Media Brain Trust: Death watch edition

The recession has already claimed its share of media properties, but, while the economy may or may not have touched bottom already, nobody who knows anything about anything thinks the closures are about to stop. The only question is: Who's next?

As a veteran of two high-profile media casualties (Radar and Condé Nast Portfolio), I have a particularly keen interest in this question. So, to shed some light on it, I've assembled what shall forthwith be known as the Media Brain Trust: a group of several dozen editors in chief, publishers, producers, developers, executives, consultants and others whose views about what's going on in the media industry I've found to be especially astute over the years.

I put the question to them: What media brands do you expect to see disappear in the next 12 months or so?
BusinessWeek. This was the clear consensus favorite, and it should come as no surprise, seeing as it was only two weeks ago that McGraw-Hill announced that it was reviewing "strategic options" for the 80-year-old weekly. Those options don't look good to my Brain Trustees.

"I don't think anyone will buy it, and McGraw-Hill will not stomach its continued loss," says one newspaper executive, speaking for many.

Other weeklies. It's not just BusinessWeek. With their high printing and shipping costs and their focus on news rather than less-perishable features, all weeklies appear susceptible to competition from the web. After BW, the title mentioned most frequently was Entertainment Weekly. "I hate to include this on the list, as I was among those who helped get this Time Inc. book up and into the black," says former managing editor Cable Neuhaus (now editorial director* of Newsmax), "but the economics may not be in its favor anymore." "I have to think that EW will eventually succumb," says another editor who has worked in the category.

Many others singled out Newsweek. "Don Graham's shareholder letter seemed to me to indicate that that new approach was a last chance," says one publishing veteran with experience on both the editorial and business sides. Another, similarly experienced respondent argues that Newsweek will survive, but that "has more to do with its history in a family-run company, and the actual and psychical price of shutting it down, than with its performance."

Then there's TV Guide, another popular choice, especially since it changed hands last year for the bargain price of $1. "The new owners separated the magazine from the digital business, which means the end for the magazine because it didn't adapt to the new, 1,000-channel world well," predicts a well-known media entrepreneur.

Other business magazines. As with weeklies, my Trustees see them as particularly imperiled and less resistant to the flight of ad dollars from print to digital than other types of glossy publications. "This is one area in which the web really will kill magazines," says one. "You can take your time with food and fashion; business information you need now, and you don't need slick production values to go with it."

Other monthlies. Two other magazine categories that my Brain Trust considers vulnerable are men's interest and women's fashion; both are seen as carrying more titles than they can currently support. Multiple respondents identified Men's Journal, Details, W and Marie Claire as the least likely survivors. A number of people also predicted that Conde Nast Publications will shut down one of its two foodie titles, either Gourmet or Bon Apetit.

Some of the other responses I received:

* "Minneapolis/St. Paul newspapers -- they almost have to merge -- Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Herald"

* "Mediaite feels a bit doomed."

* "I think lots of little association and special-interest magazines are going to go away. Wildlife Conservation is already gone. Natural History? AAA's Car and Travel? They can probably serve their audiences almost as well online, at least."

* "San Francisco: first major US city without a daily newspaper as SF Chron either goes all-online or weekend edition only. (I tend not to subscribe to the meme that daily newspapers will simply vanish. Over the next two years I think that's online- or weekend-only will generally be the first stop on the way to either extinction or some new attenuated existence. There's enough perceived value in these old brands that somebody will keep them afloat on a limited basis just for speculation.)"

* " how can this company survive with no job inventory? Also, their stock has been murdered. Un-agile, run by finance guys -- the tech equivilent to old world media."

* "All off-line music magazines will die. Sorry."

* "Fox Business. It's losing an insane amount of money, it has no prospects for ever becoming profitable, and Rupert isn't some kind of squishy owner who'll happily keep it on at a loss indefinitely. I also have my doubts about WSJ. (Not the WSJ, just the glossy mag.) For much the same reasons, but also because it seems to be incapable of committing journalism."

* "I can't imagine Adweek and The Hollywood Reporter making it through the year in their current configuration; probably the only thing saving them is managerial confusion."

* From David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former tax policy reporter for The New York Times:

News organizations run by people not steeped in news (Zell's papers) will wither as they try to please audiences instead of tell them what journalists believe they need to know and as they kow-tow to the powerful. The mass of readers, listeners and viewers (even the economically above average mass favored by advertisers) want an advocate who stands up to power and those organizations that embrace their audience -- as opposed to their advertisers and sources -- generally will retain their audience.

Chances that the NYT, WSJ, WaPost will go out of business -- zero.

Chances that BW, Time and Newsweek will go out of business -- small but possible.

Chances that a dozen cities of 25,000 or more population will have no general interest daily newspaper in two years -- close to 100%.

Chances that those politicians inclined to line their pockets will be emboldened by the disappearance or weakening of local newspapers -- limitless.

About the Media Brain Trust: Responses were solicited and supplied by email. More than 100 sources were polled; roughly one-third participated. In the interest of encouraging candor, participants were promised anonymity, although some volunteered to be identified by name. Stay tuned for future Brain Trust installments.

*Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly identified Cable Neuhaus as the editor in chief of
Newsmax. He is editorial director.
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