1948: Merger of three periodicals into a single SKI Magazine.
Launch of Rocky Mountain Skiing Magazine.
1959: Launch of Ski Life Magazine, New York City.
1962: Ski Life and SKI Magazine merged in a single magazine owned by Universal Publishing & Distributing Co., New York.
1964: Ziff Davis Publishing purchases Skiing Magazine, Denver, and moves it to New York.
1972: The Times Mirror Magazines Co. purchases SKI Magazine and Ski Business from Universal Publishing & Distributing.
1985: Ziff Davis sells Skiing Magazine, Skiing Trade News to CBS.
1987: Diamandis Communications Inc. buys Skiing Magazine and its related publications from CBS. Times Mirror Magazines buys Skiing Magazine and Skiing Trade News from Diamandis.
2000. The Tribune Company, Chicago, buys Times Mirror Co., including its ski media – SKI and Skiing, and Warren Miller Productions.
2001. Time Inc., through its newly formed subsidiary Time 4 Media, buys Ski and Skiing, Transworld Snowboarding, Freeze and Warren Miller Productions from The Tribune Company.
2006: Time 4 Media discloses its intention to sell the ski and snowboard magazines and the Warren Miller film unit.
The ski magazines, and their changing owners
(Not for re-publication or website/Internet use. Author owns all rights.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Skiing Heritage,
this article can be viewed via Google Books at www.skiinghistory.org)
The shifting ownership of America’s ski magazines -- for a long time the world’s biggest in advertising sales and circulation – has a history of controversy and colorful personalities, on and behind the scenes. Truthfully, the magazines have probably changed hands no more often and with no less tumult than have ski areas and equipment suppliers, since ski publishing is subject to the same seasonal financial stress. But by their nature, the publications are more visible, their sale the subject of intense curiosity and scrutiny. They’re read by hundreds of thousands of skiers and carry advertising from scores of resorts, boot and ski companies, and skiwear makers. When new publishers take over, familiar names of editors and advertising executives disappear from mastheads, and occasionally re-appear on others with breathtaking swiftness. Fresh strategies for success are trumpeted by the new owners, giving rise to head-scratching skepticism about the veracity of earlier proclamations of success.
IN THE BEGINNING
Although it can’t be called “oldest continuously published,” SKI Magazine certainly has the most extended lineage of any U.S. ski periodical. In 1935, Seattle journalist Alf Nydin had the idea for a national periodical that he called SKI Magazine. He published his first issue in January, 1936. The next season, Nydin abandoned the title ‘SKI,” changed his new magazine’s name to Ski Illustrated and sprucing it up with graphics and color. Nydin also apparently sensed that if he wanted to ascend into the big leagues of publishing he needed to move Ski Illustrated to New York City, and the magazine existed there briefly.
The opportunity to use the abandoned title “SKI” was briefly seized in 1941 by magazine writer David Judson (later, a ski area operator and a founder of the National Ski Areas Association). Judson published only three issues, then sold SKI back to Ski Illustrated, and left to join the 10th Mountain Division.
The first of many ski magazine mergers took place in 1948 when Bill Eldred in Hanover, New Hampshire, purchased Ski Illustrated, merging it with two other magazines, Western Skiing and Ski News, under the single title, SKI.
Eldred's first issue, November 1, 1948, could have been SKI Volume 1, No. 1, but seizing on the fact that Ski Illustrated had started as SKI Magazine, he labeled his first issue Volume 13, No. 1. In doing so he established SKI as older than a new magazine that was being launched at the same time by Merrill Hastings in Colorado.
Hastings saw in Western Skiing’s disappearance a void that needed filling, and he named his new magazine Rocky Mountain Skiing. In its news-oriented pages, Hastings revealed a sound, visceral sense of what skiers wanted to read, and over the next 15 years, he developed his publication nationally into what became National Skiing and then Skiing Magazine, a progression chronicled in a profile by Morten Lund on page 00.
During the 1950s, the competition for advertising and readers between Eldred’s SKI and Hastings' National Skiing was intense and brutal -- or to put it more accurately, often brutish. Aspersions were cast, allegations of chicanery common. Hastings made it known to his employees that fraternizing with anyone at SKI (“the enemy’) was possible cause for dismissal.
Each magazine wooed advertisers of imported equipment and new ski areas with promises of favorable editorial treatment. The wall between church and state was fragile, as it would continue to be in the years ahead. But the overall impact of the magazines was hugely beneficial, feeding information to a rapidly growing number of Americans ardently committed to the sport. Over the decade, the circulations of SKI and Skiing each rose from under 20,000 to almost 50,000.
