Killing the Myth of the “General Interest” Reader

Fast Company editor-in-chief and blogger John A. Byrne took offense (or was it defensiveness?) to David Carr’s column in the 5/30/05 edition of the NY Times.

David Carr: “When the Meredith Corporation announced its purchase of Gruner & Jahr’s women’s magazines last Tuesday, Meredith said that Gruner’s business magazines, Fast Company and Inc., were not ‘material’ to the sale. What that means is that two magazines that sold for more than half a billion dollars four years ago now have a value of zero” (NY Times, reg required).

John A. Byrne: “The reason it’s not material is because Meredith intends to make as much or more selling us than it has agreed to pay G&J for Fast Company and Inc. These are two very valuable national magazine brands being sold at the worst time for G&J but the best time for any smart buyer. Smart investors, after all, buy low and sell high.” (Fast Company’s blog).

But the big story isn’t Fast Company, it’s that the Big Three business books — Business Week, Fortune and Forbes — appear to be in decline. According to Media Industry Newsletter, the three magazines collectively sold around 10,000 ad pages in 2004. Of course that’s way off from the go-go days of 2000, when they sold 18,300 pages. But to think it’s below the 11,500 pages sold in 1995! Eek.

According to Carr, the migration of audiences and ad dollars to the Internet is part of the explanation (agreed!). The other half of his explanation, though, is that “there is no longer general interest in business.”

Hold on a second.

Advertising spends are a trailing indicator, meaning that audiences migrate well before ad buyers shift budgets. Think back to cable TV in the 1990s: viewers spent half their TV time watching cable programs years before cable’s ad revenues reached parity with the broadcast networks. So Carr should be citing audience data, not ad spending reports, if he’s going to make a claim like that.

According to MRI data, the aggregate readership for the Big Three business books in 1995 was 10,746,000 (MRI 1995). Last year—combining data from MRI (9,567,000 average-issue print readership) and Nielsen NetRatings (7,591,000 unique online visitors), minus the estimated 14.3% print-online readership overlap (IQ CIMS Business Online Behavior Study 2004)—the aggregate readership for the three brands had grown to 14,704,000. So business-publication readers didn’t die off with the 20th century. They’re just starting to move online to get their business information.

Why? Efficiency. Even the simplest website version of a print publication makes finding the key stories—those that are relevant to each discrete reader—vastly easier. Online, wealthy investors and can track their portfolios and sectors without flipping to the back of BusinessWeek or waiting for Fortune’s year-end Guide to Investing special issue; business executives can read the news that pertains to their industry without paging through irrelevant coverage; and the CFO can get a whitepaper from SAP without mailing in a postcard that he or she plucked off a print ad.

In effect, readers are using the web to create their own niche publications, their own business-information tools. It’s worth noting the online success of stand-alone niche business publications like CNET’s (same parent company as ChasNote), which reached 1,825,000 monthly uniques in April 2005 (Nielsen NetRatings) versus PC Week’s 902,000 average-issue readership in 1995 (IQ CIMS Business V.2).

So perhaps David Carr hasn’t spotted a new trend, this death of the general-interest business publication reader. The Internet has just pulled back the curtain on readership patterns to show that selective reading—cherry-picking relevant content by flipping through a general-interest publication—has been going on all along.

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