|The top of the magazine ownership pyramid remained unchanged in 2004. Time Warner, Advance and Hearst, held onto the top three slots. They own most of the biggest mainstream titles, with Time Warner remaining the largest of the big publishers by far.1
After those three, however, there was movement. Meredith Corporation climbed from No. 6 in revenues to No. 4 and could climb higher in the 2005 rankings after buying some of the better-known women’s titles on the magazine rack, including “Parents,” “Child,” “Fitness” and “Family Circle” from Gruner + Jahr as well as “Ser Padres.”2
Gruner + Jahr, the newspaper and magazine publishing arm of the German media company Bertelsmann, looks to be moving out of the American magazine business. The former seventh-largest magazine owner is no longer in the top 25. And in 2005 (not reflected in the figures above) Gruner + Jahr went further. The company sold Fast Company and Inc. for $35 million. It had bought the two titles for $550 million five years before, at the height of the tech boom on Wall Street.3 The loss was just another sign of the declining economic fortunes of business titles, some of which simply folded when the market nosedived in 2001.
Among the rest of the top magazine companies, Primedia, once the fourth-largest, was bumped down to fifth. Reader’s Digest, formerly fifth, fell to sixth, and so on.4
For those biggest publishers 2004 was a good year. Revenues at Time Warner and Hearst rose 8%, those at Advance Publications 10%. The rest of the top 10 companies had more mixed 2004 revenues — four were up and three were slightly down.5
Along with Gruner + Jahr’s exodus, news reports in 2005 about Primedia showed a hard year (though that is not reflected in the chart above, which is based on 2004 figures). Its stock price plunged in 2005 when the company announced plans to spin off some of its assets.6 Do the decisions of Gruner + Jahr and Primedia suggest something about the future of the industry? That it may be becoming an industry only for the biggest of the big companies, or only for the biggest and much smaller companies? One test may come in the next few years if the gap between the largest three or four companies and the rest of the list grows.
For the first two years of this report we noted that the magazine industry had stood out from other media in that the biggest of the big media companies had mostly ignored the sector. As of 2004, that was still true. Of the top 10 media companies over all, only Time Warner had invested seriously in the business, and that investment can be linked to its history. Time Inc. was started in 1923 as a magazine company, and much later expanded into cable with HBO. Even so, magazines have a much smaller role at Time Warner today than they once did, accounting for only 12% of the company’s media revenue. And other media heavyweights such as Viacom and News Corp. don’t even come close to making the top 25 magazine companies by revenue.7
Of course, that also means Time Inc. is one of the hardest hit of the magazine companies when times are bad, as became clear with the company’s layoff of more than 100 employees in December of 2005.8 More layoffs are expected as the industry struggles.
Ownership of News Magazines
Other than Time Warner the biggest magazine companies have shied away from news titles for years, in good economic times or bad. That reluctance was particularly apparent this past year when Condé Nast, looking to expand its number of titles, chose the slumping business magazine market over news.
What is new now is that some of the smaller owners have made a push into the arena.
Case and point is “The Week” owned by Dennis Publishing, the 18th largest company, according to Ad Age Magazine.9 Dennis, owned by the Briton Felix Dennis, is in many ways an odd entry into the news magazine world. Other than “The Week”, Dennis is primarily known for its “lad” titles — Maxim and Stuff, whose main selling point is pictures of starlets in bikinis. And it may be the size of the company and its lack of history in the news arena that led it to experiment as it has. Some may like The Week’s “print blog” approach to news and some may not. Some may think it is only an attempt to do news on the cheap, but it is a different approach that other larger companies probably wouldn’t have tried.
