The great escape: a juicy mag In tough times escapist fare wins readers but not ads


New York -- Elizabeth Taylor hasn't been in a major movie in a decade, and she hasn't won an Oscar in 25 years. So how many people could possibly care about Liz's newest turn at the altar?

At least 600,000, according to preliminary tabulations by People magazine of additional newsstand sales for the Oct. 21 issue, which featured Ms. Taylor on the cover and exclusive wedding photos inside.

A fluke? Hardly. At a time when newspaper circulation is slipping, television viewers are ditching programs for videos and movie audiences are staying home, people apparently are eager for the inexpensive thrills some publications provide.

After a slow first half of the year, the notoriously sensitive newsstand sales have moved up sharply for People. And it is hardly the only magazine to show good gains. Premier, for instance, was up 12 percent at midyear, and the movie magazine will soon establish a new minimum subscription level for advertisers of 500,000 copies, double its circulation when it started in 1987.

Rolling Stone, Soap Opera Digest, Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly -- all publications that, like Premier and People, take a serious look at what's trivial -- are similarly doing well.

Magazines focused on entertainment are flourishing, as are magazines focusing on health, "thought" (New Republic, National Review and the like), motorcycles and cars. Circulation figures for the big news magazines are mixed, and for business magazines, the hot category of the 1980s, they are flat. And circulation is down for teen magazines, slick city or regionally oriented glossies, and spectator sports publications.

But taken together, magazine sales should rise by at least 1 percent this year, despite the recession and almost universal price increases.

"I'm frankly amazed," said Daniel Capell, author of the Capell's Circulation Report, an industry newsletter. "I was anticipating much poorer results."

But don't expect much glee from publishers. The good news from circulation is being drowned out by all the bad news from advertisers -- the source of about half of all industry revenues. According to the Publishers Information Bureau, magazine advertising revenue is down about 4.5 percent, and advertising pages are down about 10 percent.

That has touched almost every major publication, regardless of popularity. Both People and Premier have fewer advertisements this year than last year, though higher ad rates have partially offset the decline for People and actually have produced a small surplus for Premier.

"Agencies or advertisers are not paying much attention to what is going on to circulation," said Mr. Capell, a circumstance that has also been true in the past.

The consequences of a slow ad environment have been harsh.

Bottom-line numbers for the industry are generally unavailable, since most major magazines are owned by private companies (Hearst and Newhouse being two of the largest) or buried in increasingly vast conglomerates, such as American Express or Time Warner. But there's abundant evidence of deteriorating earnings.

Layoffs are pervasive, and numerous publications have closed, including serious business publications such as Corporate Finance; fashion magazines Model and Taxi; trend-hoppers Manhattan Inc., Egg and Fame; regionals 7 Days, California Magazine and New England Monthly; and literary Wig Wag. Others in development have been scratched.

A shakeout, however, is not synonymous with a debacle. Lost in the job and publication obituaries is the fact that the industry will continue to earn operating profits for the year, as it has consistently in the past, said Arthur Gruen, a media economist with Wilkofsky Gruen. The companies most affected by the downturn are those with high levels of debt, which were depending on their publications to produce extremely high profits to service high interest charges.

That contrasts sharply to the problems currently afflicting domestic heavy industries such as steel and autos, which have lost hundreds of millions, if not billions, in the current recession.

Indeed, in some ways, publications may be benefiting from the current slowdown. "A good magazine could be seen as a life raft," said David Foster, of Competitive Publishing Hotline, an industry newsletter. "It's not surprising people would turn to magazines for solace, consolation and escape from the realities of intractable recession."

Moreover, it is cost-effective solace. Consider the case of Premier. Circulation has grown consistently despite the magazine's focus on an industry with highly erratic popularity -- an industry that recently experienced its worst end-of-summer run in a decade.

"Even if people won't spend $25 to go to the movies, they are still willing to spend $2.50 to read about them," rationalized Susan Line, Premier's editor and publication director.

For People, a problem-filled time has created a whole new category of successful covers. Call it, as People does, "woman with a problem." One highlights "A Battered Miss America," another Roseanne Barr's tale of child abuse, another Julia Robert's broken engagement and a fourth Anita Hill's trauma (generalized under the heading "Sex and the Boss").

Of the three best-selling issues this year, two had tragic elements: Michael Landon's death and the Dahmer mass murders in Milwaukee. Another, Elizabeth Taylor's newest wedding, seemed to suggest a positive affirmation of life, said Editor Landon Jones Jr.

"Somebody's married, somebody dies, somebody runs off with some body else's boyfriend -- for us there has been a lot of news," Mr. Jones said.

Of course, some people's problems, or affirmations, just don't appear as interesting any more. Take Donald Trump, the perennial publicity hound. When Mr. Trump was busy swapping Ivana for Marla, a People with him on the cover did well.

"It was almost like a sex scandal," Mr. Jones observed.

A more recent cover of a cashed-out Donald threatened by bankruptcy, holding bills in his hands, didn't sell at all.

Why? Perhaps in a recession, the prospect of bankruptcy -- unlike sex, marriage or death -- provides little solace, consolation or escape.

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