What's the surest sign that the magazine industry is in trouble? Try a Web site dubbed the Magazine Death Pool.
"If there is any doubt that boating and yachting magazines are soon to join George Clooney and the crew of the Andrea Gail in the Reaper's bathtub, look no further than a new upbeat report from Reuters," read one dispatch last week on the site, www.magazinedeathpool.com, noting that a recent New York Boat Show was "about as crowded as a meeting of the Bernard Madoff Appreciation Society."
Despite the gallows humor, the joke may be on the American reading public, which is finding fewer and fewer of its favorite magazines on newsstands or in mailboxes these days.
Your teenage daughter liked to curl up with CosmoGirl? She'll have to go to its Web site now, although she probably did anyway, which is why the print version folded this month. Your wife liked Golf for Women? It folded in July. Cottage Living's swan song was last month. Men's Vogue is mostly gone, too -- to twice a year -- as is much of the staff of Conde Nast Portfolio's much-praised Web site, while the print version remains on a reduced publishing schedule.
In 2008, magazines, along with all media, experienced their worst year in decades, with ad pages plummeting 9.4 percent from last year, according to the Media Industry Newsletter, compared with a 7.8 percent drop in 2001. Luxury magazines have suffered even more, with ads in December dropping 22 percent from 2007.
Newsweeklies are particularly troubled: Time Inc. will cut 6 percent of its 10,200 employees and restructure its business, to the tune of $125 million, while Newsweek is cutting staff and reinventing itself as a less newsy, more thought-leader-ish analysis weekly modeled on The Economist.
Even recession-resistant Conde Nast -- purveyor of fashion, fantasy and celebrity through its Vogue and Vanity Fair titles -- couldn't escape the impact of this year's financial crisis and has cut jobs along with Meredith and Hearst.
Is this just a natural ebb in the business cycle or a true sea change? Will America's magazine readers see their favorite titles either morph into cyberspace or join Crawdaddy, Rosie, Budget Living and Outdoor Enthusiast in Magazine Death Pool's Museum of Dead Magazines?
"Part of it is a normal cyclical downturn," said Steve Cohn, MIN's editor-in-chief. "But it's a particularly horrific downturn, and when the stock price of publicly owned companies drops 30 percent or more, those companies lose value and that affects everything. Magazines are not going to be OK in the short term because the economy is lousy."
In the long term, there will be casualties, too. He's particularly concerned about Time and Newsweek, "because people don't want to wait a week anymore to get their news, and they don't have to."
Perhaps predictably, Nina Link, president and CEO of the Magazine Publishers of America, takes a rosier view.
"I'm not Pollyanna and I'm not Little Miss Sunshine," Ms. Link said, "but I think part of the story isn't getting out here," notably that 2007 "was a really strong year for us." The magazine industry gained a whole point in market share compared to other ad-supported media, she said. Moreover, she said, "powerful" research found magazines "to be the medium of engagement, and advertisers are looking for engagement."
Readers don't like ads in television or radio, she noted, "but they like ads in magazines. They see them as part of the content," she added, citing a new study from communications firm MS&L and Ipsos Public Affairs that found 84% of "key word-of-mouth influencers" read about a product in a magazine or newspaper first and then go online to find more information.
"We are the medium that drives the Web," she said.
The Web -- oh, that word. It's the future, but not one that many magazine moguls seem eager to embrace.
Just a few months after earning kudos for its coverage of Lehman Brothers' collapase on Wall Street, Fortune.com's Web team has been all but dismantled, as Time Inc. looked for ways to cut 600 jobs. Portfolio.com's sacrifice of 25 out of 30 workers was about saving the print product.
"Most magazine layoffs have been on the Web side," said Mr. Cohn. "It's follow the money and right now the money is on print, because you get an immediate return on your print advertising dollar. For all this hype about the Web, it's really not about that for many publishers."
Count Myrna Blyth, editor-in-chief of Ladies Home Journal for 20 years, as one convert to the Web. She recently jumped to Bettyconfidential.com, a Web site for women age 18 to 49.
Bettyconfidential will provide "service, news and emotion, plus, the great charm of the Web is that it is really spontaneous," Ms. Blyth said. We're a comprehensive women's magazine that comes out every day. And if you make a mistake, you fix it in two minutes!" she laughed.
Still, fashion magazines will mostly continue to put the print product first, experts predict.
Fashion and style-conscious women "don't want to sit in front of a computer to read Vogue," said Ed Atornio, a media analyst with Benchmark Capital. "That's not their life -- that little tiny picture on the screen of the Dolce and Gabanna dress. They want to see a big, nice looking color picture and they want to carry it around in their bag when they hop on the bus or go to the hairdresser's."
Shelter magazines are a different story, said Mr. Atorino. "How many design magazines do you need, after all?"
Not that many, it turns out.
Oprah's "O at Home" is gone, as is Vogue's entry in that category, and, last year, the much loved but severely upscale House and Garden. Most recently, Cottage Living got the axe from Time Inc., despite its cult following among readers who liked its stylish, eclectic design-in-a-smaller-footprint vibe.
Its founder and editor-in-chief, Lindsay Bierman, will now run Coastal Living, a publication aimed at affluent retirees, although some changes are in the works, he said.
Nonetheless, he believes that glossy home and lifestyle magazines -- the so-called "shelter" category -- will eventually bounce back.
"I believe in print," he said. "What's lost in all of this discussion about what's going to stay or what's going to go is that home is what matters most to people, still. It's where you go for comfort and where you face the issues of the day."
The Web has its place, but "our readers spend a lot of time engaged with our product, curled up in an easy chair, with a glass of wine, and at some point I'd like to think these magazines, as we've known them, will come back."
"Imagine," he added. "There's this new invention, and you don't have to plug it in. It's called a magazine. Seems kind of revolutionary, doesn't it?"
Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1949.