Magazine publishing has never been the most environmentally friendly business, but the latest data shows just how bad things have gotten. Through statements that publishers are required to file each year with the US Post Office, you can get a very detailed picture of a magazine’s distribution.
Based on their own reporting, publishers of action sports magazines are selling only about 25% of the copies they put on the newsstand. That means 75% of the copies were printed and trucked to stores, only to go into a shredder. Think of the resources required to produce a magazine – harvest trees, truck the logs to a paper mill, make the paper, transport it to a printing plant, print the magazine, send the copies to distribution centers, truck the copies to stores. All that effort so that just one in four copies can wind up in a consumer’s hands.
The subscription side of the business isn’t necessarily any better. Many subscription copies are mailed to “subscribers” who have never even requested or paid for the magazine (i.e. junk mail). According to the recent postal statements, the amount of free copies being sent varies widely. As a percentage of total paid circulation, free copies range from 5% to 123%. That’s right, some magazines are giving away more copies than they are selling. And these aren’t new titles just trying to get their name out – this is part of a deliberate, long-term strategy.
Why would publishers do this? So they can charge advertisers higher ad rates. As consumer demand has slackened over the last several years, publishers have desperately attempted to prop up circulation levels rather than admit that readership is falling. So in spite of the obvious waste of printing 4 copies to sell 1, or of mailing unrequested subscriptions copies, it’s still more profitable than reducing circulation and forgoing ad revenue. Ultimately, the waste is perpetuated by the advertisers, as they foot the entire bill for unsold copies.
Environmentally, this model is a disaster. For perspective, a typical magazine that sells 50k copies each month will consume around 1.5 million pounds of paper annually, plus the resources required to print and transport the magazines. Magazines with heavy paper or a larger format look nice, but they also waste considerably more resources (both paper and transportation).
The irony is that magazines have become more wasteful at the same time that they have become less necessary to both advertisers and readers. Quite literally, the cost of the ink alone exceeds the cost of operating servers and buying bandwidth to reach the same audience size online! As computer chip manufacturers continue improving energy-efficiency, the gap will only widen further.
When you consider the impact and all the alternatives to magazines, you have to ask yourself how badly you need to hold something in your hands to read it.
If you think I have a biased perspective on this issue, or you would like to read more, check out these links: Magazine Industry Is Wasting Forests and Web Leads, Print Pubs Improve Environmental Impact.