In the winter of 1958-59, SKI and Skiing woke up to find they had a new competitor. Arnold E. Abramson in New York City had launched a new magazine Ski Life. He did it partly as a consequence of his success with a soft cover book Learn To Ski by Ernie McCulloch. Quick sales of 50,000 copies of McCulloch’s book convinced Abramson of two things. “One, there’s a big market of people out there who want to read about how to learn to ski,” he said. “And two, they aren’t being served by the existing ski magazines.”
Hence Abramson started Ski Life magazine. Like its sister publication Golf Magazine, it was full of instruction tips. Because skiing was a winter activity and golf was perceived primarily as a summer sport, Abramson reasoned that editors could switch seasonally between Golf and Ski Life, like farmers threshing wheat in August and hewing logs in January. The trouble was that the ski editors didn’t know golf, nor the golf editors skiing. Ski Life’s early issues were amateurishly executed.
But Abramson’s idea of creating useful work for his employees when there was no snow was logical, and his failure presaged a difficulty that ski publishers would face for the next 40 years: It’s hard to be profitable when you employ people for twelve months a year and they only bring in revenue for six months. While ski areas were able to develop summer tourism, and equipment companies sold backpacks and mountain bikes, the ski publishers have mostly proved unable to attract readers or advertisers out of season.
Abramson was successful, however, in another way. He was among the early publishers, like Bill Ziff, who saw that the future lay in special- interest magazines, like those for skiers, no longer the mass circulation magazines such as Life, Look, the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s.
FROM THE HINTERLAND TO MANHATTAN
By 1959, SKI Magazine’s circulation had reached 50,000. But the magazine was struggling financially, and owner Bill Eldred in New Hampshire was in failing health. Although he’d married into wealth, the conjugal arrangement apparently didn’t help Eldred subsidize his publishing business. In 1961, he decided to sell. His Associate Publisher David Rowan, who had worked hard and loyally for Eldred for ten years, wanted to buy SKI, and with ex-Olympian Tom Corcoran, the two sought funding. But they were unable to raise the necessary money as quickly as Eldred wanted. He sold the magazine to Ski Life’s owner Abramson, who had taken his company public and had access to Wall Street funds. Thus America’s oldest ski periodical merged with its youngest.
Abramson moved the newly titled SKI Incorporating Ski Life from Hanover to the corner of Second Avenue and 42nd Street in New York. In Manhattan, the magazine’s offices were now a cab ride’s distance from dozens of agencies that created ads for ski equipment and clothing firms, and that made media selections for automobile and liquor companies wanting to reach skiers.
David Rowan wasn’t invited to join the newly merged magazines, fortuitously perhaps. It enabled Rowan to start Ski Area Management, a successful trade magazine for operators of ski resorts. In the process, Rowan helped to launch the National Ski Areas Association in 1962.
Trade magazine publishing by now had become an increasingly important component of owning a consumer ski magazine. Both Eldred (Ski Shop Bible) and Hastings (Skiing Trade News) had started business magazines in the 1950s. Under Nick Hock, an experienced trade magazine veteran who had joined Ski Life in 1961, Ski Business was launched. With Abramson’s acquisition of SKI, the Ski Shop Bible and Ski Business merged and appeared four times a year. Later in 1964 when David Rowan joined SKI, his Ski Area Management (for area operators) became a sister publication of SKI Magazine (for skiers) and of Ski Business (for retailers and wholesalers.) With several hundreds of pages of advertising, much of it clustered around the trade shows in early spring, the trade magazines for a while were a significant asset for any publishing company buying a consumer ski title.
MUTINY, AN EXODUS, FIRINGS
In 1964, the Ziff Davis Company bought Skiing Magazine and Skiing Trade News from Merrill Hastings in Colorado, reportedly for $300,000. Young Bill Ziff (who died in September 2006, a billionaire) especially liked to ski, so he didn’t need much encouragement to enter ski publishing. His Ziff Davis Company eventually came to publish 55 magazines, including Popular Photography, Hi Fi and Stereo Review, Popular Boating, and Car & Driver.
