Friday, December 5, 2014


I was thinking about the old joke with the two hikers, one in good sturdy boots and one in running shoes. The boots guy makes fun of his pal's inappropriate attire. His pal says it's in case they meet a grizzly.

"You can't outrun a grizzly," laughs the boots guy.

"I don't have to outrun the grizzly. I just have to outrun you."

I used to work in consumer magazines. The pay was better than in book publishing. But magazines are dying. Several of my old friends have left the field.

One shocker was when Ladies' Home Journal packed it in after 131 years in print last April. In 1999 LHJ crowed about having its biggest issue ever, which (since only half the pages of a consumer magazine sold by mail are allowed by law to be ads--but economic sense dictates that no more than half will be content) meant they had sold more advertising for that issue than any other single issue. Yes, they partied like it was 1999. Fifteen years later, dead.

Was it run by boneheads? Probably. Other similar magazines have remained afloat. Boneheadedness is one great way to make sure the bear gets you instead of someone else.

It all comes down to the ads. For a hundred years magazines have been sold at less than cost, paid for by advertising, but now those ads have gone elsewhere. Readers' eyes have gone elsewhere. In the 1990s it seemed like it would be a wash at worst, maybe even a boon---so readers will go to the magazine Web site instead, which costs less to produce, and see the ads there. Win! But it didn't work out that way. You couldn't charge enough for Internet ads. People read online magazines differently than paper magazines. You would sit down with a paper magazine and could spend an hour or so going cover to cover. Who does that with an online publication? The experience is a lesser thing online, and so the money is too. Meanwhile, people's eyes are on the Internet, or watching TV shows on their phones or tablets, and they're not on magazines, and you can't charge the same money for fewer eyeballs.

That bear is a hungry fellow.

There are several stages in most businesses that are new or severely changed by technology:

No Bear - Everything is new and everybody wants in; the field is flooded with money; people are getting rich left and right even if they produce crap.

Small Bear - Early money dries up; weak competitors show their flaws and are eaten.

Bear - Companies are folding. Everyone has to own a niche or keep out in front of the others in some way. The tighter the race or the lower the margins, the quicker the bear dispatches the foolish.

Very Hungry Bear - New technology or markets are taking customers from the industry away in droves. Some look for government handouts. Feels like only a matter of time before the bear catches up.

Bear Feeding Frenzy - The field is dead as a commercial enterprise. Some look for government takeover. Cannot be run at a profit at any cost. No one survives.

Magazines are in Bear territory; probably at least halfway into Very Hungry Bear. Newspapers are definitely in Very Hungry Bear.

Whatever your industry, things can go to hell faster than you probably expect. Even when you don't see him, there's always a bear.

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