Ad Age’s announcement that magazine sales dropped in 2009 for 24 of the top 25 sellers is a sobering thought, especially if you’re in the print business — or if you’re Cosmopolitan, who’s single issue sales dropped nearly 8%. But what’s less sensationalized is this tidbit from the report (emphasis mine):

Total paid and verified circulation, however, slipped just 1.2% as subscriptions held their ground, gaining 0.6%

Roughly translated, this means readers who intend to consume magazine content on a regular basis haven’t changed their habits.  They still subscribe to the same titles they did a year ago, recession or no.  What has changed is the concept of magazine-as-impulse-buy.  With less discretionary cash in their pockets, shoppers are less likely to splurge on Cosmo at the checkout counter when they can glean the same information online at home for free.

Likewise, the big drops in paid and verified subscriptions came from titles like TV Guide, National Geographic and Playboy, all of which offer content that’s easily found (and more highly targeted) online.  Meanwhile, a closer inspection of the list itself shows minimal drops (and occasional gains) by titles aimed at homemakers and senior citizens — two groups more likely to have the time and inclination to read from the page than the screen.

This leads me to two conclusions:

  • Magazines providing how-to guides or evergreen informational resources are still considered relevant and worth purchasing in their offline form, while…
  • All other topics that see significant competition from online resources — either in terms of actual content or presumed readership — must offer increased offline value or rapidly shed costs in order to survive.

So: if your company routinely advertises in magazines whose target audiences consider them to be increasingly irrelevant, you need to follow those audiences online.  And, more importantly, you need to keep them talking about you once they’re there.  Because how we choose to consume our information is always changing, but we never stop needing to know where to find it.