Magazine

When Mags Meet The Reaper


For five years beginning in 2000, I had a job in which I wrote almost exclusively about the magazine business. It turned out to be a fine time to watch a flotilla of famous and not-famous magazines sail into eternity: Industry Standard, Talk, Mademoiselle. I could go on. (For a long time.) I kept the last issue of each departed title on my desk, in a stack that grew into an unmanageably sprawling heap by the time I left. That pile's online equivalent is magazinedeathpool.com, which launched in February, 2006, with the cheery greeting: "The beginning of the end is here."

The site is registered anonymously. It is run by an unidentified but knowledgeable (apparent) insider who calls himself or herself Grim Reaper, and who has a good record at predicting what's not long for this world. (And who winningly signs e-mails "Grim.") Among a subset of the media-obsessed, the site is a new version of the dot-com era's beloved f-----company.com. Amid the medium's ongoing remaking, Magazine Death Pool calls attention to a macabre parlor game usually confined to magazine circles: Which one's the next to go?

CURRENTLY THE REAPER IS TAPPING a scythe at, among others, Business 2.0 (whose travails were previously reported by many blogs, including mine, and by The New York Times (NYT)), a verdict I agree with, and Cond? Nast Portfolio, which I do not. (Cond? Nast won't spend nine figures on that launch to give up so easily.) A previous Reaper prediction about Maxim's little brother, Stuff--that it may die as a standalone but live on, say, as a section of another magazine--now seems likely. (Reps for Stuff and Business 2.0 refused to comment.)

Thus far, the site has forecast virtually all of this past year's major closings--including Life, Premiere, Shop Etc., and Jane. All had struggled for ads and had problems amply documented elsewhere. But sometimes that means little, because magazines remain a perverse medium. Privately held companies far outnumber public ones, and the tenor of the business is, perhaps refreshingly, often divorced from market realities. The No. 1 and No. 3 players--Cond? Nast Publications and Hearst Magazines--are private, as are many other biggies. Idiosyncratic entrepreneurs, like Wenner Media's Jann Wenner, are still in place. Nearly all are concentrated in Manhattan's tight geographic confines, which, like other company towns that attract the chatty and status-conscious--hello, Los Angeles and D.C.--breeds gossip like a wet basement breeds mildew. Unlike newspapers, many magazines die; unlike TV shows, they tend to die slowly. The correct question is not who's behind Magazine Death Pool, but rather what took someone so long to do it?

In other words: I have no idea who Mr. or Ms. Reaper is. Everyone I thought might be behind its skeletal visage denies it, and--surprise!--Grim won't open the kimono. (Cloak?) Nevertheless, he/she appears to understand what goes on in the deep hidden plumbing of magazine circulation. (And also has a mordant sense of humor. Asides begin like this: "I was just chiseling my nails....") He/she appears to be well-versed in rock music past and present, but favors '70s-era lyric references. In a series of e-mails--which, obviously, defy fact-checking--Grim claimed to be a solo operator, to have worked "on and off the staffs of major consumer magazine publishers," though not Time Inc. (TWX), and to have experience on magazines' editorial and business sides. The site came about after the first major wave of Time Inc. layoffs in late 2005: "The writing was definitely on the wall for where ad dollars and readers were going."

Well, yeah. The whys of what's happening to lesser-tier magazines are obvious. Chronicling it in such a darkly funny way, though, is not. As far as summertime guessing games go, "Who's the Reaper?" isn't exactly lonelygirl15. But I'll take it. And Grim, when you're ready to step from Stygian obscurity into the light of day, give me a call.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine


Silicon Valley State of Mind
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