NEW YORK — What’s the publishing industry’s excuse this time?

When magazine newsstand sales dropped precipitously in the first six months of 2003, publishers had their pick of reasons — the war in Iraq, the still-sputtering economy, even SARS.

This story first appeared in the February 20, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But they’ll need a good explanation for yet another drop in the second half of last year. According to official figures released Monday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, out of the 472 magazines it tracks, 319 reported newsstand declines and their combined newsstand sales fell 5.9 percent (3.3 million copies), not counting new titles reporting sales for the first time.

The big picture looks even worse for magazines too small to be counted by the ABC. According to the International Periodical Distributors Association, which tracks 95 percent of all magazines, net unit sales fell 13.4 percent in the second half of 2003 compared with the previous year, and that’s after sales dropped 12.9 percent in the first half (when there was a war on).

“You can’t blame Iraq, and you can’t blame the economy…. Well, I guess you can, but how long can you keep doing that?” said Chip Block, vice chairman of the subscription fulfillment company USApubs.

This time, the excuse du jour is the Southern California supermarket strike-lockout that began in October and shows no signs of ending, denting the women’s service and other magazines that depend on shoppers’ impulse buying. TV Guide, for example, fell 21.5 percent, or 178,000 copies; Reader’s Digest dropped 15.3 percent and shed 100,000 copies. Six Sisters members Family Circle, Woman’s Day, Ladies Home Journal and Redbook were also double-digit losers. (Then again, their checkout aisle neighbors People, In Touch and Us Weekly all posted solid numbers.)

While it might seem a bit of a stretch to hang the industry’s woes on a few grocery chains in the O.C., publishers still seem more eager to blame California’s labor problems than unfixed structural flaws in the magazine world, like the decade-long pattern of wholesaler consolidation that has steadily squeezed titles off the shelf.

The gradual sagging of newsstand sales has led directly to today’s trends of spin-off titles (like Condé Nast’s Teen Vogue or Cargo which, like WWD, are part of Advance Magazines Group), clones of existing titles (the entire lad mag genre) and a bet-the-house mentality when it comes to launches. Gruner + Jahr USA has pondered launching a U.S. edition of its European celebrity-lifestyle glossy, Gala, for what feels like forever, and no wonder the company can’t make up its mind — the cost of pushing it on the newsstand in volumes large enough to succeed could reportedly be as much as $50 million.

Even the one, unqualified newsstand hit of the last three years has a mitigating factor. “It’s Oprah. It’s TV,” Block said. Hearst’s O: The Oprah Magazine rose a staggering 38.1 percent in the second half of last year — the highest by far of any magazine in its class, climbing from 720,000 to within a whisker of 1 million. But Oprah has a TV show to plug her magazine, not to mention a cult of personality (she’s been on every cover since it launched in 2000).

“Anything that works now works in spite of the system, not because of it,” Block said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of help in reforming it or turning the thing around.”

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