Monday, June 13, 2005

More Than 1000 New Periodicals Started in 2004 Indicates Robustness of Old Media

With so much attention focused on electronic media and the Internet, we may lose sight of the robustness of older media, in particular magazine publishing. When last I checked for the 3rd edition of Who Owns the Media? there were nearly 12,000 different titles, ranging from mass circulation titles like Reader’s Digest to small political titles like The Nation and thousands of titles aimed at hobbyists, all manners of professions, trades and hundreds of special interest.

Before the Internet, starting a new periodical was perhaps the easiest of the mass media to launch, despite the short odds on their success. Whether started with the deep pockets of an established media company of by entrepreneurs, only about 20% of new titles survived for at least five years.

So given the low cost and ease of entry to the Web world, what’s been happening with magazine start-ups? According to Samir Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi who has been tracking magazines start-ups for decades, new magazine titles are on the rebound from the turndown of a few years ago. Last year he counted 1006 launches, up from 953 the previous year. In the first quarter of this year he found 236 launches, an increase of 11% from 2004.

Prof. Husni does not provide details on who started these magazines. But if history is a guide, about two thirds would be the initiative of individuals or small publishers.

Do large publishers dominate what we read? If they do it’s only because of what we choose to read. Reader’s Digest has a larger readership than, say, the literary Utne Magazine because the former publishes general interest articles while Utne republishes articles from “2000 alternative media sources.” By definition the sources are “alternative” because they are not mainstream!

The data shows that from the 1950s through the 1990s the percentage of all periodical industry revenue accounted for by the four, eight and even 50 largest publishers was eadily declining. In the late 1990s it ticked upward. Nonetheless, in 2002 the largest periodical publishers accounted for about the same proportion of sales as they did in the 1960s.

It’s hard to make a convincing case of insidious media concentration when investors are still risking their funds in periodicals and the industry is no more concentrated than it was 30 or 40 years ago when there were “only” 8000 titles and the most popular titles like Life and Look accounted for a greater proportion of total readership than any titles do today.

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