The end of a Mothering era

No more Mothering.

During intermission at the Sunday matinee performance of “Spamalot” I learned that Mothering magazine — the print edition, anyway — is dead.

The news came from East Valley mom Brittney Walker, a frequent contributor to Raising Arizona Kids and a catalytic force in our company’s growing online and social media presence. Brittney sent me a link to Mothering’s announcement, “How We Became a Web Company.”

“In the last few weeks it has become obvious that we must cease publication of the print magazine,” wrote editor Peggy O’Mara. “With the March-April edition, after 35 years, we will cease publishing Mothering magazine. We are now a Web-only company.”

This news is sobering to those of us in the publishing world. I think many of us who publish special interest magazines hoped we were somehow invulnerable to the changing face of media. Certainly we weren’t subject to the same pressures faced by daily newspapers and weekly news magazines struggling to compete with real-time access to breaking news. Sure, we were hit hard by the recession. But economic conditions are cyclical, not irreversible. Reading a magazine is “an experience,” some in our industry proclaimed. Niche publications with loyal audiences would surely survive the media fallout.

But then the big guys with family audiences started folding: Child, Cookie, Nickelodeon, Teen, Wondertime. And now Mothering.

Mothering filled a special niche in the national parenting magazine arena. Targeted to “pioneers” in the natural-living movement, the publication was founded in 1976 by Addie Vorys Eavenson (now Cranson) and a group of volunteers. A story not unlike our our own, which came 14 years later.

Mothering grew to a circulation of 100,000 but saw subscriptions and advertising revenues drop for three consecutive years. O’Mara blames the economy’s hit on Mothering’s key advertisers — toy manufacturers, sling/infant carrier makers. She also says today’s parents seek information online and “don’t have time” to read.  I find it hard to believe that’s the full story.

Every company has a natural balance point between growth and stability. Did the magazine get too ambitious? Did it take on too large a staff? Did it lose the flexibility it had as a smaller operation? Did its message fail to resonate with “natural living” parents who saw too much emphasis on product advertising? I don’t have answers to any of these questions but I know that nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

This news certainly gives me pause. But I’m far from ready to pull the plug on print. Thankfully (and Marketing Director MaryAnn Ortiz-Lieb would be furiously knocking on wood right now), Raising Arizona Kids is in a very stable place. Our revenues declined in 2009 but by 2010 were already (though slowly) moving back up. We are paying our bills on time. Thanks to fierce budgeting oversight by Operations Director Debbie Davis, we entered 2011 feeling we’d weathered the worst of it.

We, too, are adapting to meet the changing information needs of today’s parents. In the 10 months since we committed to an eZine concept — publishing fresh content daily at raising arizonakids.com — our web traffic has grown by 66 percent. We were the first local parenting resource to jump into social media and continue to have the strongest presence.

I worry for publications like Mothering that give up on print, especially when print remains the strongest potential revenue stream for magazines. No one yet has figured out how to pull in equivalent money from web-based enterprises alone.

And there’s something else I have found interesting. Despite all the attention focused on the new media tools, despite growing online audiences, despite gloomy predictions that print will not survive, nearly everyone who contacts me with a story idea wants to see it in print. Clearly there is something real and lasting about words that appear in print that is not replicated in its digital form.

There is a scene in Act I of “Spamalot” (a musical spoof on “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”) where a tattered peasant is pulling a wagon through the streets, calling to the neighborhood that he is there to collect their dead. Another character enters the stage pulling what he claims to be a dead body by the arm. But the “body” is talking, indignantly protesting that “I’m not dead yet!” By the end of the scene, he is singing and dancing along with others on the wagon who had been given up for dead.

I’d like to believe that print, too, is “not dead yet.”

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