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The ABCs of the Mpls.St.Paul-Minnesota Monthly war

The general-interest glossies remain a valuable cog in the local media scene, but a deeper look shows different weaknesses.
By David Brauer

Last month, in a post about layoffs at Minnesota Monthly, I dipped my toes into circulation figures, noting the magazine’s unambiguously good newsstand performance, where sales ticked up while others’ fell.

Reader John Anderson questioned the rosy scenario, noting trouble spots. He clearly knew his way around an Audit Bureau of Circulations statement, so I decided to gauge for myself how MinnMo and its arch competitor Mpls.St.Paul are faring in a tough marketplace.

Disclaimer: I know these titles are not news heavyweights, but they remain important in the journalism eco-system as outlets for long-form journalism. Even the “special sections” sustain reporters trying to stay in this profession.

Two stipulations before we jump to the details:

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1. I’m not ignoring Metro magazine, but they’re not audited by ABC — their distribution tilts heavily toward freebies, though they have some subscribers.

2. MSP clearly remains the top title business-wise. It distributes about 74,000 copies monthly versus 66,000 for MinnMo, has far more ad pages, and many fully-paid subscriptions. (MinnMo’s remain heavily yoked to MPR memberships.)

OK, to the tote board! Figures are for the six-month periods ending Dec. 31, 2007 and Dec. 31, 2008.

Single-copy sales: MinnMo has always trailed in newsstand and check-out sales, but gap has shrunk remarkably in the past 12 months.

In 2007, MSP outsold MinnMo three-to-one (15,107 to 4,766). But a huge MSP decline and small MinnMo uptick have closed the gap to two-to-one: 10,941 to 5,548.

That deterioration may be why MSP President Gary Johnson says his side has contemplated a buck-an-issue price cut (to $3.50). Also, expect the “service” cover stories (“112 top potty-trainers!”) to become even more relentless.

Subscriptions: In a tough economy, magazines often prop up circulation figures by giving away more copies. Advertisers don’t value these readers nearly as much.

Anderson noted that MinnMo “added 6,743 verified/free copies to circulation so they could keep their circulation above the rate base of 65,000.”

That’s true. However, MSP added 11,500: from 2,500 in 2007 to 14,000 in 2008.

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However, there’s more to the story.

An ABC rule change explains most of MSP’s leap: 9,000 hotel copies were reclassified from paid to “verified/free.” (Johnson says hotel deals run the gamut from you pay them to they pay you.)

The magazine did pump 2,500 consistently classified freebies into doctor’s offices and hair salons. Meanwhile, MinnMo dumped about 5,000 more issues into such places, along with 1,700 hotel copies.

Other ultra-nerdy details:

♦ MinnMo’s fully paid circ declined less than MSP’s (5 percent versus 16 percent) even as its per-subscriber net rose (from $14.40 to $14.88). MSP’s fell from $15.12 to $14.64.

In other words, MSP discounted in 2008 and MinnMo didn’t, but MinnMo’s numbers held up better. Still, MSP retains nearly three times as many readers in this category (roughly 48,000 versus MinnMo’s 17,000).

♦ Meanwhile, MinnMo’s MPR base is showing real weakness. Numbers declined 14 percent in the last year, from 43,500 to 37,500. As many an MPR member knows, the Kling empire has made it a lot tougher to claim the MinnMo premium in recent years.

That’s why it’s vital that the magazine strengthen its non-MPR subscriber and newsstand readership. Skinny growth might not be enough.

Final thoughts:

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♦ MSP’s recent layoffs have a lot more to do with the advertising slump, which dwarfs any lost circulation revenue.

♦ As I’ve noted previously, MinnMo’s hiring of restaurant writer Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl likely explains much of the subscriber and newsstand good news. Still, MinnMo editor Andy Putz has also tried to wedge in as many features as possible by top-notch freelancers. I’d like to believe that’s a factor, but it’s probably wishful thinking.