that would start at Norton News in Dubuque, IA and then run down the Mississippi River to the agencies in Burlington, IA and Quincy, IL. Then I’d either turn north and finish in Springfield, IL or south and wrap up the week in Johnston City, IL. We flatlanders often only look at Lake Michigan and forget about the river and the prairie. They are truly impressive.
  • Bob Pilkey, the general manager of Joliet News and later M&M News in La Salle, IL was one of the nicest people I ever met.
  • The warehouse for City News Agency in Canton, OH was a former horse barn. As late as the 1990’s, the office decor was strictly 1950’s.
The former City News warehouse. Source: Google
The former City News warehouse. Source: Google
  • The best MAPDA/PACIMWA convention I attended was in Tucson, AZ. But that was because I mostly wanted to sit on the balcony of my hotel room at stare at the mountains for the duration.
  • It was generally considered unwise to attempt to visit Louisville News during Kentucky Derby week.
  • It was generally considered unwise to attempt to complete any work at Louisville News after lunchtime at any other time during the year.
  • I recall particularly good bar food served in the bar across the street from Indiana Periodicals in Indianapolis.
  • The Pekin News Agency in Pekin, IL was located in a candy shop. The candy shop (which is also a newsstand) is still open today.  You can buy their delicious candy online. Like many retailers, they’re also on Facebook
  • I could never get a trip approved to the ARA agency in Hawaii.

None of these memories are intended to be maudlin. As I’ve said numerous times before, I’m not one of those believers that “things were better in the good old days.” Heck in the newsstand biz, the “good old days” were considered horrible.

But we should consider what worked in the past, and how the creative and hard-working people who came before solved the problems they encountered. There is a warehouse of knowledge there and maybe a key to solving today’s challenges can be found in how they were approached in the past.

And why not call up a good memory sometime, put a smile on your face, and then dig into your day?

In the comments below, please drop in some of your favorite memories. If you have something longer to share, or a photo or two, send them my way via email.

London Professor Says Road Rider Magazine Caused Global Depression

News From The Future

by Felix Chartae

15 April 2029

The Economist reported today that Simon Freshette, a fellow at the London School of Economics believes he has located the sole cause of gigantic global economic meltdown that has plagued the planet for the past decade.

“It was Road Rider Magazine”, says Freshette. “They didn’t sell their last copy.”

Freshette, a dual PHD holder in Economics and Audience Development from MIT and Oxford explains: “On December 31, 2018 at 8:15 AM, a delivery truck from Millennial News pulled up to the loading dock of the  local Walter’s Kroh Super Discount store in Tulsa, OK. Millennial News was the last distributor of print magazines in the US and Canada following the fourth consolidation of magazine distributors in North America in 2016.”

Video cameras at the back of the now abandoned strip mall show that at 8:20 AM the driver stepped out of the cab, went around the rear, and picked up the one tote for his delivery. Cameras inside the store picked him up checking into the storage room a few moments later and then moving towards the front of the store. At 8:25 AM the driver arrived at his destination. A checkout fixture located in Aisle 22t. A full view of the display rack was not possible from the camera feed, however. It was blocked by a large Valentine’s Day display in front of the rack.

Professor Freshette has pieced together what happened next.

“You have to remember that by this time, there was really only one magazine publisher left in North America with print magazines available for single copy sales. It was as if everyone had forgotten how the publishing business worked.”

That publisher was the company formerly known as AccentA (tm: An LLC for the 21st Century Reader!). AccentA was created out of the mergers  and multiple bankruptcies of Time/Warner, Conde Nast, Hearst, Wenner Media, Bonnier and MidWest Bowhunting Media. In 2014, AccentA purchased Road Rider Magazine, a 30,000 circulation print publication dedicated to fat tire trail riding on the West Coast. AccentA paid the publisher, Toby Wellenstien $124 million in today’s deflation adjusted New Taiwanese Euros for the publication and it’s related digital content.

Reached via Skype Classic, Mr. Wellenstien reported that he was happy with the deal. “They had the money, I had the magazine,” he says.

Professor Freshette continued the narrative: “You must also remember that publishing industry consultants had produced studies that said that 87.65% of all single copy sales occurred within the first 18 minutes and 27 seconds of display. So by that time, retailers placed a premium on displays that lasted longer than 19 minutes. Publishers adopted these reports and were all too happy to pay the money. At the same time, magazine wholesalers were placing a high value on sales efficiency and were charging publishers a premium if the magazine did not achieve certain efficiency targets. By this point in 2018, Road Rider was all that was left.”

Cameras show the driver standing next to the closed checkout lane with a digital stop watch, his tablet and portable shredder. For the next twenty minutes, several shoppers walked past the checkout lane, but none peered around the Valentine’s Day display at the magazine rack.

“I remember really liking those chocolate bears when I was a kid,” says Professor Freshette. “We got them here in London too at our local Walter’s Kroh store but they were polybagged inside ‘Today’s Doggie’ Magazine.”

From 2016 to 2019, ‘Today’s Doggie’ Magazine was one of the last five publications available at newsagents throughout the United Kingdom.

At 9:15 AM Tulsa, OK time, the driver (who has since been identified as James Simpson III), put away his stop watch, removed the copy of Road Rider from the rack, scanned the UPC code into his portable hand held scanner, then powered up his portable magazine shredder and shredded the copy.

This simple act created a tsunami of economic events that took Professor Freshette two years of digging to sort out. We got the Professor to explain the chain to us in simpler layman’s terms.

“Fees,” said the Professor. “Everyone piled on. Walter’s Kroh, you remember, charged the wholesaler an efficiency fee and the publisher a display fee. The wholesaler turned around and charged the national distributor an efficiency fee which the publisher had already authorized the national distributor to accept. This ate into the publisher’s advance from the national distributor, which essentially meant that the publisher owed the national distributor and the retailer a lot of money.

And don’t forget,” emphasizes Professor Freshette, “ The publisher, the national distributor, the retailer and the wholesaler were all highly leveraged. None of the them really had any cash. And the publisher actually owned the national distributor through a Polish subsidiary and was an investor in the wholesaler and was a major stock holeder in the retailer. It was like they were all incestuous cousins.”

We pick up the story at 9:30 AM when the retailer received the automatic credit to their account from Millennial News  informing them that the copy they had been invoiced for twenty minutes earlier was unsold and returned for full credit. Walter’s Kroh then invoiced the publisher for the display and the wholesaler for the efficiency fee. The wholesaler passed the efficiency fee onto the national distributor who automatically charged it back to the publisher.

“The final two straws that broke the camel’s back,” said Freshette ,”Was the prepaid retail display allowance and the Scan Based Trading fees. AccentA  didn’t have the cash to reimburse the national distributor. The national distributor hadn’t been paid by the wholesaler because he was so leveraged from purchasing him competitors in the last consolidation. Walter’s Kroh was also heavily leveraged, why else were they charging all those fees for racks that didn’t have product on them? Once they fell, well,” shrugs Professor Freshette, “They took down the whole economy.”

We reached James Simpson III, now retired and living in an assisted living facility in Boca Raton, FL to get his views on his last days as a route driver for a magazine wholesaler and how he felt to be the person who helped facilitate the Great Global Depression which is now in it’s tenth year.

“Holy Smokes!” declared Simpson, “That was me? No way!”

“Well,” he said, after this reported pointed out to him that he didn’t really cause the Depression, he just delivered the product that caused the Depression, “I coulda got lost on the way and never made the delivery.”

“Hmmm, ” mused Professor Freshette, “The ‘No Delivery Fee’ would have done it too.”

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