Paddler magazine Suspends Operations

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Miss an eddy in a rapid and you have to rely on the right strokes, and perhaps a bit of luck, to get through. The same could be said for missing a magazine issue in the publishing world. In a sign of the economic times plaguing the print and paddling industries, Paddler magazine, owned by the American Canoe Association and distributed as a benefit to its members, has hit a rapid it’s found too tough to negotiate and has suspended the print edition of its May/June 2009 issue…

While the news comes at the same time the company had finished Paddler’s first-ever digital edition, set to launch in concert with the print version, executives remain optimistic about the publication’s future. “Rumors of our demise are greatly exaggerated,” says ACA Executive Director Marty Bartles. “We went through a rough patch, which everyone in the publishing industry understands, but are restructuring the company, are retaining our editorial staff and have negotiated a new deal to print the July/August issue with a new printer.”

The problem arose, says Bartles, when the magazine’s former printer, Quebecor, now in the throes of bankruptcy, refused to extend the publication credit to print its spring issue. The association plans to turn its forthcoming July/August issue into its August/September issue, and resume operations from there.

“This has been a setback for Paddler, Dealer, Paddlesport Publishing, and its owners,” Paddler Publisher Glen Bernard wrote in an email sent to advertisers. “There was no way we could cough up all the cash needed to print and mail the issue, so the May/June edition is not likely to be released. Paddle Dealer’s print editions are also on hold…”

After hearing word of the suspension, advertisers in the issue are quick to assess what it might portend for the print industry. “He makes it sound like a temporary glitch and that they’ll soon be back on track, but it’s just another indication that print is retrenching,” says Jim Miller, marketing director for Werner Paddles, which had a half-page advertisement in the issue. “We’re adopting a wait-and-see attitude. If they jump back in and print July/August, we’re on board.”

While Miller adds that he’d like the ACA to continue to have a voice, whether in the form of a national magazine or stand-alone newsletter like that produced by American Whitewater, he does admit to curtailing his print buy overall this year. That, and the same trend by other advertisers, is likely largely what led to the suspension.

In an earlier interview with Paddling Life, Bernard estimated that 2009 sales would be on par with those experienced in 2008 (which he said were up 14 percent over 2007). While he added that Paddler’s January/February 2009 issue was up two ad pages from the previous year, everything in 2009 was coming in smaller than in years past. “We typically ran looser that the industry average as far as our ad/edit ratios, and now we’re tightening it up a bit,” he said earlier this spring.

He added that the company had enacted several cost-saving measures to combat the trying times, from producing more material in-house to decreasing the frequency of Paddle Dealer. The company also reduced its workforce, letting longtime Business Manager Alice Lee and Circulation Director Rosalind Bradden go in December 2008.

Bernard added that while the company grew revenues and cut expenses in 2008, it’s been “very tough to pick up the pieces.” Last fall, on the heels of an executive director change and office move for parent organization the American Canoe Association, the magazine experienced a delay in delivering its November/December issue, after its printer first filed for bankruptcy protection, affecting terms for its creditors.

“We had a printer set back in the fall, which took us a couple of issues to get back on track,” Bernard said.

While Paddler’s May/June digital edition will be distributed to subscribers, ACA members and other paddlers, and that the suspension follows the magazine winning a 2008 Maggie Award for improvement, missing a print issue, especially one in the heart of the season like May/June, could be as difficult to recover from as missing a brace in a rapid.

The ACA has negotiated those waters before. When it bought the title in 1997, the former publisher, Jim Ellis, had missed publishing an issue or two as well. With original editor Eugene Buchanan agreeing to stay on board and assume publishing duties, the association invested heavily in returning the publication to its bi-monthly cycle. Buchanan brought design and advertising in-house in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and in a burgeoning market, the magazine prospered.

Things changed when Buchanan left the publication in 2006 after 14 years at the helm and a failed attempt to purchase the title, followed by many of his staff members, several of whom who now work for Canoe & Kayak magazine. That’s when the ACA hired Bernard, the former publisher of Canoe & Kayak, to take over the publishing reins, with the offices moving to Kirkland, Wash. Unfortunately, that’s also when the economy started sliding, print started facing more competition from the Internet, and production prices continued to escalate.

If anyone can attest to the trying times in the print industry, it’s current Canoe & Kayak publisher and ad director Jim Marsh, who also enjoyed a stint at Paddler as an account executive and time under Bernard at Canoe & Kayak. “We’ve been flat for four years in a row now,” he says. “It’s a tough market out there — it’s hard for everyone to make a go of it.”

The blow is especially hard as it comes during what is historically one of the magazine’s most lucrative and biggest issues of the year. “I don’t envy their position…print expenses keep increasing while the paddlesports market seems to be shrinking,” says Buchanan, who spearheaded PPI’s efforts to regain the industry’s trust after the previous publisher’s missed issues in 1997. “Their editorial team has done a great job with it, but these are difficult times in the publishing world and the paddling market seems like it’s past its heyday.”

According to the email, the printer’s timing could not have been worse, with the magazine seeing cost increases of on everything from paper to postage. It also cites the Outdoor Industry Association’s Topline report, showing the paddlesports market experiencing its third consecutive down year in a row and the pool of marketing and ad dollars for all mediums 40% smaller than it was 3-4 years ago. The result of all this is a temporarily furlough to Paddler’s team, issued right before the industry’s biggest tradeshow, the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market.

Owners and management are still working to get the July/August printed and shipped, produce the digital edition, and get back to work on the rest of the 2009 issues. “We are exploring additional options and ideas to help our advertising partners with sales and brand promotion, including several value-added enhancements to existing schedules,” Bernard states. “We have a few hurdles to jump, but we should be moving forward.”