In the magazine world, Hearst has long been the able and underrated sibling living under the shadow of his showy prom king brother Conde Nast, but recessions have a way upturning social order. And today in the New York Times, Hearst can finally puff out its chest and brag that, even if it doesn't have the most shimmering skyscraper in Times Square, it does have something even more important: a viable business model. What's its secret?


Be unconventional, but consistent. Unlike, say, the New Yorker, Hearst gives away scant print material for free online. In my mind, this resulted in bad wesbites. Take Esquire, for instance. Its rate base is 700,000. Its monthly uniques is half at around 350K, according to Quantcast, which is certainly lower than the more accurate internals, but still that seems low for a magazine that combines very well covered pieces with pictures of not very covered women.

But Heart has reason to not care so much about some of its websites, because its magazines are weathering the recession like pros. Hearst's combined ad pages dropped only 6.7 percent last year (the industry-wide decline was around 13 percent). Compare to Conde Nast, only four of its magazines saw ad declines of less than 30 percent in the first quarter.

While Rolling Stone has narrowed its iconic broadsheet pages, Hearst has widened some of its own magazines. With other titles considering slashing prices, Hearst has upped theirs by around 25 percent without seeing a drop in newstand sales. President Cathie Black is making sense:

"I want 1.6 million women to go to the newsstand every month to buy Cosmo, and they do," she said. "We don't want that genie out of the bottle. I don't have any interest in challenging that economic model."

I say good for Hearst, but I wonder if there's an underlying variable here. As a private company, Hearst doesn't share its internal financials, so it's hard to take a look at what's doing well and what's not (except we do know that Food Network magazine has tripled expectations this summer with circulation pushing 900,000). But it seems that Hearst is also blessed with a plurality of what the industry calls recession-proof magazines: lifeguiders like Redbook, Good Housekeeping, The Oprah Magazine and cooking titles like Food Network. That's a different group of animals from Conde's glamourous stable, and it will be interesting to see if Hearst's paper strategy continues to net money as the industry continues to move into pixels.

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