September is forecasted to be a depressing month for magazines this year. Ad pages are down significantly for that month, which is usually the most profitable issue for many magazines. But the economy isn’t the only reason numbers are down. Ad dollars are shifting elsewhere and they aren’t likely to come back any time soon.

Magazine ad revenue is down 21.2% in the first half of 2009,
according to the Publishers Information Bureau, and ad pages at publishers like Conde Nast, Time Inc. and Hearst titles
were down at many publications in September by between 20% and 60%. Usually a rebound from the slow summer months, a slim September issue spells trouble for many publications.

After
releasing September ad numbers (fashion leader Vogue is down over 200
ad pages from September of last year) Conde Nas’t seniro VP Lou
Cona said that: “This is not about magazines, this is about the
recession. Given the media recession and the
overall economic recession, I think we are incredibly proud.”

But there are many factors indicating that magazines won’t be bouncing back when the economy recovers.

The main problem is not that advertisers are spending
less money, it’s that less of their ad dollars are going to magazines. Many publishers are now looking into new methods of monetization to make up for those lost ad dollars.

Ellen Oppenheim, CMO of the Magazine
Publishers of America, tells AgAge: “Beyond ad pages and beyond display digital and rich-media ads,
we are seeing interest in events, in partnering building sponsorship
programs, different kinds of content opportunities, social-media
opportunities and so on. If you look at magazine-ad-page growth in the
old context, you’re missing what the real opportunity is,
not just for magazines but for marketers.”

The declines for September ad pages come after months of slow sales. Magazine spending is expected to fall 16.7% in 2009. In contrast, online ad
spend is set to grow 10% according to ZenithOptimedia. Some online
properties, like Gawker Media, have seen revenues increase as much as 45% in the past six months.

Magazines still test well for brand building, but many see the lack of tracking capabilities offline as a problem in today’s digital world. More from AdAge:

“Marketers are also applying stricter tests to all their efforts and, influenced by our rising on-demand culture and economy, seeking faster and faster results. Jim Spanfeller, outgoing president and CEO of Forbes.com, feels this is what’s hurting magazines.

Digital media is increasing the demand for instant accountability, he said, even though it falls short in many ways itself. “I’m not saying magazines don’t work, just that it’s hard to measure,” he said. “One of the reasons is they [accumulate] so slowly. Depending on the frequency of that magazine, the audience can [accumulate] over six weeks to three months. Measurement is a dicey thing to begin with. But it’s also hard to have patience for that long.”

While many brands still consider magazine ads an important spend (and continue to spend heavily in the space compared to online) the
difficulty in tracking offline campaigns is causing brands to invest in more trackable online categories. But display advertising suffers from similar tracking problems. Online publishers are now trying to incorporate traditional media metrics into their advertising analysis.

Brand measurement is an ongoing problem in brand building efforts regardless of their placement. Slow sales this year cannot erase the fact that many brands still get excellent returns from well placed magazine ads. But online and offline publishers are struggling to prove that they can deliver sales results to brands. Until better metrics are developed, the most they can do is work on delivering audiences that advertisers want to reach. To that end, a real test for magazines will be how their September issues sell to readers this year.