Former Newsweek President Mark Edmiston Explains the Magazine’s ‘Disaster’ First Quarter Ad Sales

Exclusive: Things haven’t been looking so great for Newsweek lately. While other newsweeklies gained ad pages last quarter, Newsweek was down 31 percent. And the latest issue had just six ad pages!

“But it’s a bit too soon to really tell what is going to happen,” said Mark Edmiston, former president of Newsweek, in an interview with FishbowlNY last week.

Edmiston, currently the CEO of the subscription-based digital magazine venture Nomad Editions, held several top positions at Newsweek from 1972 to 1986, and was involved with buying and selling magazines for 18 years. He gave us his take as to why the new Newsweek‘s figures have looked so grim — and it’s not because of Tina Brown.

“One of the worst things that can happen to advertising sales is having a publication for sale,” said Edmiston.

In the key selling season for 2011, into the fall of 2010, Washington Post had sort of abandoned [Newsweek]. Salesman, I’m sure, were going out and making calls, but advertisers were saying, “Well I’m not sure who’s going to own this thing, what if it’s bought by one of the Rusisian oligarchs, who knows what it’s going to be like next year,” etc.

So what they do, as does anyone in a situation of uncertainty, is put their money back in their pocket. So I’m not at all surprised at the first quarter being a disaster, and it is. But the first quarter was sold in September / October of last year, and it clearly wasn’t sold. It’s a bit too soon to really tell what is going to happen… The evidence to date doesn’t point to anything yet, including the six pages.

Edmiston told FishbowlNY that while Newsweek has certainly taken a different direction since his time there, he doesn’t connect the current sales with Brown’s new reign.

Tina’s revised Newsweek had only two issues in the quarter. Most of the bad advertising numbers are a result of last year, not because of anything that has happened since the Daily Beast merger. Tina has friends and enemies, but most of it is really the fact that people weren’t sure what was going to happen next.

The influx of digital media requires weekly magazines to take a different tack, which is what Edmiston speculates that Brown is doing, as is his own current venture. Nomad Editions has 4 weekly magazines — Bodysmart, U+Me, Wide Screen, and Real Eats — all digital. Edmiston described how these digital weeklies came about:

The first reaction everyone had when digital became a factor was just to make replicas of their print publications and sell it. But it’s a different experience. Print publications are designed to be read holding in your hand, turning the physical pages, not for a mobile device. So we though if that’s the case, let’s not look at what we have and how to get it on a tablet, but what it is that people use tablets for.

While the door is not entirely closed on print for the Nomad weeklies, Edmiston says he has no serious plans on going into print at this time. “Instead of trying to take a traditional magazine and convert, we’re thinking what’s the best way to serve people who want to use mobile devices.”