Tuesday, May 15, 2012

CONSUMER MAGAZINES: SEASON OF DESPERATION

 If you are one of the three Americans who haven’t seen this Time Magazine cover yet, well…now you have. Is your life any richer for it? Probably not. Does the picture make you want to drop what you’re doing and run out and buy the magazine? Not likely. Do you feel sorry for that kid who will now have to go through the rest of his life with this picture neatly tucked away in storage somewhere? Uh…yeah.

 If you’re wondering why this tried and true news magazine that dates to 1923 would stoop this low just to get your attention, as usual the numbers tell the story: In the second half of 2011 Time Magazine lost 3.4 percent of its newsstand sales, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, an independent organization which provides circulation audits print publications and website activity. Paid circulation decreased 0.5 percent to 3.3 million, and if you need some perspective on this, just know that one decade ago, the recorded circulation was 4.2 million.

We’re just not rushing home to our mailboxes anymore anxiously awaiting our news magazines. I’m not sure the last time I bought a Time Magazine, are you? Who needs it? I’m reading everything I need to read online. And even though I was a late entrant into the “smartphone” universe, now I’m even reading some of it on my phone. If there are particular topic areas in which I’m deeply interested, I can set up an app on the phone to “poke” me instantly when news happens. It’s a journalistic world of immediacy and instant information. I love it, and so do most of you, but guess who doesn’t love it? Time Magazine.

Oh, and if you thought Newsweek was any happier than Time about digital instant gratification, think again. Here is this week’s Newsweek cover.
Obviously it references President Obama’s endorsement of legalizing gay marriage, but “The First Gay President?” Come on. I guess it’s better than a mockup of the President officiating the marriage of two men or two women, although something tells me that idea was probably kicked around the Newsweek offices last week.

This is simply another indication of the desperation print media is experiencing. ABC reports that just as Time is involuntarily shedding readers, so is Newsweek. Newsweek reported a 1.8 percent decline in paid circulation to 1.52 million copies in the second half of 2011. What we are witnessing here is the print magazine industry trying everything it can just to stay relevant, even as the 24-hour news cycle makes magazine content obsolete before it hits the newsstands.

 What’s that you said? “Desperate times call for desperate measures?” How about this? Desperate times call for smarter integration of traditional and digital media. Stunts like this week’s Time and Newsweek covers serve only to alert the reading public that magazines are in stunning decline. When a news publication resorts to sensationalism, whether visual or editorial, to persuade us to buy its product, the magazine is treading water. The Time cover is unique, but by this point in our collective editorial consciousness, it is not shocking, and it seems shock value was the intention here. And what about good old editorial judgment? Is this really the main story of the week that should be featured on Time’s cover?

The Time editors claim the story about weaning children from breast feeding is in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the publication of Dr. Bill Sears book, “The Baby Book.” Really? And how is that worthy of a Time cover?

As a journalist, my reaction to both of these magazine covers is simply that I cannot take either publication seriously when they do this sort of thing. Unfortunately, they each do it more often now than ever in the history of their magazines, and it only serves to cause me to pay less attention to their publications. Some perspective: Last week, France ousted its president; our own President said gay people should be able to get married; JP Morgan announced an unprecedented $2 billion loss in its trading operation; major revelations came to light in the John Edwards trial; the CEO of Yahoo admitted lying on his resume; and, in Mexico, 49 decapitated bodies were strewn on a highway outside of Monterey. Still, TIME went with breastfeeding and NEWSWEEK put a rainbow halo on Obama’s head.

 It may not be great journalism, but it does provide great fodder for satirists. Will Ferrell’s hosting gig on NBC’s Saturday Night Live last week may not go down as one of the all-time greats, but Seth Meyers’ “Weekend Update” bit on the Time cover just might. Watch:

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