Challenging Times for (Some) Business Magazines

(Finally) Getting around to posting some info I compiled on tough times for business magazines. Late last month, for a panel on magazines at the Future of Business Media conference, I prepared some figures and charts about business magazines, based on the Publishers Information Bureau (PIB) data for the first three quarters of this year compared to the same period in '06. Looking at the visuals, they show some trends. (Click on the pictures to see them more clearly.)

For one thing, in dollar terms, most of the "majors" are down in ad dollars, save Forbes, which went up in ad dollars. (See below for a note on PIB's methodology that casts some doubt on these figures.) Forbes, interestingly, has for years had the "free Web" philosophy, and now puts material dating back years up for free, and makes the (disputed) claim that it's the number one destination for business news.

It's also worth noting for business mags that while dollars in aggregate are down 2.7 percent, ad pages were down 6.8 percent, which means page rates were increased. For how long can ad rates continue to go up in the category as competition for ad dollars increases. Also, while Inc. and Fast Company are up, that's against years of previous losses. So it's a relative thing.

Conde Nast Portfolio isn't on the chart I prepared because it's new, and therefore the $13 million-plus it's gotten this year is compared to zero for last. Nevertheless, that’s quite a feat that, if annualized, would put Portfolio in the top four. But while those dollars would seem to be coming from the other business magazines – taking a significant slice of a shrinking pie – executives at the mag point out that it has also gotten a lot of its revenue from luxury brands very familiar to the Conde sales force but not so used to many of the other business magazines. So, they're reaching into a different pie for a significant chunk of their wealth.

Finally, I came across some figures that showed that business magazines, until a few years ago the unparalleled leaders in ad pages and for a while in ad dollars, too, have declined heavily next to celebrity mags.

Business magazines faced similar issues before. In the 1980s, when certain kinds of business-to-business advertising declined, business mags rejuvenated themselves by pitching to new classes of advertising, such as cars and liquor. This time, they may want to do the same thing, but it's harder to think of a major ad category that’s both underserved and appropriate. Pharmaceuticals? Everyone's going after those dollars; and would they be the right fit? Tech? That territory's well-trodden and going aggressively to the Web. Speaking of the Web, that didn't exist in the '80s, nor were there cable business channels competing for the dollars. Not to mention financial portals like Yahoo and Google finance and CNNMoney, which is relaunching with more video this winter.

A few caveats: PIB figures are based on rate cards, which are notoriously inaccurate and always subject to discounts of 20 percent or more, especially for the best clients. Over here is a spreadsheet with business magazines sifted from the PIB figures, on which the above two charts were based, along with an aggregated chart of all the biz mags.

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