Source Interlink had a doozy of a week last week, and that is not said lightly. In fact, it’s said with a very heavy heart. The scale of its news about its “absorption” of 12 of its super-niche print titles into what could be called “parent” brands (e.g., Custom Classic Trucks being absorbed by Classic Trucks)—plus the news of its distribution business shutting down, affecting some 6,000 employees (as reported by Keith J. Kelly of the New York Post), made last week a hard one to stomach for the industry.
We are losing some great magazines, and more importantly thousands of our own are going to be standing in the unemployment line.
Is there a lesson in this? Without knowing the full situation inside Source Interlink (regarding its magazine publishing business, and the wholesale business aside), it’s hard to say. And this is also hard for me to say, but it’s almost surprising that such niche titles survived this long.
Enthusiast titles have been among those that have often fared better than most, through the economic recession that left virtually no business untouched, through changing consumer content-consumption habits, through skyrocketing postal rates, and so on. Enthusiast brands are the ones that often have the most engaged audiences, and strong advertising, as marketers thrived on reaching very targeted audiences. The magazines and digital brands that support niche/enthusiast publications/brands speak directly to their audiences’ interests, creating engaged, loyal communities.
The challenge arises, in my opinion, when enthusiast brands break out into sub-brands. It’s a precarious line to walk, as you risk fragmenting your audience to too great a degree. When you see the list of titles being closed by Source Interlink, they all fall into this category. Look at the Hot Rod-related brands Source Interlink was publishing: Popular Hot Rodding (now closing), Hot Rod, Rod & Custom (now closing), Street Rodder (somehow staying afloat), High Performance Pontiac (now closing).
Maybe there was a time—in the heyday of magazine publishing—when such super-niche titles could be supported by (and even thrive on) the surplus of advertising that fattened the media market (in some cases leading to an oversight of excessive spending). But in the past decade, with print advertising declining, among the gazillion other challenges, these super-niche brands likely ended up draining advertising from their broader-scope “parent” titles or vice versa.
This is really somewhat of a theory on my part, but one that seems quite likely to be the case. Especially considering most of the titles affected are in the automotive sector, which we all know wasn’t left untouched by the recession (again, to say the least).
Regardless, it’s a sad day in publishing history and one whose impact (particularly regarding Source’s distribution business shutting down) will continue to send shock waves across all facets of the industry in the weeks and months to come, as publishers, other wholesalers and retailers strive to pick up the pieces.
My heart goes out to all those affected. And I am once again reminded of one of my favorite sayings of all time (which if you’re one of the (two?) people who have followed me over the years, you will likely know I resort to this often): “These are the times that try men’s souls” by Thomas Paine. Paine didn’t have the media industry in mind when he said this, but it seems, once again, appropriate as we continue to take beatings and continue to stand back up, as individuals and as a whole.
The newsstand situation is going to be one that is harder to recover from, and likely it will be more of a work-around than a recovery. But publishers are smart and will continue to innovate and find ways to provide content to their readers. Less and less reliance on newsstand will become the norm. Especially as Barnes & Noble has announced plans to continue to close more stores (with expansion into college campuses seemingly their sweet spot for growth).
With fewer and fewer options for newsstand distribution, wise publishers will be tapping every weapon in their arsenal to reach readers (direct mail resurgence, social media (say it three times), web marketing), and will continue to focus on building digital communities to whom they can serve content. Source Interlink’s rebranding (to TEN: The Enthusiast Network) reflects this, with its statement, “In aggregate, the portfolio changes accelerate the company’s move to a Web-Led, Socially Amplified Media Model.”
Hopefully, this change will enable the company to strengthen its remaining brands and focus on providing enthusiast content through channels that work.
As longtime industry consultant (and a member of mediaShepherd’s advisory board) Rita Burke so articulately said to me: “At the end of the day, the world has and will continue to change and evolve around us. There will be opportunity and reward—but not for everyone. Being smart, taking risks, not being afraid to let go of what isn’t working are critical in companies finding their way forward.”
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