Meanwhile, David Bradley is reportedly still weighing the possibility of launching another news weekly and in the meantime has taken steps toward reworking and consolidating his titles. Bradley moved the Atlantic from Boston to Washington , with some staff coming along and some not, freeing him to remake the magazine. Bradley also may have put another piece into place this year for a new title — luring he Economist’s deputy editor, Clive Crook, to Atlantic Media where he serves as Bradley’s senior editorial adviser. Since rumors about a Bradley-backed news weekly began, the Economist has been cited as the likely model. In a memo announcing Crook’s hiring Bradley told the Atlantic staff that Crook would “help think through and execute our larger editorial ambitions: creating a great journalism destination, recruiting and advancing exceptional talent, thinking through new publications, vetting the possibilities for acquisition.”10
The magazine medium does not as yet seem to have cohesive strategy for content on the Internet. The varied nature of the companies that dominate magazines may be a factor.
The biggest force, Time Warner, clearly has a prominent online face in CNN.com, and it uses content from Time.com there. But it doesn’t seem compelled to have a prominent Web site just for the magazine. Content on Time’s website is largely stories from the magazine, and while there is new content on the site daily, it has a different feel and is not as polished as what appears in the print pages. Some of this, however, may change. Time Inc. is reportedly aiming to use layoffs to free up “more resources for the Web producers at Time.com,” according to Jim Kelly, Time’s managing editor.11
Meanwhile, U.S. News, as we note in the audience section, looks as though it is going to focus more heavily on the Web in coming years. There is a lot of shorter content available on its site, but the publication’s franchise, its rankings and guides, are not free. Some of the opinion journals have dived more heavily into online. National Review has adopted more of a blogging approach to its site, with daily pieces that are generally more casual and personal in tone that one would find in its hard copy.
The most interesting development among the big-news title owners in 2005 may have been how the Washington Post Company, which owns Newsweek, handled its acquisition of the online magazine Slate: as a separate entity. The online magazine kept its headquarters in Redmond, Wash. , and its homepage has hardly any indication of who the owner is. Cross-marketing, such as it is, is relegated to the bottom left-hand column, where there may be links to stories in the Post or Newsweek. In fact, perhaps as a nod the site’s audience, the most obvious partner seems to be National Public Radio, which the radio company produces in collaboration with Slate. “Slate on NPR” is a heading on the contents bar running down the left side of the page. In December Slate even ran a piece on anorexia (a recent cover topic for Newsweek) that specifically raised questions about Newsweek’s story.
It would seem that Slate would offer links to the online homes of the Post and particularly Newsweek, which doesn’t have the same prominent Web presence as the newspaper. Of course, the Post and Newsweek have a content agreement with MSNBC, which may have something to do with the lack of Newsweek links on the Slate site (and MSNBC’S co-owner, Microsoft, is the former owner of Slate). There are opportunities for cross-promotion, of course. In December of 2005, the Web sites of the Post, Slate and MSNBC all carried advertisements for MSNBC-TV’s primetime programs all day.12 But the larger issue may be the Washington Post company’s general Web strategy. The company is careful when it comes to sharing content between outlets. There are, after all, no Newsweek stories on Washingtonpost.com and no Washington Post stories on Newsweek’s site.
Even with the troubles the traditional news weeklies are experiencing, an ownership shake-up among them is probably unlikely. Despite the downsizing and the plans to move U.S. News to more of an online presence, for example, there has been little talk of Zuckerman Media Properties’ selling the struggling title, though the company did dump the political/pop culture title Radar last year. And even as Time Warner struggles and lays off personnel, no one has suggested that the company has even thought about selling Time, its namesake and the leading news magazine. Still, if the magazine industry continues to flounder, changes in ownership in the long-stable news field in terms of the titles’ form, layout and staffing wouldn’t be a surprise.
1. “100 Leading Media Companies,” AdAge.com, September 2005. Companies are ranked by their total media revenues collected in the United States in 2002. The list is available at http://www.adage.com/page.cms?pageId=1158.
9. “100 Leading Media Companies,” AdAge.com, September, 2005
10. Mediabistro.com, “More on Atlantic Media’s New Superstar,” April 21, 2005 http://www.mediabistro.com/fishbowlDC/magazines/more_on_atlantic_medias_new_superstar_20765.asp