Where Have All The Subscribers Gone?


An article in a recent issue of DM News by Meg Weaver, founder of Wooden Horse Publishing which produces a database covering the magazine industry, concludes that magazine publishers have hit a wall in terms of subscribers, and that the numbers are in significant decline. As she phrases it, this is "... a dirty little secret the magazine industry doesn't want you to know: We have run out of readers in this country."

To document this claim, Weaver cites her analysis of Audit Bureau of Circulation numbers. By looking at cumulative circulations of all audited ABC publications, she notes that the industry grew consistently in terms of circulation until 1990, when things began to plateau at 366 million. The 2003 number? A cumulative circulation of 353 million. Weaver attributes this primarily to uncreative "me too" publishing practices in the magazine industry, which leaves the industry in a position of continuously poaching subscribers from each other rather than creating innovative new magazines that would attract net new subscribers.

But is this the full story? My first concern was reliance on ABC circulation numbers, since ABC is favored mostly by consumer publications. Further, ABC provides circulation numbers only on its membership, and that creates a sample biased towards larger publications that need circulation audits.

My sense is that the story, which probably does begin around 1990, is far more nuanced. What we've seen over the last 15 years is an explosion in the number of increasingly specialized magazine titles, some with circulations in the low thousands. We've also seen increasing amounts of information delivered via the Web, faster, fresher, more accessible and often even more specialized than the most specialized print publications. In short, information is proliferating, and as a result, audiences are fragmenting as they increasingly move to access only the information of most interest to them, shutting out a lot of more general information sources in the process.

We're now in an era of extreme specialization. Subscribers are getting used to mixing, matching and filtering content. And as they read less, and focus most on topics they care most about, guess what? You need to keep up with them editorially, because these empowered readers want depth and substance, and they know immediately when they're not getting it.

This shift has implications for data publishers too, because our businesses are being forced to address the same trends. What was "good enough" in terms of editorial quality isn't good enough any more. The data that our subscribers choose to receive gets scrutinized as never before, by increasingly expert eyes. It's a tough new standard to meet, but there is ample evidence that if you can deliver good quality editorial, there will be an audience willing to pay for it.

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