The nation's three major newsweeklies - Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report - are reeling with ad page freefalls of more than 20 percent apiece this year.
The news comes as something of a jolt for the industry as a whole.
While most advertisers were predicting a soft year in advertising, many of the large consumer monthlies managed to escape the pinch through the first quarter. That raised the hope in some quarters that a downturn in advertising would be comparatively mild. But it now appears the collapse at the weeklies is the first warning bell of a very tough ad environment in the weeks and months ahead. "The monthlies may have been protected a little bit, because much of the planning for early issues was done around October or November last year," ventured Rich Gagnon, executive vice president and media director at ad agency FCB Worldwide.
The big weeklies and fortnightlies tend to pick up excess dollars when advertisers are having a good year, but the fear is that the abysmal start could be a harbinger of tougher times for all magazines - with the newsweeklies the first to register the softness.
"What is a charm on one end is a curse on the other end," said Alan Jurmain, executive vice president of media services at ad agency Lowe Lintas & Partners.
Many advertisers and publishers are still reluctant to use the "R" word - recession - and most are predicting the weeklies will make up some of the shortfall in the ensuing 10 months.
But, given the current mood of many advertisers, that won't be easy.
"I wouldn't say we are in a deep, dark recession, but advertisers are regrouping and regaining their footing a little bit," said Jurmain.
Dot-com ads, which began drying up last year, are virtually gone now, ads from Ford and Chrysler are being cut back, and pharmacuetical companies are directing major money to TV - where they were once barrred from advertising. Some reports have said the downturn is increasing pressure on the magazines to offer steeper discounts. There have been rumors that the discounts are reaching 70 percent or higher.
Valerie Salembier, an executive vice president at MediaCom, points out that there really isn't that much more room to discount for the weeklies: "The weeklies and the women's service titles are already the most steeply discounted of major magazines - anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent."
She said she has not seen any sign of increased discounts. But it was reported that U.S. News, which is owned by Mort Zuckerman, published the smallest issue in its history a week earlier this year.
That magazine is believed to be the most vulnerable in the category, simply because it is a perennial third in a three-magazine race. In just two months, U.S. News has sold only 152 ad pages - down 21.08 percent from a year ago - and that places it 141 pages behind the industry leader, Time, which has 294 pages in the period, down 21.02 percent. Newsweek is in second place with 192.86 ad pages, off 23.8 percent).
U.S. News publisher Bill Holiber did not a return a call seeking comment.
Nobody is quite expecting the newsweeklies to continue their snail's pace throughout the year. Newsweek Executive Vice President and Worldwide Publisher Greg Osberg - newly arrived back in print after several years in the dot-com jungle - said, "It is not cancellation of business across the board. It is postponing spending to later in the year."
Time spokeswoman Diana Pearson also tried to sound an optimistic note. "Sure we're off to a slow start - but so are all magazines. We're still bullish on the year."
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