Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The State of Magazines, With Reader’s Digest in Bankruptcy Again

In another development that bodes ill for magazines in general, Reader’s Digest is in bankruptcy again. It seems like it was just in bankruptcy, but actually, it was more than two years ago that the magazine’s new parent company was created at the end of the bankruptcy that killed off the previous parent company. Now something similar will be happening again.

Reader’s Digest isn’t necessarily emblematic of what is happening to magazines. You might recognize Reader’s Digest as the original aggregator, so it makes sense that it might have special difficulty competing with the likes of Huffington Post in the online era. But we have seen magazines in general fall off by more than half from a peak about ten years ago. Time and Newsweek are perhaps more representative of where magazines are now. Time is looking at a restructuring, but there are doubts about the financing for it. Newsweek stopping printing in December and is barely clinging to a distinct identity in its current digital form.

It is a new rule of thumb that magazines cannot compete head-to-head. These days, if there are two magazines trying to do the same thing, it is very likely that both will fail. As a guitar player, I wonder sometimes about the guitar magazines. Most of them have already been shut, but there is little integrity to hold on to in those that remain. It seems the market will still support one magazine for those who play rock guitar, and a separate magazine for those who collect guitars, but I am not sure even of that. I look at the guitar magazines and none of them seem worthwhile. They do not even live up to the needs of the fantasy worlds that they have defined for themselves to serve, so how relevant can they be in the life of a real guitarist?

The same decline in content that is eating away at newspapers and Fox News is also affecting magazines. It takes a visionary, it seems, to keep a magazine relevant — and it is the rare exception to find a magazine with a visionary in charge. But perhaps those magazines are the ones that are most likely to carry on for another ten years.