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The Grim Reaper asks which magazine will be next
By Aimee Levitt


In recent years, the Grim Reaper has become more discriminating about what he chooses to mow down with his scythe. Instead of stalking the earth in search of large animals, small children, and other living things, the new-model Reaper has chosen to concentrate his efforts solely on magazines.

And now, as is perhaps inevitable in the twenty-first century, death has a blog: the Magazine Death Pool, where, since February 2006, the Reaper has plotted his various conquests and provided sardonic analysis of the carnage under the ominous tagline, “Who will be next?”

The Reaper spends a lot of time and bandwidth on obituaries, which he organizes by magazine category, ranging from “Baby” to “Videogame” to “Outdoor Enthusiast.” (He is catholic in his predictions of doom.) In “The Reaper Speaks” section, he composes Reaper-centric Christmas carols (“It’s the most wonderful time of the year, / When the axes are falling, / And the Reaper is calling, saying ‘Sorry I’m here!’”) and lists the Seven Great Mysteries of the Modern Publishing World. (Number five: “Jann Wenner’s insistence that Rolling Stone magazine is still relevant.”)

In the blog’s early days, the Reaper gave survival odds for various magazines, but his powers of prescience were not what he had hoped: though he did successfully predict the death of Cargo (survival odds in early March 2006: 20 percent; dead: March 27, 2006), many of the magazines he had consigned to certain death, including Giant, which he gave a 5 percent chance of survival, still limp along. He has had much more success analyzing trends in the magazine world, most notably the effect of the internet. Recently he dissected an issue of Entertainment Weekly and demonstrated how most of its components can be found for free on the web.

It’s fair to say that the magazine world does not exactly quake in fear of the dark specter hovering over it. If you Google “magazine and death,” as I did (I was curious to see if there were magazines devoted exclusively to the concept of death; if there are, they do not have a web presence), the Magazine Death Pool will be first on your results list, but the site has generated exactly zero mentions in the press, and most visitors appear to prefer to maintain a respectful silence in the face of Death.

Nonetheless, the Reaper (or, more informally, Grim) shoulders his scythe and soldiers on, posting new items every week.

In reality, the Reaper is more an observer than a direct force of death. “I’ve been in this business a VERY long time,” he wrote to me, “and felt it was my job to bring a little realism and insight to what was going on in the magazine world.” In order to preserve his anonymity (and perhaps his job), he has registered his site privately. He is gracious about answering emailed inquiries about the future of magazines, but the only biographical detail he will divulge (and this is using the term “biographical” loosely) is that he is a fan of the band Blue Öyster Cult.

The Reaper has, however, clearly applied himself to the study of what makes a magazine thrive or perish. He identified for me the seven deadly sins of magazines:

1) Drifting audience. “If people can find their entertainment and information quicker and for free,” the Reaper says, “they are heading to their PC or mobile phone.” Such was the case with the recently departed movie magazine Premiere. In the 80s, Premiere was a legitimate source of entertainment news and a showcase for great writers. But not anymore, not when there are thousands of websites that can get the news out faster, and advertisers began to notice.

“Movie companies looking to push their latest dreck or DVD preferred plastering [entertainment] websites and blogs with ads for a fast rush of buyers,” the Reaper wrote in his own blog. “It even made more sense to advertise on the radio to capture the compulsive buyers of movie tickets and DVDs (that is, if they weren’t downloading bootleg copies in the first place).”

The only magazines that aren’t operating under the threat of the web, the Reaper says, are the luxury titles like Vogue or Vanity Fair, whose glossy content, not to mention glossy full-page ads, cannot be replicated on a computer screen.

2) Free ads. Some magazines have become so desperate for advertising that they’ve started giving it away. The Reaper has talked with media buyers, who have told him about the “crazy deals” they’ve been getting from certain ad departments, such as the one at the U.S. edition of FHM, a men’s magazine that in its last days reeked of desperation, with cover photos of large-breasted women naked except for a few strategically placed pieces of cloth or rope. The Reaper explains the ad departments’ reasoning thus: “Some money is better than nothing. And sometimes it’s nothing when the going gets desperate.”

