The Not-So-Glossy Future of Magazines
By SYDNEY EMBER and MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM SEPT. 23, 2017
One evening in mid-September, a gaggle of writers and bon vivant editors gathered by the outdoor fireplace and ivy-covered trellis of a West Village tavern. Steak was served, and the toasts lasted late into the night, the revelry trickling out to the nearby sidewalk.
It could have been a scene from the Jazz Age heyday of the Manhattan magazine set — or even the 1990s, when glossy monthlies still soaked up millions of dollars in advertising revenue, and editors in chauffeured town cars told the nation what to wear, what to watch and who to read.
This night, however, had an elegiac tinge. The staff of Vanity Fair was saluting the magazine’s longtime editor, Graydon Carter, who had announced that he was departing after a 25-year run. In the back garden of Mr. Carter’s restaurant, the Waverly Inn, star writers like James Wolcott and Marie Brenner spoke of their gratitude and grief.
Mr. Carter has always had a knack for trends. Within two weeks, three other prominent editors — from Time, Elle, and Glamour — announced that they, too, would be stepping down. Another titan of the industry, Jann S. Wenner, said he planned to sell his controlling stake in Rolling Stone after a half-century.
Suddenly, it seemed, longstanding predictions about the collapse of magazines had come to pass.
Magazines have sputtered for years, their monopoly on readers and advertising erased by Facebook, Google and more nimble online competitors. But editors and executives said the abrupt churn in the senior leadership ranks signaled that the romance of the business was now yielding to financial realities.
As publishers grasp for new revenue streams, a ‘‘try-anything’’ approach has taken hold. Time Inc. has a new streaming TV show, “Paws & Claws,” that features viral videos of animals. Hearst started a magazine with the online rental service Airbnb. Increasingly, the longtime core of the business — the print product — is an afterthought, overshadowed by investments in live events, podcasts, video, and partnerships with outside brands.
The changes represent one of the most fundamental shifts in decades for a business that long relied on a simple formula: glossy volumes thick with high-priced ads.
“Sentimentality is probably the biggest enemy for the magazine business,” David Carey, the president of Hearst Magazines, said in an interview. “You have to embrace the future.”
At a time of belt-tightening, celebrity editors, with their big salaries and expensive tastes, are increasingly passé. Budget-minded executives at publishers like Hearst and Condé Nast are looking more critically at requests for six-figure photo shoots and $5-a-word writers.
“The timing doesn’t really surprise me,” said Tom Harty, president and chief operating officer at Meredith, which publishes Better Homes & Gardens and Family Circle. Magazines, Mr. Harty said, often circulate upcoming budget numbers in September.
“When you start thinking about the revenue stream for the following year,” he said in an interview, “it must lead to some cost discussion.”
In some ways, the spate of departures was a coincidence. Mr. Carter, 68, said he would have left earlier this year if not for the election of President Trump, whom he enjoys covering. Mr. Wenner, 71, has been deferring to his son, Gus, 27, who this year was named president of Wenner Media. Nancy Gibbs of Time had worked at the company for 32 years. And Cindi Leive of Glamour and Robbie Myers of Elle both served for nearly two decades.
Quietly, optimists in the business say that it may be healthy for a younger generation of editors to take the reins. Older editors are less accustomed to the rhythms and forms of web journalism; Jann Wenner, for instance, famously resisted posting Rolling Stone stories online. Many of the industry’s rising stars are finding ways to raise revenue and gain readers on the digital side.
“If you want to do the same thing year in and year out, you shouldn’t do these jobs,” Mr. Carey said.
Kurt Andersen, a former editor of New York and, with Mr. Carter, a founder of Spy magazine, said that print magazines were still breathing, but that the recent upheaval was a sign that the denouement might not be far off.
“The 1920s to the 2020s was kind of the century of the magazine,” he said, noting that The New Yorker and Time were founded in the decade before the Great Depression. Today, he added, the industry was in “more of a dusk, a slow dusk, and we’re closer to sunset.”
In his spacious aerie in Hearst’s Midtown Manhattan tower, Mr. Carey displays trinkets of an earlier, more glamorous magazine age.
Behind his desk is a framed quote from Malcolm Forbes, the exuberant late chairman of Forbes magazine, and a yellowing memo about Tina Brown from Mr. Carey’s days as publisher of The New Yorker. His 43rd floor office overlooks the Hudson River and Central Park.
But as the executive leading Hearst’s magazine business into an uncertain future, Mr. Carey said that he was focused on identifying new ways to increase revenue and trim expenses.
