WORLD: MEDIA ANALYSIS - New GQ editor shakes up title in chaotic US lads' mag sector

Men's magazine sales in the US are static but ad revenue is growing.

Jim Nelson, the editor-in-chief of GQ in the US and self-confessed pop-culture junkie, is getting comfortable in his new role. He succeeds Art Cooper, who died suddenly in June.

Nelson is unashamedly trying to net a youth audience, particularly with the current October edition boasting a wrestler, The Rock, on its cover. He is trying to distance GQ from its previous, slightly staid, image.

Cooper would typically run a piece on buying the "right" umbrella, whereas Nelson has freshened it up. The publisher, King Hunsinger, says: "He doesn't see the world the same way as Cooper did. The great editors in magazine publishing put their own stamp on the magazine. You can't do it with the MBA formula: 'Let's put a focus group together and see what people want.'"

But although GQ is revamping its content and a revitalised Details has been attracting new advertisers, the men's magazine market across the pond is in chaos. This year has seen the demise of both the lads' magazine Gear and its sleazier older uncle Penthouse, as well as the continual struggle of their spiritual godfather, Playboy, to redefine itself.

Across the men's category, circulation is largely flat, while ad pages and revenue are beginning to creep up, but this does not describe a trend.

Rather, it masks a market that's like a frozen TV dinner sitting in a microwave: there are pockets of broiling heat right next to areas where the frost of the down-market has yet to wear off.

Normally, US print media buyers' opinions of the market are strikingly similar. However, now it is like chatting with people who aren't even in the same business.

Publishers give a similarly disjointed picture. "From what I'm hearing about the fourth-quarter issues, it's been tough out there," MaryAnn Bekkedahl, the publisher of Men's Health, says - and that comes from a woman who presided over a 28 per cent increase in ad pages in the first eight months of the year. "There's a lot of discounting going on," she says, referring to the market generally.

But Bill Wackermann, Details' publisher, is happy; he's enjoying a 36 per cent rise in ad pages, on a circulation of 418,000, according to Publisher's Information Bureau.

Media spending is sometimes regarded as a sensitive economic barometer in the US. But the increase in ad pages isn't a clear indicator of where the market is headed - buyers are working off shorter planning cycles. Two years ago, that was seen as a temporary reaction to the 11 September attacks; now it's a regular feature. "It's keeping everyone on their toes," Stephen Colvin, Dennis Publishing's president, says. "We can't take anything for granted."

Colvin has been concentrating on improving the quality rather than quantity of Maxim's circulation. That means raising the number of subscribers as opposed to newsstand buyers, and increasing renewals. First, this is because, as Colvin says: "Newsstand has been difficult for everyone." The newsstand business continues to get harsher and less reliable, with fewer locations and retailers yanking slow movers from the shelves after increasingly short times.

Second, ABC has tightened its circulation reporting rules to make it harder for publishers to be overly optimistic about their rate bases.

"Media buyers are paying more attention to that; it is less about the relationship with the sales rep and more about the metrics," Bekkedahl says. Only fashion clients, who care most about the editorial environment, remain the exception. "The fashion industry does not give a rat's ass about circulation," she says.

The good news is that advertisers regard the men's market as one of the more interesting. "There are definitely more choices out there," Brenda White, Starcom Worldwide Chicago's associate media director, says. "Dollars are spread across more publications."

It is Details that has raised the most eyebrows over the past two years.

Conde Nast closed it in 2000, transferring it to its trade-publishing unit, Fairchild Publications. After a shaky start, it is thriving.

Playboy is also refining its editorial mission under editorial director Jim Kaminsky, who came from Maxim last year. Like GQ, the title will be "evolving", its publisher, Diane Silberstein, says. "You will see more humour and service information in the magazine."

Although buyers still regard Playboy as out of bounds for many clients, Silberstein thinks she will benefit from long-term changes in public taste.

"US perspectives on what was controversial content has now become dinner-table conversation," she says. "We're seeing a great reception from many advertisers who look at Playboy and say: 'This is tame compared with what's on TV.'"

There is more to come. In the spring, Conde Nast and Fairchild will release the rival men's shopping titles, Cargo and Vitals respectively, a risky move given both have the same corporate parent. Some buyers doubt the market can sustain two such titles.

"It's a vital time for magazines," Hunsinger says. But only for those titles that aren't vital in the first place.

AMERICA'S MEN'S TITLES

Average circulation Jan-June 2003

Playboy 3,154,942

Maxim 2,515,356

Men's Health 1,697,026

Field & Stream 1,531,046

Popular Mechanics 1,222,351

Stuff 1,212,695

FHM 1,103,434

Outdoor Life 949,313

GQ 764,512

Esquire 724,617

Outside 662,985

Men's Journal 653,230

Men's Fitness 630,582

Wired 539,963

Penthouse 477,357

Details 418,005

Source: ABC.

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