Friday, March 22, 2013

Health and Fitness Magazines and the Coming Digital Disruption

The news that Maxim magazine and associated web site are for sale is not particularly surprising.  On paper, the magazine looks rather formidable.   Alliance for Audited Media puts its total paid circulation for 2012 at 2, 543, 563, which earns the title the #18 position on the list of the top 25 print magazines in paid circulation.   Riding a favorable demographic tide, AARP’s Magazine is on the top of the chart with its Bulletin right behind.

Lists and round numbers can be very deceiving because they don’t tell us much about the actual health of the magazine.  Reader’s Digest, which has undergone a series of restructurings in recent years and just declared bankruptcy, is on the list.  So is the American Legion magazine.  I still get the title even though I cancelled my subscription soon after my military adventures.  I guess veterans never really die.

Maxim, expected to be slightly profitable in 2013, resides in a publishing cul-de-sac shared by many of its brethren: offering discount circulation to drive print advertising sales.  I understand that some fifty years ago magazine publishers began to push circulation levels to questionable levels to compete with the growing threat from the nascent television franchise.  And they have regretted that decision ever since.  Nonetheless, many still play in that sandbox.  Maxim sells twenty print issues for $24.00 ($1.20 an issue) and ten issues for $14.97 ($1.50 an issue).  For a high-touch, glossy issue that’s a steal and likely does not cover the full cost of paper, production, and postage, areas that take the biggest piece out of a publisher’s revenue pie.  I will add that Maxim appears from its website to have a very muscular digital strategy, available on iOS and Android platforms as well as on Zinio.  The company is selling subscriptions for $14.99 and some back issues for $5.99 an issue.  This is very aggressive digital pricing for Maxim or any company but likely not enough to offset declining print advertising.  Magazine publishers continue to trade analog dollars for digital dimes.  

I understand Maxim sells very well at military establishments.  Having been at sea for as long as six or nine months without touching land (or anything else), I can understand this hockey-stick graphic on the magazine’s circulation chart.   Maxim “is your source for hot girls” and it will continue to stand up and salute this anthem.  Nothing is left to the imagination and no event unworthy of being appropriated.  The website informs us that there is a “strip bracket” for those aficionados of March Madness.  For the more reserved set, there is a discrete search for “hometown hotties.”

Maxim was launched in the UK twenty years ago by Felix Dennis, already very wealthy from his computer and related titles.  I was in the UK at that time as part of the team launching Rodale’s Men’s Health, which was just beginning to find its legs in the US.  The first issue of Men’s Health did very well, selling more than 100,000 copies on the newsstand.  But I kept looking over my shoulder at Maxim.  Felix Dennis was not your typical publisher.  He was brash, outspoken, unpredictable, and a genuine truth-teller in the business.  On a regular basis, Dennis excoriated American publishers for being fat, slow, with overpaid staff and puffed-up editors.  Felix wasn’t invited to many publishing events because of his sharp tongue, but proved his point with a very successful Maxim in the states and more recently The Week.  Blender and Stuff were subsequently shuttered.   He sold Maxim for $250 million, apparently knowing when to get out.  Perhaps in response to all the pulp he used up, Dennis has already planted 600,000 trees in his native England.

Time always moves on, but with social media it has simply moved a little faster.  Though Maxim’s cheekiness is unique, much of its content can be found on the Internet and social media platforms in some form.   My background is editorial and I always suspected that Men’s Health, in the brash Cosmopolitan way, would eventually win out and it did, with a current total paid circulation of 1.5 million and 40 international editions.  It sits astride of the men’s magazine mountaintop.

I started my publishing career as an associate editor for Prevention magazine.  The formula was very simple.  Rodale subscribed to all available medical journals, including The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine and many others.  We simply translated the medical findings into everyday language.  No one had done this better than Rodale.  However, now everyone does it.   Medical doctors regularly report medical journal findings to their television audiences, as casually as if it’s a traffic report.  It’s no accident that pharmaceutical advertising is usually one of the top categories for media.

The conventional wisdom is that special-interest areas (and the high-design, high-touch versions) will be the last to be disrupted by technology and social media.  I’ve long suspected that health and fitness editorial would have this protection.  After all, WebMD didn’t seem to have much effect on magazines like Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness or Prevention.   And the aging demographics and the needs of this sector for lots of health information should work to the advantage of print.

