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The other housing crunch

Shelter magazines fold in a market crowded with titles and as readers get information from other sources.

December 20, 2007|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

IT has been an ugly year for home magazines, and we're not talking about the return of animal skins as symbols of style. Martha Stewart's year-old Blueprint, a bimonthly design and lifestyle magazine aimed at young women, announced Dec. 10 that it will cease publication with its next issue.

After a century in print, House & Garden delivered its final edition this month. Also bowing out: InStyle Home, Robb Report Luxury Home and, after just one issue, Robb Report Vertical Living.

Reader loyalty isn't the cause. House & Garden had a circulation of almost 1 million when it folded. The blame, experts say, lies in the extent to which the home-fashion-lifestyle category has become overcrowded with titles, and design information has spread to newspapers, TV, radio and websites. Too many players are competing for too few advertising dollars -- a problem that is expected only to worsen if the housing slump and tightened credit markets result in fewer homes bought, remodeled or redecorated.

A spokesperson for Blueprint declined to elaborate on the magazine's demise, but it's clear: In terms of editorial content, the competition is just as fierce.

"Design is everywhere now. Time magazine has design as its cover subject. Frank Gehry shows up as a character on 'The Simpsons,' " says Mayer Rus, a former editor and "The Testy Tastemaker" columnist for House & Garden. "I found myself fighting for design stories with chic fashion magazines and even scandal sheets talking about an 18-year-old Hollywood tart living in grand style."

An emphasis on expensive furnishings and high-end interior design seemed logical a few years ago, says Adele Cygelman, former editor in chief of several Robb Report spinoff titles including Luxury Home, which called it quits with the November/December issue.

"The housing frenzy allowed people to trade up," Cygelman says. "And readers didn't look at magazines to see how the other half lived anymore but how they could live. They traded up from a $2,000 couch to a $10,000 one, and instead of shopping at Crate & Barrel, they went to the Pacific Design Center. All of this upward thinking is slowing down now with the economy."

The financial pressures mounting on magazines' business operations very well may inspire changes in editorial content, industry observers say. Readers today want information that benefits them now, not some day, says Samir Husni, chairman of the University of Mississippi's journalism department and longtime author of an annual guide to new magazines.

Husni, who posts industry news on his website www.mrmagazine.com, praises the new Men's Health Living for offering practical home advice "finally, for men." He also credits Better Homes and Gardens for being "down to earth."

Eighty-five-year-old Better Homes and Gardens made it to the top of Advertising Age's magazine A-list last fall not only by increasing its circulation and advertising revenue but also by aggressively branding itself. A BHG soap dish, anyone?

Yes, this year a new editorial staff redesigned the magazine and its website, contributed content to the new broadband network Better.tv, and fielded reports from 25 bloggers. But Better Homes and Gardens also announced a deal with Wal-Mart to sell bedding, bath accessories and dinnerware with the BHG logo in stores next fall. And starting this summer, shoppers can purchase their homes from the magazine's new nationwide real estate franchise.

"What we do is carefully define what the attributes of the brand are and how they can live outside the printed word," says Andy Sareyan, president of the magazine, which prints more than 7.6 million copies a month.

Questions of editorial integrity aside, most magazines find it hard to stay connected to readers via a publication that takes months to produce, print and mail -- at a cost of $2 per copy, in some cases -- when design bloggers can put out instant news with minimal overhead and no expense to the reader.

"If you don't approach this business as growing a brand, and if you don't know your community better than anyone else, you won't be relevant," says Michela O'Connor Abrams, publisher of Dwell, which has built its circulation to 325,000 since launching in 2000. "If you haven't found a way to be relevant to your community via online and cellphones, you are marginalizing yourself."

Dwell plans to stay in the game by remodeling its print edition, starting with the February issue.

Whereas House & Garden's mantra was "the well-lived life," Dwell's message is "bringing good design to everyone." The latter magazine is adding articles about how houses and products are made.

It also will reduce its page width by more than half of an inch and will print with soy inks on recycled paper -- a move applauded by critics who contended that Dwell had strayed from its eco-smart mission and who cringed with every ad for gas-sucking Hummers.

Even the former Robb Report editor Cygelman appreciates the shift: "I think this whole cult of conspicuous consumption is weary to people."

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janet.eastman@latimes.com

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