Simon Dumenco writes "The Media Guy", a weekly column for Advertising Age that I find to be among the more useful assessments of the media business. He typically delivers his views with a sense of humor that makes even a well-worn path worth walking.
For the past decade, Advertising Age has published a list of the top ten "hottest" magazines, announcing the results at the American Magazine Conference, the annual meeting of the Magazine Publishers of America (now MPA – The Association of Magazine Media). When the most recent list was released in October, Dumenco simultaneously published "Magazines are dead, or why there's no such thing as a (mere) magazine company anymore."
For reference, the Ad Age "A-List" for 2013 included:
- Bon Appetit
- Women's Health
- New York
- Eating Well
- Men's Fitness
Both Ad Age and Dumenco celebrate the triumph of legacy print brands on this list. Introducing the list, the Ad Age staff wrote:
And to those who doubt magazine-centric media companies as relevant vehicles circa 2013, take note: Many of the titles on our list are doing phenomenally well with the dead-tree divisions of the operations — in several cases, achieving historic, fattest-ever issues thanks to support from marketers who recognize the enduring value of print.
In his column, Dumenco approaches the topic from a somewhat different angle:
What's perhaps most remarkable is not so much the phoenix-from-the-ashes-of-2008/2009 narrative — because lots of business sectors have also bounced back from those dark days — but how enduring many of our A-List magazines are. We tend to forget how ephemeral a lot of pure-play digital brands end up being, while overlooking the dynastic strength of iconic glossy brands.
In one sense, I agree with Ad Age and Dumenco's arguments. It's foolish to argue that print is dead. It would be more accurate to say that print alone no longer makes much sense.
Here, even that argument is framed with an untested qualifier: we're talking about ad-supported print media. I mean, it's a given that Advertising Age would be most interested in ad-supported media. But the selection process depends on a number of criteria (growth in ad pages, for example) that are not necessarily a sign of a media entity's health.
Toward the end of his column, Dumenco compared the vitality of the 2013 list to the demise of Friendster and Myspace. I think those are the wrong benchmarks. As it happens, the premise inherent in his title ("there's no such thing as a (mere) magazine company") could be extended to other media, as well.
We live in an age when Flipboard "magazines" are created from the work of books by Margaret Atwood and George R.R. Martin. Newspapers have learned to tells stories like Snowfall, the multimedia package that had industry observers debating its utility and sustainability.
Journalistic enterprises like Epic have been launched to source and fund stories that ultimately may drive the development of movie scripts. Some movie companies employ tactics that sound more like Moneyball than the studio model.
This makes it harder to say just what a "hot" media property looks like these days. Consider how Ad Age describes Vice, which appeared third on its Top-10 list:
The print edition continues to thrive, with ad pages up and expansion to 24 international editions meaning global distribution of 1.1 million copies. But Vice's video content has earned more than 1.1 billion views today across Vice.com and other distribution channels, including the Vice channel on YouTube. That rapidly growing digital-meets-video-meets-cable content business is what fueled revenue reportedly north of $175 million last year, and prompted a $70 million August investment by 21st Century Fox that valued Vice Media at more than $1 billion.
It's a story-driven brand, and yes, it does get ad support. But Vice is inherently digital, increasingly global and entirely comfortable with video.
To me, the surprise isn't that Esquire or Elle or New York magazine continues to make the list after all these years. The surprise is that we think the list is a proxy for success. Just last week, New York announced that it would cut its print frequency from 42 to 26 issues a year. If success in ad-supported print media means you have to reduce your frequency, we may want to refine our definitions of success.