Christian magazines find specialization is (sometimes) key to survival
July 23, 2010
When editorial director Dean Ridings imagines the reader of Thriving Family magazine produced by Colorado-based Focus on the Family, he pictures a soccer mom, toting it along to her child’s game.
Leadership Journal is geared for pastors, and Men of Integrity, also published by Christianity Today International, is aimed at men who might tuck the small devotional periodical in their suit pocket.
Specialization is the name of the game — and sometimes the key to survival for Christian magazines, experts say. But while niche-targeting may give a magazine a better chance of making it, it’s not a cure-all for an industry that’s weathering seismic shifts.
Like their secular counterparts, Christian publications are wrestling with plummeting advertising, declining circulation rates and a migration of readers from print to online.
The shifts mean a magazine on Bible study, for example, is going to have a better chance of survival than a more general one about the Bible, said journalism professor Samir Husni, a publishing consultant known as “Mr. Magazine.”
Perhaps most worrisome, success can be measured by simply keeping circulation stable — or almost stable — rather than seeing it grow.
“The new growing these days is not losing,” said Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. “That’s the case with all the magazines, not only the religious magazines. The new standard has been if I’m not dropping in circulation, it means that I’m okay.”
Husni, who has consulted for Christianity Today International’s magazines, said publishers of religious periodicals are making tough decisions about which publications to keep and, in some cases, charging for ones that once were free.
Focus on the Family revamped its flagship magazine and changed its name to Thriving Family last year. It now retails for $9.99 a year. Unlike its free predecessor, it no longer includes schedules of the ministry’s radio broadcasts.
The company also has cut back from eight magazines to four; three teen-themed magazines were cut, and another, Plugged In, an entertainment review guide for parents, went online.
“That was really a strategic decision from a ministry perspective,” said spokesman Gary Schneeberger. “We first and foremost are a ministry resource for parents and married couples.”
Ridings, who’s also president-elect of the Evangelical Press Association, has seen the shift firsthand: he used to write for The Navigators’ spiritual-growth magazine Discipleship Journal until it died last year.
“With any publication, the first question you ask is, ‘Who’s the audience, and is there audience to support this?”' he said.
Christianity Today International has seen the circulation of its flagship magazine drop from 190,000 at its peak to about 140,000. Some of its specialized publications have also shed readers: Leadership Journal (down to 48,000, from 61,000 in 2001) and Men of Integrity (down to 63,000, from 70,000 in 2007).
The viability of specialized publications hinges on audience interest, as well as advertisers’ interest in reaching that audience, said Amy Simpson, a CTI vice president.
“People sort of expect and demand something that’s more for them,” she said. “If they can find a publication that’s a little more specialty, a little more niched, they may feel a greater affinity for it.”
But specialization isn’t always a panacea — CTI had to kill Christian History, Today’s Christian Woman and Campus Life College Guide. Salem Publishing closed the print version of its popular CCM magazine, which had covered the contemporary Christian music industry, in 2008, but kept Preaching magazine and Singing News, which focuses on Southern gospel music, alive.
“They’re reaching a very target, niche audience that is going to be wanting or looking forward to the material that’s within those magazines, kind of regardless of the economy,” said Caroline Lusk, editor of CCM, which remains online.
Doug Trouten, executive director of the Evangelical Press Association, said his organization's membership reflects the changes in the industry.
“Publications that are shutting down are more likely to be general audience, and publications that are taking their place tend to be smaller, more specialized publications,” he said.
Strang Communications has seen a substantial drop in its circulation for flagship Pentecostal magazine Charisma — down to 130,000 from a high of 250,000 in the 1990s. Strang closed SpiritLed Woman and New Man, which fell to 100,000 in 2007 after a peak of 400,000 during the height of the Promise Keepers movement.
The company’s more specialized periodicals are faring a little better.
Christian Retailing has a print run of 6,600 compared to about 8,500 five years ago. Ministry Today, which is aimed church leaders, is holding steady at 21,000, down from 30,000.
“You have to know your reader and they better be loyal,” said Charisma editor Marcus Yoars, “because advertisers aren’t always going to be there.”