More is not more

Tallies of magazine launches are pretty well established. Samir Husni has made a virtual franchise of his annual round-up of new titles, and many media outlets treat the annual story a barometer of magazine industry health.

With the world economy lurching backward, what was once covered annually is now reported quarterly, or even monthly. Earlier this week, the folks at MediaFinder, a unit of Oxbridge Communications, picked up the quarterly crystal ball and saw 2009 launches (110) outpacing 2009 closings (95). They seem to have treated conversions from print to “just” digital (16) as something akin to Switzerland: studiously neutral.

I don’t have a problem with tallies, all in all. Round-up stories are a good peg, and reading the article let me know that one of my subscriptions is going away. But I don’t buy the underlying premise that more new magazines means things are better for the magazine business.

First, there is no standard definition of what a launch might be. I can live without one, but if we’re going to say what something means, we should at least agree on what it is.

Second, in a market in which ad revenues are falling and circulation sales have dropped far more sharply than at any time in memory, measuring the mere presence of launches seems selfish at best and foolhardy at worst. We’re on a precipice, and it’s cavalier to celebrate “more magazines” as if their mere presence will draw revenue into the mix. Maybe the measure should count launches whose circulation revenues can sustain both operations and growth.

Finally, not all launches are created equal. A one-shot is not quarterly; a quarterly is not a monthly; a monthly is not a weekly. Growth in specific categories can reflect strong ties with an audience, or it might reflect an opportunistic chase for projected ad revenues. Counting them all as “one” launch mixes apples and oranges.

We’d all like to see signs that magazines are returning to health. I’d propose a simple indicator: total circulation revenue per issue delivered. What audiences pay for is a better proxy for what they actually want.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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