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 AJR  Columns :    THE BUSINESS OF JOURNALISM    

From AJR,   December 1998  issue

Expensive, But Well Worth The Cost   

Sunday magazines may not be profit centers, but they add richness to newspapers.


By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     

Let us assume for a couple of sentences that in this bottom-line era of newspapering every page must justify its existence by showing a profit. Well, there goes the front page, along with most section fronts and the stock tables.

Such a management approach would be ludicrous, but this is precisely the logic behind many newspapers killing off their local Sunday magazines. The latest casualties are the Miami Herald's Tropic magazine, which will expire December 6, and the Denver Post's Empire, snuffed last February.

Over the last 25 years or so, by my count, the number of local newspaper Sunday magazines has dropped by nearly half. Several of the 26 or so that remain are magazines in name only, since to save money they have converted from slick-paper rotogravure printing to common newsprint.

Only the New York Times Magazine and two or three others regularly show a profit. Executives at the Miami Herald said they would trim $2 million a year in losses by killing Tropic.

The problem at Tropic and many other Sunday magazines is that they have not attracted enough advertising to cover editorial and printing costs. The weak advertising can be traced to a number of factors, including the emergence of slick-printed advertising inserts as the promotional vehicle of choice for most department stores, and the reluctance of advertisers in the highly competitive local retail environment to set promotional prices four to five weeks before they appear in a Sunday magazine. Publishing on newsprint alleviates the long lead time, since printing can be done in-house, but then the advertiser doesn't get slick paper, better reproduction and a true magazine environment.

So, in the cold light of financial performance, it appears to make sense to drop a money-losing Sunday magazine. Yet I wonder whether the measurable savings will be worth the intangible cost to a newspaper's overall appeal in this time of waning readership. A newspaper wouldn't think of dropping the front page because of its importance in attracting readers. Maybe it shouldn't drop a Sunday magazine for the same reason.

A Sunday magazine, if well done, can bring a dimension not ordinarily available in the newspaper's conventional pages. It's the place where staff writers and freelancers can step out with literary pieces that explore local institutions, people and legends in ways that go beyond the fact-based reportage typical of the rest of the paper.

Lary Bloom, editor of the Hartford Courant's Northeast Magazine and a veteran of Sunday magazines in Akron and Miami, says: "If the newspaper itself is the objective voice, the magazine is the intimate voice, the storytelling voice... It's the only place that a newspaper can try to tell things differently."

Indeed, the very first Sunday magazine, established by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1869, was intended to bring a literary dimension to the paper. Among its authors in those early days was Bret Harte. (I am indebted to Peggy Turbett, assistant photo director at the Cincinnati Enquirer, for most of this Sunday magazine history, about which little has been written; she chose the topic for her master's thesis at Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.)

Later, other newspapers took up the Sunday magazine idea, partly to meet the competition from emerging low-priced national magazines such as McClure's, Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. A significant development in newspaper Sunday magazines, which would turn out to have lasting consequences on newspaper magazines across the country, was in New York City in the late 1800s.

There, a heavily illustrated Sunday magazine became a vital part of the sensationalist competition between Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. Hearst's magazine evolved into the American Weekly, the first nationally syndicated newspaper Sunday magazine. It set the stage for the creation of more syndicated magazines such as Parade and Family Weekly (which became Gannett's USA Weekend in 1985).

These new syndicated Sunday publications gave newspapers an excuse to drop their more costly, locally produced magazines, which many did in the early decades of this century. There was a resurgence in local Sunday magazines in the decade following World War II, with more than 20 new ones created. The postwar peak apparently came in 1972, with 62, but the number has declined steadily since.

Strangely, the decline in locally produced Sunday magazines has coincided with a rise in newspaper managers' awareness that the future of newspapers depends largely on their very localness. It's as if the logic of local appeal somehow does not apply to Sunday magazines.