Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Time Inc.’s Magazines Get Less Bad, With Some Help From People

If you’re waiting for Apple’s (AAPL) iPad to rescue the magazine business, you may have to wait a very long time indeed. But the present-tense magazine industry–the ink-and-paper version everyone has left for dead–may be limping its way to a recovery.

It’s not close yet. But we are seeing signs that things are at least getting less bad. As Nat Ives notes, the slide in newsstand sales seems to have slowed in the second half of last year, and some titles are even reporting an uptick.

Meanwhile, industry heavyweight Time Inc. also had comparatively good news to report today-things are still down, but not as dire as they have been.

The numbers: The Time Warner (TWX) unit says Q4 subscription revenue was down six percent and ad sales were down 12 percent. Not stellar, but better than Q3, when they were down 13 percent and 22 percent, respectively.

The bottom line, in the meantime, helped by two rounds of major layoffs, stayed steady, with an operating margin of 14 percent.

It’s hard to tell how widespread the recovery is, because different titles have different stories to tell. Time Warner did note that its News unit–that includes Time, Fortune, etc.–lagged behind and that its Style group–overseen directly by CEO Ann Moore–did well.

“Well,” that is, by magazine standards: Revenue was flat in Q4, aided in large part by People magazine. (Now you can see why the Time Warner executive I talked to last year said it was hard to see the company dumping that title in particular.)

The company said that while ad dollars were down nine percent in the U.S., ad rates only shrank by “low single digits,” which is a bit encouraging. And Time Warner said numbers for the current quarter are improving over Q4.

Requisite caveat here: These numbers, and the ones you’re going to see for the next couple quarters, are being compared with really terrible numbers from previous quarters. So the fact that Time Inc. can’t show actual growth tells you that this is still an industry with really big problems. But maybe they’ll be more manageable than we thought–even without the help of a “magical and revolutionary device.”

Here’s the Q4 breakdown (click tables to enlarge):

And, for comparison’s sake, here are the Q3 numbers:

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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle