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Tough times hit home design mags

By Terri Sapienza The Washington Post

The first one to go was House & Garden.

In November 2007, the 106-year-old magazine unexpectedly ceased publication.

Soon after, Time Inc.’s In Style Home and Martha Stewart’s Blueprint folded, and late last summer, Hachette Filipacchi Media’s Home shuttered.

Since November, three more home design magazines announced their demise: Time Inc.’s Cottage Living, Hearst Magazines’ O at Home and Meredith Corp.’s Country Home.

Those looking to point a finger for the folding of their favorite home magazine can blame market oversaturation and the 24-hour availability of design information on TV, radio and the Internet.

Of course, the biggest contributor, experts say, is the economic downturn.

“It’s a combination of all of those factors,” says Deborah Burns, senior vice president of the Luxury Design Group, who oversees Metropolitan Home and Elle Decor magazines.

Launching and maintaining a successful print magazine is difficult enough in a healthy economy. If any problems exist in a publication, a bad economy just may sink it.

“In a downturn, the leaders are the ones that survive while the weaker ones fall away quickly,” says Stephen Drucker, editor of House Beautiful magazine. “That’s what’s happening.”

Unfortunately, a loyal fan base and high circulation don’t necessarily mean survival. The bulk of a magazine’s revenue comes from advertising. When ad dollars fall, revenue from other sources is typically not enough to sustain a publication.

House & Garden, for example, had a circulation of nearly 1 million when it died.

“The patient always dies of not enough ad pages,” Drucker says, “but the overall illness of each magazine is different.”

A good example is Cottage Living. Launched in September 2004, the well-liked niche magazine enjoyed quick success: It steadily increased its circulation within a short period (it eventually exceeded 1 million) and was named Adweek’s start-up of the year in 2005.

Despite the positive feedback, advertising began to decline. The November-December 2008 issue was its last.

“Cottage Living was very popular with readers,” says Time Inc. spokeswoman Dawn Bridges, “but unfortunately, the economic slowdown made it difficult to give it the resources it needed to grow.”

Translation: It was losing money.

Home magazine, whose last issue appeared in October, had a circulation of more than 800,000 last year. But the publication was not geared toward high-income readers, whom advertisers most want to reach.

“There’s no advertising to support the lower and middle markets in the shelter category,” Burns says, “so revenue falls.”

When favorite magazines shut down, readers looking to fill the void can get their home design fix elsewhere.

Decorating tips, room makeovers and spreads of beautiful spaces are just a click away on the remote control and laptop, 24 hours a day. Design blogs in particular are a popular way to get instant decorating gratification.

And though print media compete with many online resources, shelter magazines don’t consider the hundreds of design blogs competition. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

“The Web is very complementary to what we do,” says Burns, of Metropolitan Home and Elle Decor. “If anything, they’ve advanced magazines. They end up feeding us and spreading what we produce.”

“I think blogs are the best thing to happen in my 30 years in the industry,” adds Drucker, of House Beautiful. “They spread the word about us. Blogs are basically magazines that are not financially viable. Magazines that are currently in peril would probably be much better off as blogs.”

Kansas City’s Patricia Shackelford, author of the design blog Mrs. Blandings, says the loss of House & Garden was “like a death. I have the last 18 months of the magazine, and I’m having the hardest time recycling them.

“The scary thing is that we keep hearing that there will be more and more” magazines folding, she says. “I keep crossing my fingers that it’s none of my favorites.

“Even though I read a lot of blogs, I still want to hold something; I still want to see it in my hands. …

“They are going to have to work really hard to sell those magazines. Gosh, I hope they do.”

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