January Groans: Mags’ Lean Month Gets Downright Gaunt

otr2 5 January Groans: Mags Lean Month Gets Downright GauntOver the next week or two, the January issues of monthly magazines will start hitting newsstands—or perhaps “lightly floating onto newstands like little snowflakes” would be a better way of putting it.

“A lot of people are really, really down in the dumps about what January looks like,” said Jay Lauf, the publisher of the recently revamped Atlantic.

Layoffs, hiring freezes and canceled Christmas parties have cast a general chill over the magazine world. But with budget season finally wrapped up, it looked like the industry could finally take a much-needed breather right before the New Year.

Then suddenly more bad news emerged from the business side: bleaker-than-usual ad-page numbers for January. 

“I think they’re dramatically, dramatically off,” said one Condé Nast insider. “The issues are much thinner than I expected.”

January is a historically anemic month for magazines ad pages. (Who wants to buy an ad after everyone is finished with their Christmas shopping?) But the gauntness of January 2009 is drawing extra scrutiny, since this is the first round of books that closed post-crash, at some point in mid- or late-October, a full month after Lehman Brothers went down on Sept. 15.

Now some are wondering if this could be a harbinger of even grimmer times ahead. “Rightly or wrongly, people are looking at this as a sign of a really, really, really tough year,” Mr. Lauf said.

Word started spreading at magazine palaces like 4 Times Square and Hearst Tower as soon as ad-sales staffers returned from Thanksgiving break: their waistlines expanded; their bottom lines, not so much.

Early copies of Bon Appetit, Condé Nast’s B food magazine (after Gourmet), especially raised eyebrows. A source who got a peek at the January issue told Off the Record that it’s only 108 pages altogether—practically a leaflet—and its table of contents page appears on the magazine’s second page, a discomfortingly early placement at the front of the book. The space inside its back cover is an advertisement for a Bon Appetit cooking volume: a house ad rather than the traditional big outside corporate purchase.

“It’s barely perfect-bound,” said our source, referring to the glued spine that is the modern standard for monthly glossies of a certain length.

Wired is also expected to have a very rough month after getting hit hard due to a slump with consumer electronic ads. A more modest loss is projected for the Tina Fey cover of Vanity Fair, which will fall back about 7 percent this January, down to 43.48 pages from 46.75 last year.

Over at Hearst, meanwhile, spokeswoman Alexandra Carlin conceded that Harper’s Bazaar is off by one or two pages. “But January is traditionally a lighter month for magazines,” she reminded Off the Record.

“January issues will never be a litmus test,” said one optimistic publisher who nonetheless requested anonymity, given the skittish climate. “All it takes is four or five advertisers for most magazines to go in either direction”—good or bad.

“The year always ends with kind of a whimper,” the publisher continued. “You can’t derive great importance from it.”

Mr. Lauf also refused to think bad thoughts—out loud, at least.

“It’s about not letting a negative prognosis become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “I don’t think we should read too, too much into it.”

But Mr. Lauf is in a better position than most. Ever since The Atlantic cut back its publishing schedule to 10 issues per year from 12, it’s free from the burden of having to sell a stand-alone January issue. He got to squish the ugly month in with February!

Mr. Lauf said that The Atlantic’s ad-page count might remain flat for their first 2009 issue, but there are still a few more weeks till close.

Which makes one wonder: Could coming out with 10 issues a year be a economic new model for the monthly? (And then what would you call it instead of “monthly”?) Portfolio announced its plans to do that back in October.

Then again, it’s not a guaranteed formula for profit. Men’s Vogue ran unsuccessfully at 10 times a year, and now its production schedule has been reduced to a barely-there twice per year. And as ad buyers become more selective, it makes one wonder how many magazines in the same category one parent company can sustain. (Witness the sad crumbling of O at Home, House and Garden, etc. Could food and fashion be next?)

“It’s like, ‘Oh my God, if we start in this hole, how can we dig out of this,’” Mr. Lauf said.

jkoblin@observer.com