I recall asking Mike Lafavore, the founding editor of Men’s Health, how he accounted for the success of that title.  He said, in effect, that the secret source was in the tone of the magazine.  Since men are usually uncomfortable talking about health under any circumstances, he had to entice them in with guy humor, understatement, bravado and yes, lots of sex.  And it has worked amazingly well.

One reason  Men’s Fitness, published by Weider (a subsidiary of AMI), has lagged far behind Men’s Health in terms of advertising, circulation, and market position is that the title, in my opinion, has not fully understood the psychology of the male nor found the right tone or editorial sensibility.  In some respects, the language and graphics of the magazine is too muscular and perhaps too full of itself.

AMI Chairman David Pecker recently announced that he hired David Zinczenko, longtime Rodale wonder-boy for Rodale’s Men’s Health and some blockbuster books, as a consultant to work his magic on Men’s Fitness, Shape, and Natural Health.  If anyone, Zinczenko is the man to do it.  I worked for Pecker at Hachette and have learned not to underestimate him.  Though I worked at Rodale early on, I have no inside knowledge about whether the recent shedding of so many key staff might leave the company vulnerable.  But I do know that it is hard to dislodge a brand, especially one with the wind at its back.

But perhaps I’m looking for disruption in all the wrong places.   For the last year, I’ve been nosing around the digital health space, keeping an eye on digital startups, and whether the considerable noise I’m hearing is a blip or a sign of genuine disruption.  While with Qualcomm, I learned what the company was doing with Qualcomm Life, part of Qualcomm Ventures, which is devoted to the next wave of wireless health innovations, including body worn or implantable biosensor for chronic disease care, medication compliance, and fitness and wellness need; low cost ECGs that work with smartphone; and mobile technology that permits access to live patient data.  Qualcomm is a huge footprint in this space because of its business and strategic relationship with both device manufacturers and carriers.   And they seem to have gobbled up some very promising companies.  But they have company.

We know media has been disrupted.  Given the work of Khan Academy and the institutionalizing of online, accredited courses at many tier one universities, we can assume education is not far behind.  Now the multi-billion dollar health and fitness industry seems ripe for disruption.  If you have any doubts about that please read the February 2013  blockbuster article in Time magazine—the most read in its history, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us.”

A very good source of information about startups, health incubators, Venture Capital funds, and the like is Rock Health.  The organization is a first-seed accelerator exclusively for startups.  It provides capital, office space, mentoring, and operational support from entrepreneurs.  Rock Health is looking for product-centric ideas to solve real problems in health whether through mobile or web apps, hardware or sensor components.  I’m hoping to induce some health magazines to join this scene, using their rich audience data and other interfaces with customers to develop more personalized editorial coverage.

The range of offerings coming through Rock Health and elsewhere is quite staggering, having been informed by mobile technology, crowd-sourcing, reward systems, and the full weight of mobile analytics.  Achievement Mint is an intelligent incentive network that rewards consumers who make good health choices.   BitGym’s technology uses an iPad to turn any cardio machine into an interactive gaming experience.  Cardiio provides software that turns ordinary cameras into biosensors.  CellScope used optical attachments to turn smartphones into a diagnostic-quality imaging system.  ChickRX is a woman’s personalized health platform.  HealthRally is a crowd-funding platform for personal health motivation.  (Many thanks to Rock Health for this information that I have summarized).

In 2012, 134 digital healthcare companies each raised two million dollars.  Most funding went to companies developing personal health tracking tolls and consumer health engagement.  I don’t know any aspect of healthcare that is not getting some attention, from diabetes, to acne, to the efficacy of supplements.  Most of these efforts are tied to the smartphone.  Moreover, this is not just about content per se but how dense medical information can be turned into a beautiful digital product.  Medical apps have become commonplace in the various stores.  Most popular seem to be those that diagnose ear infections, take a pulse, measure BP, perform cardiograms, and complete blood, urine, and sweat tests.   So whether we like it or not, healthcare is moving out of the clinics into our homes.

To be sure government regulations and privacy issues could stall innovation in the digital healthcare section but there is probably too much money and potential savings at stake for them to be terminal.  For one thing, the ubiquity of the smartphone suggests consumers are becoming much more at ease with using their phones as tools.  Paul Jacobs, Qualcomm CEO, refers to the “born mobile” generation that is growing by the day.  I’m not sure of the source, but I read that a physician claimed to be prescribing a lot more apps than medicine.  This story might be apocryphal, but there’s plenty of evidence showing that the new breed of physicians are very mobile-savvy.

