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TOUGH HALF: Remember, a few years ago, when magazine publishers and media observers started to employ the phrase “flat is the new up” when referring to newsstand and advertising figures? It was the glass-half-full way of reporting on the titles that managed to keep their numbers steady.

This morning, a new batch of figures was released from the Audit Bureau of Circulations for the first half of 2012 and it may be time for a new choice of words. While a few fashion and lifestyle magazines reported virtually no change in newsstand compared to last year, that wasn’t the case for the majority of titles. During the first six months of this year, most publishers were lucky if they reported only a single-digit decline.

This story first appeared in the August 7, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The bright spots: Marie Claire’s first half was almost flat compared to last year, with an average of 199,071 copies sold. With about 137,133 copies sold during the half, Harper’s Bazaar reported a flat period compared to the year before. These figures were taken from ABC’s unaudited Rapid Report, because Hearst Magazines declined to provide audited numbers ahead of time.

Over at Condé Nast, which did provide audited numbers, W magazine reported a slight decline, down 2.2 percent to an average of 18,591 copies sold. The luxury fashion title sells fewer copies on newsstands than its competitors, but it was able to keep its figures in line with the previous year. All Condé Nast titles reporting figures to ABC include digital single-copy sales in their overall newsstand data.

InStyle, published by Time Inc., sold an average of 545,000 copies this period on newsstand, according to ABC figures, which is more than Vogue and Elle combined. Still, InStyle was down 4.5 percent during the first half. Another Time Inc. title, People StyleWatch, reported a 3 percent dip to 490,026.

Glamour’s newsstand performance fell 6.8 percent during the period. The title was boosted by a redesign, introduced in March, when its single-copy average increased 5 percent from that issue through June over the same period in the prior year. Town & Country’s newsstand fell more than 9 percent to 33,403 copies sold during the half, according to Rapid Report.

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Vogue, Vanity Fair, Lucky and Allure all experienced double-digit declines for Condé Nast, with Lucky’s newsstand falling 15.5 percent to 126,926. Vogue posted a 16.5 percent decline to an average of 300,955 copies sold. Vanity Fair fell 18.8 percent during the half to 283,938 copies. Allure’s newsstand dropped 19 percent to an average of 125,162 copies sold. Hearst’s Elle’s single-copy sales fell about 20 percent to 198,715, according to Rapid Report.

The takeaway message: it was a tough first half at newsstands and checkout counters across the country. Women are being more selective with their purchases in store but there is growth, in some cases, in digital copies sold. Allure’s digital newsstand rose 273 percent during the half to 2,611. Glamour sold 7,713 digital copies, up 71 percent. These figures are basically a rounding error compared to the physical newsstand, but it’s growth. Monica Ray, executive vice president for consumer marketing at Condé Nast, said newsstand remains a small portion of the company’s readership mix — about 12 percent of the total makeup — but she repeatedly said she is encouraged by the increase in digital. “In the overall picture, total readership is going up. We’ve had nice gains in subscriptions. But newsstand is still really important to us,” she said.

The question is, how long will it be important? As magazines continue to become brands, selling not just content but also housewares, fashion, beauty products and food, some observers believe newsstand has become an old school metric for the business. “Newsstand is not the barometer of vitality anymore,” said Robin Steinberg, executive vice president, director of publishing investment and activation at MediaVest USA. “It’s an overall brand evaluation. Not the brand in silos but the goal of how a brand does on multiple platforms,” including digital, print, mobile and all the other activities magazines are using these days to generate revenue.

Until these broader metrics are in place — and easy for all to see — it’s safe to say observers will continue to focus on newsstand. Brand measurement isn’t as exciting as who will get that first Katie Holmes postdivorce cover.

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