MEDIA BRANDS: The public is beginning to understand the role retailers play in success of magazines

Of all the elements that go into creating a magazine brand, one of the least discussed is where the publication will be sold. For a new title, the buzz typically centers on the editors and writers attached to the project. When the business model is broached, questions about financial backing and ad sales usually crowd out the retail issue.

Of all the elements that go into creating a magazine brand, one of the least discussed is where the publication will be sold. For a new title, the buzz typically centers on the editors and writers attached to the project. When the business model is broached, questions about financial backing and ad sales usually crowd out the retail issue.

This, however, is changing, a fact that has less to do with the evolving priorities of the reporters who cover the industry than with a greater appreciation for the power of certain retailers, like Wal-Mart, and an overall better understanding of how a media brand can be shaped by the commercial climate around it. For instance, part of Star magazine's makeover from a supermarket tabloid to a worthy competitor to legitimate celebrity news outlets hinges on moving a few feet, from the side of the grocery checkout aisle, where aliens and world's fattest man stories rule, to the aisle's front, where its competitors are found. You don't have to have taken a seminar in impulse buying to know that marketers have long appreciated the power of product placement on store shelves. But what makes this power particularly interesting is that it brings into play issues as complex as credibility. In other words, when it comes to Star, it's not all about the number of eyes that pass across the cover or whether or not someone is reaching for their wallet as they see the cover. That's important, but so is the expectations readers will bring to those pages. As a result, one of the most coveted sites in the magazine world is close to the registers at Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer. For a startup magazine, getting placed there can be key to survival. A magazine like American Thunder, a NASCAR title whose editor is profiled on this page, can be made by this kind of placement. After all, the chain's clientele is exactly the audience that a publication devoted to auto racing would want to tap into. The same goes for a title as diverse as American Magazine, a reader-driven magazine devoted to Americana that launched last year. This isn't to say that either of these magazines was designed for any distributor, not even one with the sway of Wal-Mart. On the contrary, both were created by independent publishers with very clear and strong notions of what they want from their magazines. These values just happen to jibe with what Wal-Mart's powers-that-be want from the publications the stores sell. Of course, the irony is that these are values that many in the media regularly scoff at, or at least underplay. While the New York media world buzzes about busts like Radar, titles with well-defined missions and massive audiences rife with advertising opportunities go little noticed by companies. It's a safe bet that this will be significantly turned on its head by the increasing concentration of commercial power in a store like Wal-Mart, a fact the media is just now understanding. -matthew.creamer@prweek.com

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