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Here’s hoping 2003 will be the last year for a while that the magazine industry would rather forget. While not nearly as depressing as the preceding two years, when the post-bubble hangover gave way to terror, the tumultuous events of 2003 — including a war and more whispered threats from abroad — meant the best most publishers could do was not fall any farther. But in 2004, they can expect to start the climb back up.

It’s an Olympic year and an election year, and due in part to both of those, it looks to be a rebound one for advertising and, by extension, magazine publishers. Here’s WWD’s look ahead at some of the stories that will drive the magazine business in 2004.

This story first appeared in the December 30, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Fall Of Martha Stewart

Whether or not Stewart is found guilty of obstructing justice or conspiracy (just two of five counts against her), 2004 could be the year that the growing number of aspirants to her throne finally do her in. While the pack of journalists on her trail keeps asking if anyone besides themselves (and prosecutors) care about her legal woes, her eponymous empire is undeniably declining.

Martha Stewart Omnimedia predicted ad pages would fall by 40 percent in the fourth quarter, and they had fallen 33 percent for the year through November. And for one reason or another, Stewart’s readers are deserting her — the rate base for Martha Stewart Living’s January issue now on newsstands is just 1.8 million, down from 2.3 million this fall. Executives at her company have already warned that a turnaround is not imminent. And Stewart’s own hands are full, of course, with her criminal trial, which is slated for or around Jan. 22 and is sure to reignite her bad press.

Meanwhile, Hearst and Time Inc. are ready to bring their full weight to bear on Stewart’s domain, the former with its own living brand, Oprah, and the latter with the reassuringly anonymous Real Simple (which has already spat out two editors and is still gaining speed). Both properties are set to outflank the Martha brand in 2004 as well as fight it head-on. Hearst has re-upped Oprah shelter foray O at Home, which was polybagged this year and next year will be two freestanding issues. Real Simple is ready to roll out a raft of brand extensions, starting with its first book, Real Simple Home.

Stewart might also be supplanted by her hipster spiritual children, Budget Living and Readymade, both of which appear primed to break out in 2004. The former won launch of the year honors from both Ad Age and AdWeek in 2003, while the latter just received an investment from an undisclosed publisher that will help fund a frequency increase to bimonthly and drive circulation growth next year.

“I don’t see [Stewart’s] hold on the American homemaking imagination being loosened up anytime soon,” said Readymade editor Shoshana Berger. “But that doesn’t mean the playing field hasn’t opened up.”

The Tough Go Shopping

Labeled a threat to literacy when it debuted three years ago, Lucky now looks like the most influential magazine of the decade. Condé Nast’s decision to clone the title for men touched off a stampede of publishers looking to cash in on the premise.

Condé Nast’s Cargo arrives in March, followed by Vitals from Fairchild’s Details in the fall. (Fairchild is the parent of WWD and both it and Condé Nast are owned by Advance Publications.) A second wave of gadget-centric titles from tech publishers Ziff Davis and IDG is expected soon after that, while Primedia’s entry, Best, is already on sale.

Besides the obvious rationale for piling into the niche (because that’s where the money is), the players involved can tick off all sorts of reasons why this looks like 2004’s hot category. “This seems to be the right time, right now, that men are comfortable purchasing things for themselves,” said Cargo publisher Alan Katz. “Certainly that’s true in the fashion and grooming arenas. I think men now have cultural permission to buy certain things.”

Cargo’s editorial will be split 50-50 between fashion-grooming and everything else, Katz said — “stereos, computers, cell phones, guitars, liquor” — or in other words, anything aimed at men that can be advertised. Vitals is expected to take more of a pure fashion approach, while Ziff’s and IDG’s entries will dwell almost entirely on consumer electronics — not a bad bet when the iPod was at the top of this holiday season’s gift list.

Don’t look for any contender to cotton to the “metrosexual” tag that increasingly looks bound for the dustbin of 2003. Vitals’ parent Details has already backed away from the overly moisturized stereotype, and Cargo’s trade campaign hammers the point home that red-blooded men shop, too. “I think some people can beat that one a little longer,” Katz said. “Cargo speaks to men and men who buy things. And I think that’s a pretty broad concept.”

Maturation Or Saturation?

Nobody grows forever. The success stories of formerly hot categories have tended to either settle into successful middle age or implode once a glut of imitators crowded into the field. What’s it going to be for 2003’s darlings, the celebrity weeklies, and their predecessor in the spotlight, the lad magazines?

They’ll be hard-pressed to repeat the results of their heydays. Both Dennis Publishing (Maxim, Stuff) and Emap (FHM) are searching for second acts now that their flagship titles appear to have plateaued. None of Dennis’ one-shot experiments to fuse the Maxim formula with other genres (Maxim Goes To The Movies; Stuff Gamer) caught fire the way Blender has, and the company is busy pouring cash into a direct-mail campaign for the not remotely laddish news digest, The Week. Emap, meanwhile, might finally import its own music franchise, Q, from the U.K., now that FHM has settled into steady but not spectacular growth. But neither company will be able to grow on lads alone.

Meanwhile, American Media’s David Pecker is convinced he can reheat his flagging tabloid division. His relaunch of the Star as a full-fledged glossy in January is designed to wring one last spurt of growth out of what observers agree is a fully mature business. Pecker might insist to the New York Post that the Star is making $1 million a week, but he’s also telling the Securities and Exchange Commission that AMI’s profits are shrinking while his interest payments rise. If Bonnie Fuller can’t hold on to readers while Pecker keeps raising the Star’s cover price, both will have to kiss plans goodbye for an AMI IPO anytime soon. And speaking of saturation — will readers continue to purchase the Star at $3.29 when In Touch is just $1.99 and People and Us Weekly sit nearby?

The Primitivist Movement

Next year may belong to magazines aimed at a new and very particular reader — one who’s disgusted with the perfectionism, materialism and racy coverlines of the current crop. They might find Wal-Mart’s current darling more satisfying, however — American Magazine, a contemporary update on the Saturday Evening Post that somehow has even less bite. Launched in Memphis by Mignonne Wright, a 29-year-old with no big-league publishing experience, American landed on Wal-Mart’s shelves last year after Wright cold-called the megachain’s magazine buyer. Now the bimonthly has a national distribution of 100,000 copies.

There is nothing edgy, polished or cynical about it. Its unassuming optimism and love of the warm and fuzzy feels alien compared to the current publishing landscape. Now it’s been joined by Rescue, another bimonthly whose founder, a former chef named Dan Ho, refers to it as an “anti-lifestyle” magazine. On newsstands now, it’s aiming for 50,000 copies an issue. “We all know what you need to do to make the slipcover,” Ho said. “We all know what you need to do to create the perfect Christmas table. All the other magazines are very prescriptive, and we’re challenging the notion that you need a prescription to have style.” Rescue is guided by the idea that a life lived in pursuit of Martha Stewart is an empty one.

Wright and Ho aren’t the first to realize this. Reader’s Digest chief executive officer Tom Ryder staked his company on the idea when he purchased Reiman Publications last year for $760 million. Folksy, ad-free Reiman titles like Country Woman and Taste of Home are driven entirely by subscriptions and usually filled with reader-provided stories and recipes. They’re about as unslick as magazines can get. And that’s why they were worth so much.

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