If you are the kind of person who really enjoys vintage aprons—or rhinestone or leather aprons, for that matter—you just might be willing to shell out $14.99 for a copy of Apron*ology, a new magazine about "Aprons With Attitude." At least that's what publisher Stampington & Co. is betting, even though Apron*ology's hefty cover price is more than triple the $4.50 newsstand average for established magazine titles ($59.99 for a year's subscription). It sounds like a risky gamble in a bad economy, but a growing number of media experts believe it is a better strategy than the one pursued by magazines like the recently departed Condé Nast Portfolio. The glossy business monthly had fetched only $4.99 a copy on the newsstand and roughly $1 a month for a subscription, right up until it died earlier this week, just 24 months after its launch.
Why didn't Condé Nast believe that business readers would value Portfolio as much as Stampington hopes apron lovers value Apron*ology? The answer is clear to magazine maven Samir Husni, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi. "We don't value our content anymore," Husni says. "It was a crime to sell a subscription to Portfolio for $12 a year." Even though Portfolio targeted well-heeled readers, it sold itself cheap on the newsstand and cheaper in subscription, and gave away its content online. When the economy soured and advertisers turned away, the magazine came up short. In tough times, Husni says, a greater reliance on subscription revenue is a safer bet than advertisers. "The chances of, say, a half-million subscribers going bankrupt and canceling subscriptions is far less than 50 major advertisers going bankrupt or cutting their ad budgets," he says. (NEWSWEEK is raising prices as part of the relaunch of its print edition.)
For years, Husni has been sounding the alarm about a deadly peril to publishing—a pricing imbalance in which advertisers effectively subsidize customers at the newsstand and at the mailbox. And just who is Husni to read publishers the riot act on healthy pricing? Industry insiders know him best as the man behind MrMagazine.com, a kind of online font of vital stats on magazine births. While Husni tracks publications' comings, he doesn't count their goings. Yet he has a certain insight into the high mortality rates that afflict magazine publishing. In the best of times, Husni says, 60 of every 100 new magazines don't make it to their first anniversary; Portfolio (April 2007 to April 2009) actually beat the odds. In recessions, publications starve to death en masse as advertisers stop feeding them pages. The historic current downturn has spawned a wave of magazine closings, including Hearst's CosmoGirl and O at Home, Time Inc.'s Cottage Living and Hachette's Home. So far this year, 149 magazines have folded, according to MediaFinder.com, an online database of info on North American publications. If they had relied more on revenue from readers, says Husni, some of those magazines might very well have survived the slump.
The devastation in business-to-business titles, which in many cases rely almost exclusively on advertising, is even more dire, especially in certain categories—for example, magazines targeting the depressed construction and banking industries. Some 68 business magazines have failed this year, according to MediaFinder.com. Trade publisher Reed Business halted 14 construction-related magazines, including 83-year-old Construction Digest. Because most business-to-business publications are controlled-circulation, they typically "don't have another alternative" to ad revenue, says Trish Hagood, president of Oxbridge Communications, which publishes MediaFinder.com. "It's very sad."
Even though publishers are beginning to recognize the problem, it may be too late. At the newsstand, the average price of new magazines jumped to $8.10 per issue in 2008 from $5.37 in 2000, Husni says. Meanwhile, established magazines boosted single-copy prices to an average of $4.40 to $4.50 last year, up from $3.83 eight years ago.
Husni is stepping down in June as chairman of the journalism department at Ole Miss to launch a think tank, the Magazine Innovation Center, on the campus. "Print isn't dead; paper is a 400-year-old technology," he says. "There's nothing wrong with it. Come here, folks. Let's think. We can come up with some ideas." It may mean looking no farther than the apron hanging on the kitchen door.