“We know that we have to constantly force ourselves to shake things up,” said Mr. Carey, dressed meticulously in navy pinstripe. “All media companies are going through a period of change, and we’re not immune from that.”
Hearst, like Condé Nast, is privately held, so the details of its financial performance are unclear. But recent earnings reports from Hearst’s publicly traded competitors provide a glimpse into the magazine industry’s falling fortunes.
Revenue at Time Inc. has declined every year since 2011; the company, which recently took itself off the market after speculation about a potential sale, is now aiming to cut $400 million in costs over the next 18 months. Although the print business still accounts for roughly two-thirds of Time Inc.’s $3 billion in annual revenue, the company is shifting resources to video and television.
Meredith, whose headquarters in Des Moines has test kitchens, craft studios and a wood shop, is doing comparatively better than its more glamorous rivals based in New York. Its magazines, which focus largely on perennial topics like decorating and recipes, remain popular with the company’s mostly female readers. Still, Meredith reported a slight drop in revenue for its magazine business in its most recent fiscal year, which ended in June.
A flurry of recent sales also suggest that smaller publishers are having trouble surviving on their own.
Before Mr. Wenner put Rolling Stone up for sale, Wenner Media sold Us Weekly and Men’s Journal to American Media Inc., the owner of The National Enquirer. Johnson Publishing, which is based in Chicago, sold the magazines Ebony and Jet last summer to a private equity firm. Rodale, whose titles include Bicycling, Runner’s World and Men’s and Women’s Health, recently said it, too, was for sale; a deal is expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
“There have never been brand names like that that have been sold in such a concentrated period,” said Reed Phillips, a managing partner at the investment bank Oaklins DeSilva & Phillips. “That alone indicates something is going on.”
The financial outlook remains bleak. Analysts and executives expect double-digit annual declines in print advertising to continue. The ad buying firm Magna projects print magazine ad sales to fall 13 percent this year, with a similar rate of decline in 2018, according to a report released last week.
Mr. Phillips said it was only a matter of time until these trends were felt at the industry’s highest levels. “In the past, magazines could support celebrity editors, but it’s becoming harder and harder with the revenue declines to do that,” he said. “This is really not about making the numbers in 2017, but making the numbers in 2018.”
One day after the fete for Mr. Carter at the Waverly Inn, Time Inc. rolled out a major initiative: PeopleTV.
A new iteration of a streaming video network that the company introduced last year, PeopleTV will feature pop culture programming in conjunction with Entertainment Weekly, another Time Inc. title. Among the shows on offer: “Paws & Claws,” which, according to a news release, will feature “all of the adorable, viral and buzzworthy animal stories of the week.”
Pet videos are a favorite on social media, so it is easy to see why Time Inc. wants to jump on the fluffy bandwagon. But that material is a far cry from the award-winning journalism that filled once-thick issues of Fortune, Sports Illustrated and Time, where Mr. Carter got his start in New York journalism.
These experiments are part of an industrywide race to find some way — any way — to make up for the hemorrhaging of revenue.
Hearst recently introduced The Pioneer Woman Magazine, a partnership with the Food Network host Ree Drummond that was initially sold only at Walmart. Its new travel publication, Airbnbmag, is geared toward customers of the do-it-yourself online rental site, with distribution at newsstands, airports and supermarkets. Meredith has started a magazine called The Magnolia Journal with the HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines.
Even Condé Nast, the glitzy purveyor of luxury titles, has recognized the advantages of outside partnerships. In recent weeks, the company debuted a quarterly print title for Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand, with a cover featuring a topless Ms. Paltrow submerged in mud from France.
At Vanity Fair, Mr. Carter resisted efforts by Condé Nast executives to shift his design, photo, research and copy teams out of the magazine’s purview, a move required of nearly every other title as part of a companywide cost-cutting effort, according to two people who spoke anonymously to describe private discussions. Mr. Carter was reluctant to make additional cuts that may be forced upon his magazine in the future, the people said.
Some veteran editors rue the trend toward corporate metrics in the industry.
Terry McDonell, a former top editor at Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone, said that celebrity editors of the past embodied and defined the magazines they ran. “Now that is being replaced by people who believe that you can, in fact, engineer creativity and quality journalism,” he said.
Mr. Andersen, who now writes books and hosts a public radio show, said that magazines might eventually gain a cult following akin to the interest around other obsolete media, like vinyl records.
“Eventually, they’ll become like sailboats,” he said. “They don’t need to exist anymore. But people will still love them, and make them and buy them.”
A version of this article appears in print on September 24, 2017, on Page BU1 of the New York edition with the headline: Where the Future Isn’t So Glossy.