Magazine Sales Falling on the Newsstands

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; He is a columnist for Newsday

When it was announced last week that Wenner Media Inc. is selling Family Life, the price was not disclosed, but one strength of the so-far-unprofitable magazine seemed all too clear. Family Life’s total circulation of 240,000 includes 186,000 paid subscriptions after less than two years of publication.

As the buyer, Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, and other publishers face increasing competition on crowded newsstands, a growing base of subscriptions forms a valuable foundation.

Consider the performance of the 20 biggest newsstand magazines. Since 1982, they are selling 22.5 million fewer copies at full price. This represents a decline of 43% according to the latest issue of Capell’s Circulation Report, an industry newsletter published by the investment banking firm of Vos, Gruppo & Capell Inc.

TV Guide, which leads the field with a weekly newsstand sale of 5.1 million copies, has lost sales of nearly 4.6 million copies since 1982.


Woman’s Day, No. 2 with 2.9 million, is selling 4 million fewer copies than it did in 1982.

Third-ranked Family Circle now sells 2.7 million on newsstands--a decline of 4.4 million copies.

Woman’s Day and Family Circle, once dependent on newsstand sales, have embraced the subscription business to offset their losses. TV Guide, whose total paid circulation of 14 million is third-highest in the industry, has responded to newsstand reversals by raising its subscription and newsstand prices.

Selling subscriptions is one of the costliest challenges in publishing. To buy a list of prospective subscribers and produce a mailing typically costs a publisher about $500 per 1,000 names--with no guarantee of selling a single subscription.


Circulation guru Dan Capell, the founder and editor of the report that bears his name, says the proliferation of cable-TV channels and VCRs may be one reason newsstand sales are off so sharply. “The newsstand sale is all impulse--it has to do with traffic and frequency of visits,” he says. “If you have less traffic to newsstands, coupled with more product and not enough space to display all the magazines now being published, you’ve got a problem.”

Capell also notes magazines seem to be vying for attention at supermarket checkouts with much more stuff, including in-store programs being broadcast on TV screens in some chains.

To be sure, the magazine industry is not heading for a cliff. Among the 600 members of the Audit Bureau of Circulation, total newsstand sales are off 20% since 1982, but subscription gains have helped produce an overall circulation increase of 27%.

Unlike TV Guide, Woman’s Day and Family Circle, three of the top performers on newsstands have enjoyed significant growth since 1982. They are Prevention, Self and Shape--health-conscious magazines in health-conscious times.

Prevention, which has been around for 45 years, went from selling 79,000 copies per issue on newsstands to 613,000 last year. Its total circulation of 3.4 million ranks 13th in the industry.

According to publisher Ken Wallace, Prevention has the best of both worlds--a 78% renewal rate among subscribers and explosive newsstand growth. It also helps that Prevention comes in digest size, easier to rack amid the chewing gum and candy bars.


On the Racks: Scott Becker got a chill when he saw Bud Dry being advertised as “the alternative beer.” As the publisher of Option puts it in his Santa Monica-based music magazine’s March / April issue, “A word that once stood for new ideas is just another marketing platform.” And so, after 10 years of publication, the redesigned and reformatted mag has replaced the cover line “Music Alternatives” with “Music-Culture.”



Afterwords: Greg Louganis’ autobiography, “Breaking the Surface,” will debut Sunday on The New York Times’ national bestseller list at No. 1. This will give Random House three of the top five nonfiction titles. The other two are Richard Preston’s “The Hot Zone” (No. 2) and Philip K. Howard’s “The Death of Common Sense” (4). . . .

Gregg Kilday, a senior writer with Entertainment Weekly, plans to follow the launch of DreamWorks SKG, the Hollywood super studio recently formed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. Kilday’s look at the personalities, the deals and the creative process will be published in 1997 as a Dutton hardcover.

* Paul D. Colford’s column is published Fridays.