Follow the Reader, Not the Advertiser

Magazines, once the wunderkind of the media industry, now are in the same sinking business boat as TV and newspapers. To survive, some magazines are changing their economic model and taking direction from their readers, not their advertisers.

National Public Radio broadcast a story last month noting newsstand sales of magazines have dropped sharply and advertising revenues plummeted 18 percent in 2009, as advertisers scrambled to the Internet. In a story aired today, NPR reported newsstand sales fell 9 percent in the second half of 2009 compared to the prior year. "The good news is that decline was less than the 12 percent drop the magazine publishers saw in the first half of 2009."

"I think the paradigm is shifting and magazines have to keep up," Brad Adgate of Horizon Media told NPR. He says one way magazines are adjusting is to plunge into the digital sea with Facebook pages, iPhone apps and Twitter feeds to get closer to their target audiences.

New magazines continue to crop up, but many have titles leveraging existing brand names from other media, such as Food Network Magazine. They also are sprouting from successful Web sites. An example cited by NPR is The Knot, which started as an online site for brides looking for help with dresses and wedding planning. The organization now publishes a magazine with 17 regional editions, as well as related publications for pregnant couples and new homeowners.

Meg Weaver of Wooden Horse Publishing reported as far back as 2004 that magazine readership had hit a wall. Her conclusion: "We have run out of magazine readers." She based that claim largely on statistics from a National Endowment of the Arts report indicating book reading had declined 10 percent since 1982 and almost half the nation didn't read any form of literature in the previous year.

Alan Webber, writing recently in, gives another reason for drooping readership – the rules of engagement between magazines and their readers have changed. Webber calls for reinvention of business magazines centered on reportage about the dramatic shifts occurring in the world of business that he says haven't consistently and compellingly made their way into business magazine news columns.

Webber says just as businesses need a reason to be in business, business magazines need to be relevant to their readers. The surest way to discover that path to success is to engage readers and follow their direction. Advertisers will follow.

For marketers, a robust set of magazines is attractive because they offer a cost-effective way to reach targeted segments of the population. In their revival, magazine also may become a valuable guide for companies on what readers want.