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Niche magazines go online to survive

Bridge Today is struggling to keep its revenues up

Matthew Granovetter is the publisher of the online magazine Bridge Today.
Matthew Granovetter is the publisher of the online magazine Bridge Today.
Oded Balilty, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Matthew Granovetter decided it was time for something bold. The magazine he'd been publishing for 15 years, Bridge Today, was slowly bleeding paid subscribers.

He was earning barely $1,000 a month off the 64-page publication he produces from an Atlanta suburb with a five-person team that includes his wife, Pamela.

There was only one option for survival, Granovetter decided: cancel print operations and take Bridge Today online. To revive circulation, he figured he'd need a user-friendly Web site to retain aging subscribers and a slicker, more colorful look to woo younger readers.

"It's like an artist connected to his painting; this is what we create," explained the 52-year-old Granovetter, a championship bridge player whose columns are prized by his readers.

But Bridge Today may not have the cards to stay in the bidding.

Analysts say the odds of survival are 50-50 at best for niche magazine publishers like Granovetter who try to stay alive by migrating online. The industry trend, for one thing, is moving toward consolidation, not greater diversity. And niche magazines, be they online or off, are struggling to keep revenues above production costs.

Magazines have a slim survival rate to begin with. Three in five die within a year and only one in 10 remains in business after 10 years, says Samir Husni, magazine department chairman at the University of Mississippi.

Niche magazines do better but depend less on advertising and more on the willingness of readers to foot the bill, he said.

"Competition is fiercer than ever before," said Husni, with about 6,000 consumer magazines and 11,000 trade publications being published in the United States.

As people become more comfortable with the Internet, magazines must also compete with information that is self-published by hobbyists.

Only a few bridge niche magazines remain, including one published by the 175,000-member American Contract Bridge League based in Memphis, Tenn. Its Bridge Bulletin comes with membership.

Bridge Today, by contrast, is down to 2,500 subscribers after peaking at about 7,500 in 1993. And operating costs kept going up, reaching $10,000 to produce a single issue when Granovetter switched to cybercirculation in May.

Granovetter expects to halve expenses by publishing online. Even so, he estimates he'll lose 10 percent to 20 percent of his subscribers by abandoning the print world. Granovetter is still charging $33 for a yearly subscription, but is doubling output to one issue monthly.

While there's little advertising support these days for a bridge magazine — outside of books and card decks — promotion is much less expensive on the Internet.

In many ways, it makes sense for a publication like Bridge Today to move online, said Martin S. Walker, chairman of Walker Communications, a magazine consulting firm in New York. For one, updates can be made regularly on tournament action, Walker said.

But to keep loyal readers, many of them older, Granovetter had to make interaction simple. So he chose the Portable Document Format from Adobe, which readers can download but is only as easy on the eyes as the quality of a computer's video card and monitor.

Longtime subscribers like Mary Ann O'Brian find the technology foreign. The 90-year-old O'Brian, of New York City, says she doesn't like to spend more than an hour at the computer.

Other subscribers, like 58-year-old Larry King of Grass Valley, Calif., are more open-minded.

"I'm not sure it'll work out for me on the Internet, but I'm going to give it a go," he said.

Cliff Metzler, 52, of Los Gatos, Calif., says he prizes the magazine for its insightful features by "passionate writers . . . who really enjoy telling stories about interesting bridge hands and theory."

Metzler said it wasn't just loyalty that convinced him to renew his subscription, but also such new features as interactive quizzes that weren't available in the print version.

Geared to Granovetter's hopes of hooking a younger set is a $59 per month premium subscription, which includes online bridge lessons, tips for beginners and archives of previous columns and quizzes.

"This is something we couldn't do in a real magazine," said Granovetter.

That may be so, but one of Granovetter's chief competitors says it won't persuade him to go online as well.

Editor Jeff Rubens' says his 74-year-old publication, Bridge World, has been able to maintain 7,742 subscribers and remain profitable despite increased production costs.

Rubens' secret? Bridge World responds well to reader feedback and is not for the casual bridge aficionados but for the type of reader who regularly competes, he says.

Granovetter is not worried.

"We're no longer comparable to them," he said. "They're still doing snail-mail; we left that. We're happy in cyberspace and we're happy to be out of the mailing system."