90.3 WBHM Birmingham--So you're tired of all the grim economic news. You want to relax, sit on the couch and flip through a good magazine. Only trouble is that favorite magazine may not be there any more. Magazines across the country have folded in recent months, including titles in Birmingham. As we conclude our series "Making Do: Alabama's Economy," WBHM's Andrew Yeager takes a look at an industry not just reeling from the recession, but dealing with a change in the medium itself.

For Tina Hatch, it was a once in a lifetime job. The type of job she says you don't get unless someone dies. Mid-30s and editor-in-chief of Lipstick magazine. Now the former editor reminisces over drinks and nachos in a pub with two former colleagues.

"Once the economy started kind of going into the tank, we could kind of see it coming. You know it was hard to come to work the last few weeks."

Lipstick printed its last issue this month. It was a womens lifestyle magazine published by the Birmingham News. Hatch says the newspaper was supportive and the magazine had loyal readership. The economic climate simply made it difficult to sell ads.

"You know, I've only ever worked in editorial. So to try to put on that business hat and try to figure out, especially when businesses were saying, 'We don't have any money to spend...'"

And it's not just Lipstick. Birmingham-based Southern Progress closed down Cottage Living at the end of last year and the company has been shedding jobs in recent months. Southern Progress parent company Time would not provide a number of layoffs. Several former employees say around 200 have been let go. That's out of a pre-layoff workforce of 700.

"The health of the magazine publishing industry is probably the worst I've seen it in the close to 20 years I've been covering it."

Tony Silber is general manager of Red 7 Media, a publishing consulting firm. He says magazines are facing a double hit. Sure, advertising is down. But publishers are also struggling with online media - which by in large is free.

"Fifteen years ago I would buy the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and so on, every day. Nowadays I don't. [If] I wanna consume newspaper journalism, I just go online."

If magazines put free content online, that can translate to fewer subscription. Silber says there are promising online revenue models, but nothing is clear. So if this is the environment publishers are facing, why in the world would you launch a new magazine now?

"We're gutsy. I'm gutsy. In a nice way."

Phyllis Hoffman is all saleswoman as she talks about Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade, the ninth title from Hoffman Media. It launched last month. Hoffman is president of the Birmingham-based company whose magazines include Cooking with Paula Deen. They may have nationally distributed titles targeting women, but they're a comparatively small player. Hoffman says they were cautious with this new magazine given the economic climate. But she says it and the company are in pretty good shape. She credits a balance of revenue.

"Newsstand is important. Advertising is important. But we are not so skewed in one direction or the other that if one falls off we have a disaster."

Hoffman also says they charge a fair price for subscriptions. She says some publishers have self-inflicted wounds from offering low subscription rates in an effort to guarantee a certain number of readers to advertisers. They still have to produce that same magazine despite the discount.

But what about the web? Phyllis Hoffman says she can see where daily, weekly or news publications would face more problems with the internet. But for Hoffman Media's focus on lifestyle such as cooking and sewing, she says the web supports the existing brand. Readers may like getting extra content online, but she says they still want that physical magazine with the recipe in the kitchen as they cook. Hoffman says the web can provide a new outlet for advertisers, but she doesn't count on it for primary revenue.

Back with the former Lipstick staffers, they are thinking about the web. The trio around the table has expanded to seven. Notepads are out as Tina Hatch makes her announcement.

"Okay, ladies. The reason we all asked you here tonight [is] because we are going to be starting a new web site called Snippy Online. It's very exciting."

Hatch says she couldn't imagine co-workers simply going their separate ways after the magazine folded. So they'll create their own womens magazine online. Initially, they'll be asking for contributors to offer their content for free. Hatch says she's not unaware of the financial challenges, but then she's not focused on money right now.

"If I have to, you know, take a part time job bringing in buggies, I'll do that if I get to do what I love every day."

And if Tina Hatch does figure out how to make money off the web, she says she'll let us know.


~ Andrew Yeager, March 27, 2009