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Publishing: Is the Worst Over?

Why designers and editors will feel the pinch for years to come By Dave Nagel
If you're in publishing, you probably aren't feeling a tremendous sense of job security at the moment. For the last year, you've watched as one by one (or, in some cases, dozens at a time) of your colleagues were handed their walking papers. And even in the aftermath of massive layoffs and magazine foldings, you can still hear the ominous sputtering of the Corporate Chainsaw of Cost Cutting down the hall.

A good number of financial analysts have predicted that 2002 will be the year of recovery for industry, which, in turn, will have to help magazine publishers somewhat as the top advertisers begin to see their businesses turn around. Another good number of analysts see 2002 as flat. In other words, more of the same. Still others see it as maybe a little bit worse than 2001. European publishers will likely face major challenges as investors come to realize just how overvalued their stocks have become. And here in the United States, some major advertisers will be taking huge hits from Asbestos-related settlements and lawsuits, as many already have. And some of these will likely face bankruptcy--again, as some already have.

Feeling optimistic yet?

Well, on the marginally positive side, it's hard to imagine a year worse for magazine publishing than 2001. It saw the largest decrease in ad revenues and ad pages in the last 20 years, according to data from the Publishers Information Bureau. Revenues were down 4.6 percent, and pages were down a whopping 11.7 percent. The last time something even close to this happened was back in 1991, when revenues and pages dropped off 4.1 percent and 10.9 percent, respectively. (The big difference here and now is that there was really little warning. Ad revenues and pages had been strong for the preceding two years. The big drop in 1991 came only after two straight years of very slight growth.)

Now we all know what happened after 1991's dropoff, right? Ad revenues shot right back up the following year. Publishers took a hard line on their rate cards, and, beginning a couple years later, while pages saw minimal growth or even loss, actual revenues continued to climb.

Good times for publishing executives and salespeople on commissions. But, as I recall, the rest of us missed out on all the fun. t wasn't until the mid- to late 1990s that publishing companies began to spread the joy amongst the design and editorial teams--you know, the little people who take care of the small details, such as actually making the widgets the accountants keep track of in their ledgers.

I have a dim view of publishing executives. (I exclude my own executives, of course, who are highly competent, intelligent, benevolent, slim and handsome.) I don't try to hide this view. They are, by and large, unassociated with publishing, except in a managerial capacity. They don't care at all about the magazines they publish, except in their capacity to make money. And they certainly don't care about what's inside a magazine they publish, either in terms of design or editorial.

Think I'm overgeneralizing? When was the last time your CEO called or wrote an e-mail to compliment you on a feature layout? Who gets the annual trips to the Bahamas, salespeople or designers? No, publishing executives just don't care. But how will this impact you? o doubt, most of you are already feeling the pinch. If your staff hasn't been cut or your freelance budget slashed, you're one of the lucky ones.

If you think this is going to ease up at all in the near future, you're deluding yourself. If 2002 proves to be a year of recovery for the publishing industry, don't expect to experience any of the benefits for another two or three years. If 2002 is another dim year, you can stretch this forecast out by another one or two years.

What's a magazine designer or art director to do in the meantime? Get used to the phrase "trim the fat." The "fat," of course, refers to staff, budgets, color, paper, pages, proofs and the like. But what about your valuable executives? I wouldn't worry about them too much. I have the feeling they'll come through this slump just fine.

Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications. You can reach him at dnagel@digitalmedianet.com.

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