This is a tough column to write. It brings up clichéd assumptions of American males that I've rolled my eyes at for years. (Boys do poorly in school because they're too busy daydreaming about blowing things up; men forget how to read if there's a lighted screen within 100 yards.) But according to new research and top magazine executives, this much is clear: Their medium increasingly skews toward women as men spend less time reading magazines.
"Women's interest in reading did not fall this year," says Ann Moore, chairman and CEO of Time Inc. (TWX ). But "we continue to see you men distracted by other things," she adds with a grin, as if I'm about to dash off to fire up a bunch of bottle rockets or spend hours, jaws clenched, blasting through HALO.
Research from Moore's company, the world's largest magazine publisher, finds a new, noticeable slide in men's magazine usage, while women's usage is holding steady. A mere five years ago there was no gender gap. Time Inc.'s research found that men spend more time with new media than women, which may account for the decline.
Thus the distortion of long-held media habits continues. Long term, Time Inc.'s data have implications for how magazines and other print media will reach male consumers. Right now, the findings put magazines at an increasingly familiar old-media disadvantage: searching for young men. This year, Hearst Magazines commissioned Keith Blanchard, a former editor of Dennis Publishing's Maxim, to create a prototype of a cheeky weekly lad magazine. This format is a smash hit in Britain via titles such as the (barely) double-entendred Nuts. But Hearst shelved the project. "All things that succeed in the U.K. are not necessarily a success in the U.S.," says Hearst Magazines President Cathleen Black. "Trying to build a strong franchise around men is tough." Attempts to bring the equivalent of one unalloyed recent hit -- Condé Nast Publications' shopping title Lucky -- to the boys have yielded mixed results. Its Cargo has yet to set the world aflame, and Fairchild Publications folded Vitals Man after barely a year.
THERE HAVE ALWAYS been gender lines in magazine publishing, but these days they're drawn more vividly. The big hits of this decade in terms of newsstand sales -- the best barometer of consumer interest -- have all been titles aimed at women: Us Weekly and the stampede of other celebrity weeklies, along with next-generation interpretations of women's service magazines, ranging from O, The Oprah Magazine to Real Simple to Lucky.
Maxim and the laddie titles it spawned are hardly in danger of disappearing, but their newsstand sales are far off their previous peaks. Meanwhile, ad categories that gravitate toward men's titles, such as domestic automotive and technology, are down this year. Cosmetics and food categories, which turn up more in women's titles, are posting solid gains. Advertising Age just selected its "A-List" of 2005's top magazines, and, given all of the above, it shouldn't surprise that the top six are aimed at women. Time Inc.'s tough 2005 is almost wholly attributable to slow going at its major male-targeted titles, with Time, Sports Illustrated, and Fortune all posting double-digit advertising page dips.
Some argue that it's not that men are disappearing so much as that there have been no big breakthrough ideas since Maxim. To its credit, Time Inc. isn't relying on magazine-centric thinking. The best spin on its research is that men visit magazine Web sites more often than women do. In other words, men aren't migrating so much from the content of magazines as from the format. This would be better news if ad rates on the Web were as pricey as those in print. Still, "we're looking at a couple of things to launch that are not on paper," says Moore. "I don't think we are constrained by the delivery system." One project in development: a Web publication, aimed at young men, overseen by another former Maxim editor, Mark Golin. It probably won't be as much fun as blowing up aliens in HALO, but magazine executives have to start somewhere.
By Jon Fine