The Magazine Industry's Death RattleJoe McCann
Got your attention? I thought so. And that's precisely the point of the sacral chakra-stimulating cover of last months's Esquire magazine. Sure, you're saying to yourself, "sex sells, everyone knows that" but traditionally on magazine covers it has been a bit more subtle, unless of course you are in the pornography (e.g. Playboy) or "frat-mag" (e.g. Maxim) industry. But Esquire? Esquire has conventionally been known to be a somewhat sophisticated men's magazine, yet their core reader demographic is no longer subscribing. Readership has plunged a whopping 16% according to a survey conducted by Ipsos, the first double-digit year-over-year drop in history. Where are those eyeballs going? Tablets and e-readers of course.
Naturally, a publisher can fallback on the old "put a busty, beautiful woman in a bustier on the cover" trick with the word "SEX" in big, bold letters and boom, readership increases, right? Wrong. This is the equivalent of a comedian bombing in the middle of his act and relying on dick and fart jokes to get the crowd laughing again - it is always short-lived success.
Yet, even the frat-mags are suffering and they explicitly advertise sex on their monthly covers. FHM in Australia reported an astounding 50% drop in readership, the biggest drop in Australian media history.
If sex isn't the ticket, then what is? Hot about a hot button socio-political issue?!
Yes, that's right, Newsweek, a beacon of investigative journalism we can all believe in has broken the story that no one else has: Obama is Gay!
Clearly, this type of topical pandering may work for the coming week, but long term, how many of these tabloid-style covers will Newsweek have to produce in order to stop the bleeding of dwindling readership? Is there any magazine out there that that has the content, the pedigree and the respect to not stoop to such low-brow methods?
Time Magazine, a publication that is as American and historical as apple pie, has on the heels of Mother's Day, stooped to an all-time low to garner buzz through controversy in the hopes of a spike in sales. The controversial cover has gained so much buzz that an internet meme nearly spawned only minutes after the cover was released.
With readership, circulation and media spend all down for magazine publishers across the board, worldwide, why should it matter that the covers are more sexy or controversial than in the past? Seems like a reasonable business decision to most rational free market capitalists. Agreed. However, this to me is an admission of the seemingly helpless battle the publishing industry is losing against the digital screen and subsequently the eyeballs that are looking at them. The death of the publishing industry won't happen overnight, but if the covers of the magazines are a leading indicator of the speed of which the demise is due, then the pace is clearly picking up.