Within a few years, I expect that most information available in health and fitness magazines and attendant web sites will be available in one form or other in the app stores or in web apps.  By definition, the information will be more personalized and interactive.  It will be updated.  Without question, graphics will dominate.  Some offerings will provide response in real time through a video chat.  Maybe you will be able to decide who among the beautiful people will take your blood pressure.

Some consumers will still want a branded, filtered experience that comes in one package.  But maybe I will want my own personal health and fitness magazine, based on my interests, Twitter feeds, health profile and concerns, and family needs.  These could be in the form of apps or curated, personalized content that is delivered right to my smartphone and tablet or on my device “at birth.”   This kind of market segmentation has already begun.  And maybe Verizon or ATT will get involved and make this content part of my data feed and deliver it at off-peak times to save me money.   Perhaps I will choose to take advertising along with my medicine, this defraying the cost.  I might accept native or sponsored content if it useful and actionable.  I probably won’t spend much time on deciding what content represents Church and what represents State.  That seems so nineteenth century.   My fantasy is to become the editor of my life.  After all, I will have as much information at my hands as the editors in New York or Emmaus, Pennsylvania.  I will get it faster, in a personalized, curated form at the time of my choosing.

What I am describing might well be a video game.  My interest is much more modest: I am sketching a business plan.  

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Rolling Stone Magazine on the Gun Industry’s Deadly Addiction

I’m studying the psychology of the gun from an archetypal perspective.  That is, I’m looking for the idea or ideas behind the American fascination with guns.  Does the fascination come from a perverted frontier myth or an absolutist view of the Second Amendment?  Does it represent an offshoot of the post-Cold War American military expansion, a muscular expression of the “Stand My Ground” laws, or is it a reason for the growing number of so-called Patriot groups?  What about the post-9/11 militarization of US police forces, with their SWAT teams and tanks?  No one should be particularly surprised that we are currently discussing whether the US government can legally use drone strikes against American citizens on American soil.  We might just as well be talking about video games.

The above list of developments or aberrations—depending on your view of guns—can also be seen as narratives or psychologically-rich story lines that might explain our fascination with guns.  What we are seeing now between and among the National Rifle Association, political leaders of every stripe and a range of third-party stake-holders are really public narratives fighting for supremacy.  If the US didn’t have so much psychological gun baggage, the story-line after the murders of 26 children and teachers in Newtown, as well as in other recent tragedies, would be short and sweet:  federal legislation to enforce universal background checks and limit automatic weapons and the size of magazines would become law.  That’s exactly what happened in the UK in 1996 when sixteen children and one adult were murdered in a Dunblane, Scotland, elementary school.   Under strong public pressure, the UK government quickly passed a comprehensive gun control law.  We saw similar actions in Australia.  In the US, after a two-week post-Newtown quiet period, we get inflammatory rhetoric from the gun lobby preaching Armageddon, with federal agents disguised as storm troopers populating this phony dead-end fiction.  I know of no country in the world where this widely reported, intemperate bombast would not be universally shunned.  Instead, it occupies an honored place in the news cycle. 

So the gun has a hold on us psychologically, as well as culturally and historically.  And the gun lobby has been very successful in appropriating variations of the American frontier myth with images of the lone rifleman as the last defense against the marauders who will invade our homes, especially after natural disasters.  

“The Gun Industry’s Deadly Addiction,” published in the March 14, 2013, issue of Rolling Stone magazine described just how far the business has moved away from our lone frontier rifleman.  According to writer Tim Dickinson, “The once-dependable market for traditional hunting guns has fallen off a cliff.”  Dickinson notes that “As recently as 2008, shotguns, rifles and other traditional hunting weapons made up half of all new civilian gun sales in America,” a billion dollar business.  “Today, hunting guns account for less than a quarter of the market, and the hunting industry is forecasting a 24% drop in revenue by 2025.”

According to Dickinson, one reason for this is that “Gunmakers are on the wrong side of the same demographic curves that haunt the modern Republican Party.  Its customer base is too old, too white, too male and too Southern.  According to Gallop, 61% of white males in the South own guns today. Nationwide, just 18% of Latinos do.” 

