New, no-nonsense
look for Mutual Funds

Talking straight to investors in these tough times

By Jamie L. Jones

It is as predictable as the turning of the leaves in fall, though a lot more ruthless.
   When the economy heads toward a downturn, ad pages of personal investment magazines are swept away as so many brown leaves taken away in a gust of autumn wind.
   Readers, whether having taken a market beating or not, revert to reading home improvement magazines and otherwise musing on how to economize for the coming hard times.
   Who wants to read about investing when the dollars are no longer there to play with?
   Likewise, who wants to advertise investment opportunities in a time of gloom?
   Mutual Funds magazine believes it has found answers to those questions, and it hopes to make them to both readers and advertisers in a massive redesign--call it even a relaunch--in January.
   "Even though the bull market has petered out, personal finance issues loom larger than ever," says John Curran, managing editor of Mutual Funds magazine, a Time Inc. property.
   Forget the bull market, when one stock tip was as good as another. In these hard times, Curran is preaching the gospel of good information.
   "I say and have said that part of the reason for putting out this new design is that the era of stupid stock-picking is over."
    "What I mean by that is that with the bull market raging, even bad stock-picking decisions usually paid off. So, many people were inclined to make superficial investment decisions. Those days are over, and decisions have to be much smarter."
    As much sense as this argument may make, though, it has certainly been made before, and by others, in past downturns.
    One wonders whether it will do any better this time, and whether a better-looking, even a better-reading and smarter magazine, will reverse these longstanding marketplace realities.
    As to the state of the personal finance category, the numbers tell a harsh story.
    Ad pages year-to-date at Mutual Funds magazine are down 22.2 percent over last year, to 393.5, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. Revenue is off 15.1 percent, to $25,642,766.
    And the magazine is by no means the worst off in the category.
    Ad pages year-to-date at Worth magazine, for example, are down 32 percent over last year, to 380.58. Revenue is down 25.8 percent, to $20,038,034.
    Forbes Magazine is off 32.7 percent in ad pages over last year and 23.4 percent off in ad revenue, in declines that are pushing the magazine to a round of job cuts, its first in years.
    The deep losses in this category stem naturally from the troubled endemic advertising base, which for Mutual Funds accounts for about 70 percent of its advertising.
    But here Mutual Funds has an advantage working for it that is not enjoyed by its competitors, its membership in the Time Inc. family, which has relationships extending well beyond personal finance advertisers, to include technology, luxury goods and pharmaceutical categories.
   The argument to advertisers: Our readers may be reading us as an investment vehicle but they are first of all consumers, and desirable consumers.
    The chief goal, says Curran, will be retaining readers and rebuilding trust.
    "Bad market performance really does drive people away," says Curran. "The personal finance category is suffering from a number of things, primarily the bear market, which has diminished interest in investing.
    "Also, personal finance magazines got caught up in the bull market, and made stock picking seem too easy. So there's a credibility problem in some of the magazines that adds to the disenchantment," says Curran.
    In its redesign, which has been in the works for six months, the goal is to take an already vertical magazine and make it even more vertical.
    The goal: Cover mutual funds and personal investing generally but entirely excluding the lifestyle fodder common among so many investment magazines.
    Several new departments will crop up in the front and the back of the book.
     Many address goal-oriented financial planning and seek to offer actionable tips on planning for college payments, for example, or retirement.
     The financial planners whose expertise informs many departments will be listed by name, company, email and phone number in a box alongside their contributions.
     The accountability effort will "hold their feet to the fire," says Curran, and help readers learn to navigate the financial community.
     "The financial planning community is like the medical community of the Old West in the 1800s. There was an enormous need for doctors, but people had no way of knowing who was a good doctor, and who was a quack," says Curran.
     The Mutual Funds redesign is so vast that editors are comfortable calling it a relaunch.
     And to those who suggest that such a huge effort is ill-timed for a magazine posting double-digit ad losses, publisher Mike Dukmejian explains that the redesign is like all prudent financial moves, a sound investment.
     "Sept. 11 seems to delay people's decision-making for next year. Other than that, in my mind things like this just make us stronger in believing what we're doing, and doing it--not retreating," says Dukmejian.

October 22, 2001 2001 Media Life

-Jamie L. Jones  is a staff writer for Media Life.

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