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There was an interesting article written the other day by Rebecca McPheters, who used to be the publisher for Child, Fitness, and assorted other mainstream magazines. What she had to write about is something that game magazine publishers have had to wrestle with for much of the 21st century -- circulation (the number of copies you distribute every mont) is actually a pretty crap way to measure how many readers you have.

"Because the strength of a print brand is in its ability to generate audience -- and stronger brands tend to produce more readers-per-copy than brands that are less strong -- circulation-based pricing has done more than any other single factor to reduce the range and quality of print options available to advertisers... Our current circulation-based system has both reduced advertising revenues and increased circulation costs. It has put print into a dangerous downward spiral as consumers increasingly expect to receive media content for free and yet magazines' advertising pricing is predicated on a paid circulation model." (my emphasis)

In other words, Rebecca's saying that maintaining a large circulation (and charging advertisers based on that circulation, independent of whether there are real pairs of eyes to back that up) shouldn't be first priority for magazines anymore. To back that up, she brings up the MRI -- Mediamark Research and Intelligence, a surveying firm that releases readership data for magazines. This data includes something called the "readers-per-copy" for a magazine, showing how much a mag gets passed around or how many people take a look at any given issue, whether passing it around friends, picking it up at the dentist's waiting room, or just browsing through it on the newsstand. Comparing the MRIs with the circulation figures, Rebecca notes in the article that "overall audience has increased by 2%, while circulation has declined by 7%" in the past decade.

What do MRI's stats look like? You can download a sample off the net, which includes a couple of game mags on it. For the spring of 2007, MRI said that Electronic Gaming Monthly had a total adult audience of 3,441,000 people, about 3 million men and the rest women. GamePro had 3,836,000 people in its audience, while Game Informer cleaned up with 5,039,000 audience members. Note that Game Informer's MRI audience is "only" about 68% larger than EGM's, despite having over four times the paid circulation. If you put enough credence to the MRI's numbers, it means that GameStop is spending a lot of money printing, mailing, and distributing those two million-odd copies of GI each month, yet not being as efficient in attracting an audience with those printed copies as EGM and GamePro is.

Which begs the next question: How realistic are the MRI's figures, and how much do advertisers care about them? Judging by GI's current position as the game mag with the most ad pages in the US (and also the one with the most non-game-related advertising), it doesn't seem like ad buyers consider them a heck of a lot when making their decisions. GamePro boasted about its MRI figures on the cover between 2002 and 2006 (you can see two examples of that above), but dropped it since many folks ina nd out of the industry assumed the "three million readers" claim was a fabrication or massaged number, somehow.

Still, if Rebecca has it right in her article, GamePro -- and, really, a lot of game mags -- might have the right idea. It's little secret that many mags (not just in games) have lost a ton of circulation over the past handful of years. However, an increasing number of publishers are arguing that the treadmill of keeping circulation up only serves as a needless expense that doesn't do anything for the audience or the bottom line. So perhaps we'll see a trend unfold over the next little while of game mags dropping circs and telling advertisers not to worry -- the eyes are still there, they just read the product differently than before.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]