Special Interest: Strategies for a Changing Environment
Last month's roundtable focused on how business magazine publishers are coping with the major changes confronting them. This second roundtable looks at the unique challenges of consumer special interest magazines, large and small. The strategy discussion among five niche publishers was moderated by Hanson Publishing chairman and CEO Joseph Hanson, and publishing consultant Hershel Sarbin. The participants: Francis Pandolfi, president and CEO, Times Mirror Magazines; John Beni, senior vice president/general manager, Cahners Consumer/Entertainment Publishing Group; James M. Lawrence, publisher of Telemedia's Harrowsmith Country Life and Eating Well; Paul Roman, president, The Taunton Press; and Gerald Hotchkiss, advertising sales director, Natural History.
HANSON: Francis, you've recently formed a group advertising buy with Newsweek. Are you at all concerned that this might amount to selling your special interest titles as commodities? It seems to me that these big combined plans-the Maxi Plan and so forth-are causing individual titles to lose their identities. Magazine positions are getting very sloppy. Shouldn't publishers with special interest titles instead be trying to surround a given market-to be the source of all information and media for that market?
PANDOLFI: Actually, I agree with you. But with the particular mix of titles that we have, we can do both. We can appeal to advertisers who are looking for reach to a large market with our combined Newsweek buy, and to special interest or generic advertisers with a package like Ski, Skiing and Skiing Trade News.
BENI: But if advertisers who qualify for reach deals buy into narrow books, it's tough to orchestrate rates to maintain the margins you'd like in special interest magazines.
PANDOLFI: With our structure, an automotive advertiser, for instance, would only benefit from the Times Mirror/Newsweek buy if they gave us incremental business. On that basis, our discounts are attractive and there's a lot of added value. There are advertorial packages and special events. If it were just a discount package, I would agree that there's a danger of becoming a commodity.
Real special interest, I think, is defined by having a heavily "generic" ad base, where you can get a higher CPM. But Field & Stream, for one, doesn't have a large generic ad base. It doesn't have much hunting and fishing. We rely on tobacco, automotive, liquor, the big categories. That's where the Newsweek deal makes solid sense.
As far as surrounding our markets, we're actively looking for new, non-magazine opportunities tied in with our special interest franchise areas. If you include the expires, we may have 20 million names on file. So, for instance, maybe we ought to be in the mail order business.
HANSON: My point is that serving advertisers for the short term can get in the way of surrounding a market.
SARBIN: Let's define "commodity".
PANDOLFI: Commodity means that whatever the market says the price is today, that's what it is. When magazines reach that point, they become commodities. It's buying demographics at the lowest price.
We started from a commodity definition. But then we went on to the next step, which is to give the company more meaning. We reach more men actively involved in the outdoors than any other media company. Part of this is making a commitment to do something about the environment.
We're working on specific environmental problems that affect our readers, like polluted fishing waters, the decline of certain species of marine fish, and access to public land for hiking, camping, boating, cross-country skiing, et cetera. We've opened an office in Washington, with a full-time staff, and we're working with the Government. We've signed partnership agreements with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We had two bills introduced into Congress in 1990. …