Are Consumer Mags the Walking Dead?

4 mag covers featureConsumer magazines are taking a hit at the newsstand with lower efficiencies, and in subscriptions with a loss of loyal readers. Add a defection of ad dollars online, and you’ve got a perfect storm.

The leading automotive titles have a certain undeniable appeal to enthusiasts and value for episodic car shoppers, but is that enough to sustain a volume publication? After all, new car buyers rank magazines only fifth as the preferred resource when shopping for a new vehicle. And shopping destinations like Edmunds and AutoTrader have pretty much become the first place consumers go for new car pricing, spec’s, and buying tips.

And perhaps we’re seeing a parallel event occurring in Detroit among the Big Three where 20+ years of ignoring superior production methods from overseas competitors have finally kicked the Heartland into submission. Can the marketplace sustain 3.7M total paid subs as online competition annihilates their respective old-world methods? The race for rate base comes at a hefty cost. DM soft offers are becoming increasingly absurd with non-contextual freebies less likely to yield qualified readers. And then there’s the newsstand shredding mill leaving up to 60% of unsold copies in the hopper.

My pick as the most vulnerable to online competition: The Fab Four aka Automobile, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Car & Driver:

The Fab Four Circulation 2007 USPS 3526









Road & Track




Motor Trend




Car & Driver




The Fab Four Total Circulation 2002 – 2006. Source: Audit Statements June 20, 2007

















Road & Track








Motor Trend








Car & Driver
















An average decline of 9.3% between 2002 and 2006 does not suggest a growth industry. The publications’ respective audit statements also revealed the following decline in newsstand sales over the same time period:

  • Automobile – down 22.9%
  • Road & Track – down 26.0%
  • Car & Driver – down 21.3%
  • Motor Trend – down 4.0%

The big surprise is that these numbers aren’t worse though 2007 figures may dig a deeper grave. Motor Trend’s newsstand performance appears excellent compared to others that are off by more than 20%.

Last year saw a considerable shift in consumer habits away from print, favoring sites like Craigslist and eBay Motors in increasing numbers. Check out Trends for a sobering look at the shakeout occurring in newspapers and magazines on a national level.So what does all this mean to the publishers of the Fab Four: Source Interlink with over 50 titles on all matter of vehicles, and Hachette with just a handful? The answer lies in their respective online homes in addition to the Catch 22 as rate base leaders. Let me explain.

  • All it takes is a quick glance at each publication’s website to recognize their print origins. Sources indicate that Car & Driver, for example, just can’t get traffic numbers to an acceptable level despite the magazine’s top ranking title in terms of total circ at 1.3M. Rich content such as audio and video are no substitutes for meaningful content unavailable elsewhere.
  • The rate base war is a liability. It costs more to get fewer qualified subs; nearly 60% of unsold newsstand copies wind up in lining the biggest bird cage on earth; and advertisers have an ever-increasing number of options to reach customers. Why wait up to two months for a print ad to hit buyers when the latest online pitch can happen with just a few keystrokes?

I’d be the first to bow my head in sorrow when/if any of these veteran pub’s become yesterday’s news, and my 30+ year collection of Road & Tracks should not go down as a footnote in history. My only advice to the suits running the Fab Four is simply this: Magazines are playing out in precisely the same fashion as audio compact discs where entrenched players denied an overwhelming consumer shift to digital music. The lesson? Handicap users’ experience and suffer the consequences.

Maybe its time consumer titles reconsider their game plan. After all, it’s about retention, yield, and long-term profitability. The Fab Fours’ websites are perhaps among the best representation of “publisher’s websites” complete with tie-ins to print, sub offers, blogs, whatever. And the online content is free …

So what can publishers do to avoid this perfect storm? For starters, hire me and I’ll tell you (!), or in the meantime take a look at Conde Nast’s theme-driven sites catering to specific preferences. The automotive audience could be carved up in a similar fashion and your customers and investors will thank you.

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Eric's Consulting Services for Publishers

There Are 8 Responses So Far. »

  1. As a newsstand consultant I can tell you that the distribution channels are a mess and sellthru rates are way down for most consumer titles. The broader the audience, the lower the effeciency. Publishers aren’t getting paid in a timely fashion forcing many to retrench.

  2. Those circulation numbers are not what the magazines are claiming. They must be quoting total readership. I’m not surprised at the fall off and AutoWeek seems in worse shape. If Wall St. Jrl. can’t make money who can?

  3. House and office used to be jammed with magazines but now only a copy when the urge strikes at the local Barnes and Noble. I don’t bother with the websites. Google has a decent shopping search and eBay is where I buy and sell. Maybe this is also of interest, we evaluated sport coupes online and got a great deal on a Golf GTI. Is your blog for car buyers or just magazine gurus?

  4. Ditto. CPI is for publishing management so rants about Motor Trend’s choice for Car of the Year, for example, are better voiced elsewhere. I’m seeing more comments along the lines of yours, however, and recognize where this type of perspective can be of value to publishers. So your comment survives the circular file. In so doing, I’d like to probe a deeper about your exit from print? Cammer… lay it on me. (And what’s with the moniker? Are you a 427 SOHC fan or simply in love with upstairs valves?)

  5. Like one of your readers aptly stated: they must die to be reborn.

  6. No different than my last comment where magazines with paid ads are not inclined to tell readers what they need to know. Too much at stake with dwindling ad financials and it will only get worse. I think your suggestion to transfer online in theme formats and just get rid of the print model makes sense, but they won’t do that until the “tsunami” as you call it, finally hits. Great site by the way, but a lot of info to digest.

  7. Just found your site through a link from web site. It’s been difficult to tell the “Fab Four” apart for years, aside from different typefaces. I’ve never subscribed to Automobile, and I sub’d to R&T again last year only because it was offered for $5 when I sub’d to C&D. These days, I read them mainly to see how they’re using the info from the press kits I write for my clients (import carmakers). For useful information, I go to and Consumer Reports. Re. AutoWeek — about four years ago, I forgot to re-up and didn’t notice anything missing for six weeks after my last issue arrived. AutoWeek was great about 20 years ago.

  8. Jim… thanks for the comments. Fab Four have all the makings of Detroit’s Big Three… too many suppliers for too few customers. U.S. News & World Report just dumbed down to bi-weekly in favor of online.

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