3) Repulsing advertisers. Then there are the magazines that can’t even give it away. “Environment is everything,” the Reaper says. The tackier a magazine’s content, the less likely it is to attract advertisers. Case in point: Shock, Hachette’s recently folded tabloid, which was so tasteless that “nobody was going to advertise in this baby (unless it was Spanish Fly or reused term papers), so it had to sell on the newsstand in order to live,” the Reaper wrote in his blog. “And we all know what the newsstand is like these days . . .”

4) “And there shall be only one.” Magazine publishers constantly betray their ignorance of the old adage about lightning not striking the same place twice (which is ironic, really, considering how often old adages find their way into the openings of articles). The most copied cat of recent years has been Lucky, Condé Nast’s magazine devoted to shopping. Hearst attempted its own version with SHOP Etc., which (wrote the Reaper after its death last August) “didn’t even stick around long enough for the Labor Day sales.”

Apparently the shopping-magazine readership would rather do some actual shopping instead of just reading about it. “There’s just enough for Lucky,” the Reaper says.

5) No audience, at any price. And then there is the special case of Cargo, the magazine Condé Nast conceived as Lucky for men. The publishers, the Reaper explains, rashly assumed that men would enjoy looking through pages of stuff and marking the things they liked with little stickers just as much as women did. So, bypassing the audience, they went straight to work on advertisers.

“When you launch a magazine that caters to advertisers and not readers,” Grim says, “you are already heading in the wrong direction, because if the readers come, so will the advertisers—readers sticking around mean commitment and passion. Start with advertisers first, and now you’re HOPING the readers come.”

6) No leader. Some magazines can’t even decide which readers, and therefore which advertisers, they want. Such a magazine is Giant, another men’s magazine that the Reaper believes is doomed. Its leadership has changed so often during its lifetime that its editorial mission has been inconsistent and incoherent. “Was it men on the cover?” the Reaper asks rhetorically. “Women on the cover? Was it entertainment? Was it a ‘lad’ title? Was it an urban title?” Giant just couldn’t figure it out. So now it’s been sold to a radio company—Radio One—that, as the Reaper noticed, saw its profits drop dramatically in 2006.

7) Just a bad idea. One of the Reaper’s ongoing concerns in his blog has been the fate of the long-delayed Condé Nast Portfolio. He has gleefully noted every postponement of its launch date and does not think that even the red-and-green golf umbrellas which have been promised to the initial subscribers will be enough to prevent it from becoming the biggest flop since Talk, Hearst’s glossy celebrity magazine that lived and died at the turn of the millennium.

As the Reaper has pointed out, there are already plenty of general-interest business magazines. “Is there longevity in this vague business-magazine concept that will make the pool of potential readers drop their Fortune or BusinessWeek and pick this up?” the Reaper wonders. “And pick it up often, which is the key.” In order for a magazine to be considered an unqualified success, the Reaper says, it will have to exist past the initial flurry of excitement surrounding the launch—say, two years.

So now we know who is going to die, or at least who the Reaper thinks is going to die. What is the point of this exercise? Isn’t it a bit like the little old lady at the funeral who spends the entire eulogy speculating to her neighbor who’s going to be next?

The Reaper declines to take part in the general hand-wringing about how the Future of Print is nonexistent. “There will always be people reading magazines, but just not in the numbers they’ve been the past several years,” he says. Some magazines will have to reinvent themselves the way the teen magazine ELLEgirl turned itself into a website. U.S. News & World Report may not have much of a future as a newsweekly, but the Reaper thinks it could do well as a publisher of books that rank the best colleges and graduate programs.

For all his gloom-and-doom posturing, the Reaper comes off not as someone who hopes for the demise of magazines (except for certain deserving ones, like Giant or Condé Nast Portfolio), but as someone who genuinely mourns their passing. Nowhere on his site is this more apparent than in the Museum of Dead Magazines.

Click on the Museum and you’ll be taken to a photo slideshow of covers of magazines that have perished and their date of death. Start browsing and you’ll be reminded of a time when you thought Budget Living would actually help you live on $15,000 a year, or when the very existence of Home Office Computing signaled an exciting new era when everybody would work at home, or (going back even further) when Sassy was going to teach you how to talk to boys.

It almost makes you wonder why the Reaper, who loves magazines so much, started a blog. Or it would, if the answer weren’t so obvious: if the Magazine Death Pool were a magazine, it would die.

Illustration by Griffin Waldau

 
 

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