Dickinson reports that the gunmakers’ response to declining sales and a dying demographic is to militarize the marketplace by flooding it with battle-ready guns.  And the strategy seems to be working.  “Handgun sales have jumped 70 percent since 2008, racking up an estimated $1.5 billion in sales in 2012.   Revenue from assault rifles has doubled to $489 million.  

According to the author, gun proponents joked that in 2009 Obama’s election was a stimulus plan for the gun industry.  Fear of a black president drove sales.  Fear of a clampdown after the Newtown massacre drove sales.  But overall gun ownership in America is declining.  Fewer than 20% of Americans born after 1980 have a gun in the home.  The gun industry faces the same issues as big tobacco: find replacements.   

Dickinson writes that the firearms industry is planning to break into unconventional demographics and hook the kids, seduce the ladies, turn shooting ranges into live-action video games, arm those preparing for a civil war, and supply cartels and criminals.  He describes the archetypal gun ad for women: “The police are nowhere to be found; it’s up to a woman alone to ward of the sexually threatening ‘predators’ of the city.”

The Rolling Stone piece is a sober account of how the gun industry plans to further militarize America.  It is clear that the myth of the lone rifleman, virtuous and restrained, has given way to a deadly cartoon, dressed in bullet-proof garb and packing an AK-47, wandering the byways of America.  The gun lobby doesn’t have to understand psychology to realize that their marketing plans exploit the shadow side of America.  Thus the fear of a black president, sexual predators, looters, absent police, and a breakdown in civil order.   YouTube is full of this madness with dead-enders engaged in battle-readiness training, anxious for Armageddon that is just around the corner.

The late James Hillman, an archetypal psychologist, in his A Terrible Love of War, has staked out the psychological ground of our gun worship.  “The fond belief (verging on paranoia) that is solely responsible for one’s own salvation and that preservation is the first law of nature (Protestant Darwinism) in a mobile, anomic, class-ridden society may provide grounds for American volatility and insecurity, but not enough ground to account for the American idealization of the gun.  There must be a myth at work.  It is as if the gods have combined to manufacturer the gun, are in the guns, as if the guns have become gods themselves.”

The ground of our discussions about guns in America, largely based on fictions and invented history, might be helped by having an archetypal psychologist and a Rolling Stone journalist at the table.  Hillman writes about what some historians considered the “invented history” of Lexington Green in 1775, spark for the gun lobby and July 4th, during which only seven Minutemen fired their muskets and only one Red Coat was hit.  For the first two hundred years of our history, the gun was rarely fired.  It was not the Revolutionary War that put the gun in the hands of the people, but the Civil War and millions of armed combatants.

But this observation might not please the National Rifle Association, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and all those who make money on Fourth of July parades.  What if our heralded and highly profitable gun culture was really born on the bloody fields of our Civil War?

That is why gun control is so hard.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Time Inc. and the Disruption of Archetypal Brands

I’ve almost finished a novel about the media industry and the rise and fall of an aging publishing executive who sees the Internet in particular and digital in general as a many-headed hydra that has to be struck down on every occasion.   My White Knight carries a real sword, taken from a German officer in World War II in hand-to-hand combat by his late father, and for a while was a hit on the media circuit because his keynote usually consisted of taking a whack at a rather impressive hydra built for the occasion.  My hero, always true to his own mythology, fills his head with pyrric victories and other wooly notions.   We will forgive him if he thinks that a mobile strategy means moving around a lot and margin is what resides on the edge of a page.  I’m holding out hope that this righteous but incompetent executive might still decide to fall on his luscious sword.

The real sword he takes up is in defense of the brand, because he knows, like many of his fictional friends, that once the brand is diluted, drifting in and out of social media like a lost child, appearing on undifferentiated publishing platforms, its imprimatur, authority and commercial value is reduced.   So our Mr. White might go down in a blaze of glory, a leap from the Eiffel Tower, or in an act of self-immolation during Fashion Week, his inevitable home.   But our man, a raging Lothario with a deep Mother Complex, will die with print magazines in his hands and a song in his heart.

Perhaps the pressure brands face today from the many-headed digital hydra invites a discussion of whether magazines, in this age of digital disruption, social media and the atomization of content, have the same endurance, staying power, and connection to the individual or psyche as they had a generation ago.  After all, magazines are ideas.  They are brands.  They are archetypes.  Certainly the many titles devoted to self-help, self-improvement and DIY in the broadest sense, are based on a kind of psychological positivism.  George Green, the former President of International at Hearst International, said that the most important American export of his generation was the “can-do” attitude embodied in US magazines.  Green is spot on.  I have launched magazines and digital businesses in twenty countries and found that the optimism, audacity, and sense of empowerment found in US titles are considered real draws.

