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Magazines struggle to maintain relevance

by Mark Schreiber

The print edition of venerable U.S. weekly news magazine Newsweek is no more. From the Jan. 4 issue it relaunched as a digital-only publication.

Writing in the final print edition of Dec. 31, 2012, Editor in Chief Tina Brown wrote, “A magazine that will soon turn 80 will now be, when all the changes are unveiled in February, a vigorous young publication all over again, taking its readers to territory that is new and uncharted.

“One thing, however, will not change,” Brown pledged, “and that is our commitment to journalism of the highest quality.”

Is the American magazine’s demise a foreboding of things to come in Japan? Newsweek’s Japanese-language edition (referred to in the vernacular as Nyusuiku Nihongo-ban) was launched in January 1986. Hankyu Communications, its publisher, announced it will continue. According to data appearing in Tsukuru (February), circulation of Japanese Newsweek dropped from 54,481 copies per week in the second half of 2009 to 39,457 in the first half of 2012.

Japan’s weekly tabloids, general news magazines, business magazines and so-called jōhō-shi (information magazines) have all suffered declining readership over the past three years. The few genres that are still selling well include fashion-related glossy publications that appeal to a young female readership, and television programming guides.

Tsukuru also noted that the number of magazines folding began to surpass the launch of new publications from 2006. This trend remained steady through 2011. In 2010, for instance, as opposed to 110 new magazines launched, 216 existing magazines ceased publication.

With the single exception of 556,485 copies of “Ie no Hikari,” published monthly by the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, no secular weekly or monthly vernacular magazine enjoys circulation of half a million copies. Kodansha’s Shukan Gendai last year managed to boost its circulation by about 55,000 copies over figures for the second half of 2009 (325,677), but most general-readership magazines posted significant declines. Japan’s Audit Bureau of Circulation data gave these changes between the corresponding periods in 2009 and 2012: Shukan Bunshun (534,303 to 465,983); Shukan Shincho (435,916 to 356,623); Shukan Post (298,999 to 284,755); and Weekly Playboy (181,455 to 125,774).

Several magazines, moreover, have dropped below the 100,000 mark, a potentially dangerous situation for nationally circulated publications. These include Spa! (86,658 to 65,147); Aera (105,403 to 80,618); Sunday Mainichi (74,597 to 73,072) and Sapio (71,912 to 56,538).

The declining sales of magazines are symptomatic of slumping sales among publishing firms, retail bookstores and wholesalers. An online publication called Business Journal (Jan. 5) noted that on Dec. 14, Takeda Random House Japan had filed for bankruptcy. The company, originally founded as a joint venture between Kodansha and U.S. publisher Random House, was founded in May 2003, and at its peak did ¥1.3 billion in annual sales.

Times have been particularly rough for small- and medium-sized publishers. At a symposium last year, Hideo Iida, president of publisher Shinjinbutsu Oraisha (founded in 1951), was quoted as saying that over the coming fiscal period he was contemplating a 30 percent cut in the number of titles, due to lack of demand for books. “In 2012, 60 to 70 percent were returned unsold,” he remarked.

According to industry data from the Research Institute for Publications, overall sales of printed media in the first 10 months of last year declined year-on by 3.2 percent to ¥1.457 trillion. In contrast to a decline of 2.3 percent for books, magazines fell by 3.9 percent over the same period. The Business Journal article noted that in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, magazine revenues fell year-on-year by 6.6 percent, dropping below the critical ¥1 trillion level to finish at ¥984.3 billion.

“Magazines aren’t even selling at convenience stores,” a sales rep for one of the magazine publishers is quoted as saying. “Naturally the same situation holds at bookstores. Even if we ship more copies, it’s become so bad there are stores where you don’t see them put out on the shelves.”

He added that one major distributor has adopted a roughshod policy of placing a cap on the number of magazines that can be returned unsold, and if the sales target is not met, the number of copies shipped for the next issue is reduced.

To make matters worse, revenues at bookstores in Japan continue declining, with outlets shutting down at the rate of about 1,000 stores per year.

In an article titled “The future direction of the magazine industry for which the age of winter has arrived,” Hiroyuki Shinoda, Tsukuru’s editor, observed that for some time already, publishers such as Shueisha, Shogakukan and Kodansha have subsidized general readership magazines with their profits from sales of comics.

Magazines have also been sustained to a degree by serializing fiction and other works by popular authors, which are then released later in book form. But it’s becoming obvious that this strategy cannot be sustained much longer. Kodansha’s phasing out of its monthly magazine Gekkan Gendai, which was relaunched as g2 — “a new type of nonfiction media combining magazines, books and the Internet” — stands out as a new business model designed to provide a bridge for transition of contents from magazines to books.

“Isn’t there anything else publishers can do but sit there and contemplate the demise of magazine culture?” Shinoda asked.