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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Too Much Advertising?

A comment on last week's post about the sale of Climbing magazine raises an interesting question: "Where you write that Climbing has to increase editorial, do you mean there is too much advertising in the magazine?" The answer is no, despite the frequently heard complaint that Climbing & Rock & Ice are "all ads." Readers would be much better off if the mags had more ads. Here's why.

Almost all modern magazines adhere to an ad-to-edit ratio: The more ads in a given issue, the bigger the magazine, and thus the more editorial pages for readers to enjoy (or to vilify, as the case may be). In the old days, the big U.S. climbing magazines ran much "looser" than they do today. Rock & Ice, which I operated for about five years, used to run as little as 30 percent advertising; George Bracksieck, the magazine's previous owner, published 148 pages each issue for many years no matter how few ads he sold; he did it by cutting expenses to the bone and by absorbing losses when he had to. In those days, Climbing magazine also ran loose, sometimes topping 200 total pages.

But starting in the late 1990s, two things happened that eventually shrank the magazines. First, both magazines got new ownership (Cowles/Primedia in Climbing's case; North-South Publications in Rock & Ice's), and both owners sought growth and a return on their investment. As the magazines added issues, they no longer could be produced with a couple of people in a garage (R&I) or the back room of an Aspen newspaper (Climbing). Combined with ever-increasing paper, printing, distribution, and editorial costs, the mags were forced to tighten up their ad-to-edit ratios, so that each page printed and distributed was more profitable. Both magazines now aspire to run about 50 percent ads, which brings them in line with the low end of magazine-industry standards.

(Interestingly, R&I typically runs more ads per edit page than Climbing does, but it looks like it has less, thanks to its new, larger format and a more open design. Climbing usually has a higher percentage of editorial but looks more crowded, thanks to a busier, more dense design. Comes down to which design aesthetic you prefer, I guess.)

Tighter ad-edit ratios were fine when the climbing and ad businesses were booming. Both magazines were fat. But starting with the Nasdaq/ crash in early 2000, advertising went into a tailspin. Those double-truck spreads vanished almost overnight (does anyone remember Quokka or Planet Outdoors?); automotive and other "non-endemic" advertising withered; and the biggest outdoor advertisers, like Gore, North Face, Mountain Hardwear, etc., cut their schedules significantly. Even the core climbing companies cut way back as the sport's meteroric growth through the mid-1990s flattened, and as companies began to experiment with the Internet, event sponsorship, and other forms of marketing. The result has been much smaller magazines: Climbing's most recent issue was just 84 pages, and R&I's was 92 pages. Granted, the first issue of the year is always the smallest for the climbing magazines, but no one is expecting a major ad boom in 2007.

How can the mags deliver more editorial? Only two ways: Loosen the ad-edit ratio or sell more ads. Mark Crowther, who runs Urban Climber and just bought Climbing, seems to be promising a bit of the former (more editorial per ad page) for Climbing magazine. But the August-September issue of Urban Climber was almost 47 percent ads, right in there with the others. As you'd expect from a relatively new magazine, many of these were sponsorship or "house" (promotional) ads, but to the reader a free ad is the same as a paid ad—it still reduces the amount of editorial. Crowther may loosen Climbing's ratio a bit, but the only way readers of the big mags will see a significant increase in editorial pages is if they sell lots more advertising. I don't know about you, but I'd like to have more than 15 minutes of reading material in my climbing magazines. And that, dear readers, is why I think they don't have enough ads.

But wait, you say, what about Alpinist? Yes, Alpinist runs a very loose book—18.25 percent ads in its most recent 100-page issue—and readers love it for that. But even Alpinist has increased its ad-edit ratio significantly; it now runs about 40 percent more ads than it did in its first few years, with the same total page count. More importantly, the jury is still out on Alpinist's "reader supported" ($12.95 cover price) business model. Marc Ewing, the magazine's owner, has nearly pulled the plug at least once. Alpinst (and Climbing) have invested heavily in the Web in recent months, perhaps anticipating a day when the print mags are less important to the revenue picture. But print still drives the publishing businesss, and as long as print magazines are around they will depend on advertising.

Lecture over.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post Dougald. You should post this over on, would be informative to a lot of people over there.

One point worth making, I think selling print ads as a revenue model is dead. More and more advertisers are looking for more bang for their buck than they can get from a traditional print advertising page, which will cost them $3000 and is virtual impossible to track the effectiveness of. They can put that same money into online advertising, Google Adwords, email marketing, etc. and get highly targeted and trackable traffic. This is already standard in many other industries, but as usual the Outdoor Industry has lagged behind. Of course the large companies will continue to buy ad space for branding purposes. But the days of fat books with lots of ads are over. That is part of why Primedia got rid of the mag, they just couldn't make it profitable under that model, and couldn't figure out what else to do. Hopefully the new leadership over there will recognize this fact and capitalize on these new opportunities.

Anonymous said...

The future of the "editorial" medium is on-line, first-person, and either paid for by sponsors of the first-person celebrity "reporters" or largely unpaid for (bloggers/trip reporters). Professional writers/editors will either transition to video reporting or wither away -- there just won't be any place for old-school, print-style journalism.

Dougald, you better brush up on yoru camera work and voiceovers! ;)

Anonymous said...

While I agree somewhat, I think there is still a place for old-school, print journalism. The mags have access to high quality photos and (in theory) high quality writing. As great as the web is, the writing is often lacking (this blog aside) and you'll never see Andrew Burr posting his photos online for free. A balance between online and print is the reality, at least for the foreseeable future.

Dougald MacDonald said...

I wouldn't write the obituary for print journalism just yet. Most of the magazines I work for are thriving. Even though I read most of my news online, I still subscribe to a dozen magazines and read half of them cover to cover. I can't imagine reading the New Yorker online, even though they already post a lot of their stories. My best guess is that print will continue to live side by side with the Internet (just as it lived through the arrival of radio and TV) for many years to come. Still, the media world changes fast (just as it has for more than a century), and as a journalist I'm hedging my bets, learning a lot, and having a blast by experimenting with various online media.

Anonymous said...

Ink and paper is so yesterday and makes too much greenhouse gas. One one reason they sell fewer ads for magazines is that they spend more and more ad money on Internet ads like the ones on my website, he he he.

Anonymous said...

I used to work for Alpinist, and so you's not like they are rolling in the bucks. I definitely see a transfer in the industry to more web based marketing. Even Alpinist has a new website. You should check it out...