Do we overstate the value of magazine brands?  A magazine can be looked at as an archetype, that is, a big and recognizable idea that informs our modern narrative and instructs our behavior, but digital, demographic, and psychographic realities will eventually have their say and their way.   After all, movies and video games aside, the Wise Old Man is not what he used to be.  He’s on Medicare, walks with a cane and is pretty much ignored by his children and grandchildren.

Given the somewhat apocalyptic reporting on the likely sale of Time Inc.’s big moneymakers (People, InStyle, Real Simple, etc.) to Meredith, I walked by the Time Warner building at Columbus Circle in Manhattan to make sure the company logo was intact and the sky hadn’t fallen yet.  I’ve been hearing about “disruption” in the magazine business for almost twenty years , but there seems something very different and sobering about this story; something very final.

For Jeff Bercovici at, this potential sale is another item in an already calamitous 2013 calendar: Reader’s Digest has filed for bankruptcy and Rolling Stone barely escaped the same fate.  Earlier, Newsweek ceased print publication.   Playboy went to a private equity firm.  In 2009, Businessweek sold for $6 million and TV Guide for a buck.  For Bercovici, the icons are crumbling.  He has a point.  It is reasonable to conclude that the disruption that comes from technology, social media, and programmatic ad buying can be particularly harmful to magazines that no longer resonate substantially within a culture or psychographic set.  So this is not just about content platforms, devices and delivery.  It is also about whether brands continue to touch the collective psyche during these tumultuous times.  Private equity firms can delay a reckoning, but evidence suggests that the magazine brand lifecycle might be shorter than we think.

The New York Times’ David Carr suggests Time Warner management wanted to cash out on its most profitable magazines while they were still throwing off a lot of money.  He writes: “Disruption in various economic sectors takes place over years as insurgents rise and former titans crumble, but its effects often become clear in a signature moment.  The specter of Time Inc., which lent its name to one of the largest media companies in the world, being pushed out the door like a party guest who overstayed his welcome is a stark reminder of how the game had changed.”

Perhaps the most acerbic and chilling account of this story is by Michael Wolff in the Guardian newspaper (, who makes clear in the article’s title that “The fall of Time Inc. is more about bad leadership than a dying industry.”  Wolff suggests—and many would agree—that the signature moment for Time Warner was when the chairman Gerard Levine “engineered a deal, possibly the most infamous ever engineered in corporate America, in which AOL bought Time Warner, destroying billions of dollars in value, breaking the spirits of tens of thousands of employees, and ending the growth as well as the dominance of the company.”

Wolff writes that, by 2008, Time Inc. was a lost ship and points a finger at the eight-year reign of CEO Ann Moore.  He observes that during this period vast resources and considerable brain power were devoted to digital adaption.  “I’m not sure there is any company that has spent so much time talking about its digital future to such little effect.  This was farce on quite an amazing scale.”

Exaggeration and animus aside, there are compelling ironies here.  Even if Time Inc. did not have its C-level house in order, I know of no publishing company that has given so much back to the business in terms of developing industry standards, specifications, and best business practices shared broadly with other magazines at home and abroad.  I saw much of this first-hand while at MPA, the magazine association.  For a generation, Time Inc. was the first citizen of magazine publishing and its executives were tireless and unselfish in their contributions to the common good.

Michael Wolff has been called the “bitchiest media big foot” around, and he doesn’t hold back here in an account that sometimes reads like fiction.  But he gets some credit for saying things that have been whispered for too long in the corridors of power.  He might be right that Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated and Fortune,  apparently not included in any prospective deal, will have new life when unencumbered by a large bureaucracy, editorial overhang, and unfocused corporate leadership.  In a new place far from the corner office, these magazines could represent a “fine opportunity.”  These titles represent big ideas, have close ties to our history and culture, and resonate as archetypes.  Perhaps they just need room to breathe.

It is no small irony that Time magazine, during a period that the parent was downsizing staff by 6% and the news about a pending sale was trickling out,  published a 20,000-word cover article entitled “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us” by Steven Brill. It’s an amazing piece and gives lie to the current political discussion about medical care and Medicare.  Everyone should read it.

This represents long-form journalism and a magazine brand at its best.