Ziff lacked qualified people to run Skiing Magazine, which he’d moved from Denver to New York. He quickly found them uptown in SKI’s offices. Here, Martin Luray, previously Ski Life’s Editor, had been named as the top editor of the merged magazines. At Abramson’s company, he found that invoices were slow in being paid. Costs were contained in a vise-like grip. Seeking an escape, Luray secretly got in touch with Ziff in late 1963, about the time I joined SKI Magazine’s staff.
Not long after the Olympic flame had been extinguished at Innsbruck in February, 1964, I arrived at the office on Second Avenue one morning and was surprised to find no one there. The cubicles were empty. Most of SKI’s editorial and advertising sales people, including Editor Luray, ad director Nick Hock, Harry Kaiser, managing editor Dinah Witchel, the art director and sales staff had made a mass downtown migration to Ziff’s Skiing Magazine on Park Avenue.
I had only joined SKI Magazine four months earlier, and saw no reason to join the exodus. Arnold Abramson quickly named me as editor-in-chief.
Editing SKI Magazine in 1964 was like arriving in the Klondike during the gold strike and finding a well-paid job editing an entertainment guide for miners. That year, retail sales of ski gear jumped ahead by 25 percent. Advertising pages increased. The magazine’s circulation almost doubled between 1965 and 1970, as hundreds of thousands of baby-boomers took up skiing.
At Skiing Magazine, Ziff’s newly installed Editor Luray attempted to imbue the magazine with the slickness of Ted Patrick’s award-winning Holiday at the time. But Bill Ziff wanted a publication that more closely fit Ziff Davis’ stable of hard-core car, boating and hi-fi magazines. Skiing should be a “magazine for serious skiers,” Doug Pfeiffer told Ziff. Luray was removed from the Editor’s chair. Pfeiffer, who confessed to Ziff that he was “not a professional editor, I’m a ski instructor,” was named the magazine’s editorial director. Ziff, meanwhile, gave authority over his magazines to publishers, whose principal background was in selling ad space.
The ferocity of competition between SKI and Skiing for advertisers and readers continued. But as a result of discovering the kinds of article that most attracted readers, the two magazines also became more homogenous and formulaic, mirroring each another’s content.
Editors came and went, their tenure often short-lived. John Jerome quit as Skiing’s editor, replaced by Al Greenberg. Bill Tanler served briefly as SKI’s executive editor. He left to start a newspaper in Jackson Hole, then launched Ski Racing, The Ski Industry Letter, Ski Tech, Bicycle Retailer News and WinterSports Business. Tanler was especially shrewd at selling the publications he started. Ski Racing was successively bought by Ziff Davis, by Ed Pickett and Gary Black. Ski Industry Letter was operated for a few years by I. William Berry.
At SKI, Tanler was succeeded by Jim Spring, who later started skiing’s leading market research firm. In 1971, from the Saturday Review came a bright, energetic executive editor, Dick Needham who would rise to be SKI’s Editor and who remained with the magazine for another 20 years.
New Magazines Launched
Assisted by youthful demographics driving the sport’s growth, the number of readers of SKI and Skiing grew steadily after Eldred and Hastings launched their magazines in 1948. By 1966, SKI had a total circulation of 200,000, and it would add another 75,000 in the next two years as the magazine increased its publishing frequency from six to eight issues per season. Skiing’s growth was even faster. Its stated circulation in 1970-71 was 420,000, compared with 350,000 for SKI. .
At SKI, some of the circulation growth came from the aggressive selling of subscriptions to marginally interested readers. The field agencies making the sales retained all of the money from the first year’s subscription, generating no net revenue to the publisher. It was the beginning of a long and costly decline in circulation net revenues for ski publishers, culminating in the arrival in the 21st Century of free media with no circulation revenue at all.
In 1972, pressed by creditors and problems with Abramson’s book publishing unit, Universal Publishing and Distributing Company sold SKI and Ski Business (and Golf Magazine) to the Times Mirror Company, a New York Stock Exchange company headquartered in Los Angeles. The publishing merger reflected a broader trend of mergers in the ski industry, which was attracting the attention of corporate new-business strategists. Ling Temco Vought Corporation bought Steamboat, Ralston Purina owned Keystone, AMF had bought the Head Ski Company.
The ski industry’s apparently rosy prospects attracted smaller publishers, too. The year 1966 saw the creation of Skiers’ Gazette – a sort of skiing New York Review of Books, with stimulating essays and needling assaults on the sport’s commercialism.
The soaring popularity of nordic skiing in the early ‘70s encouraged Barbara Brewster in Brattleboro, Vermont, to launch the first cross-country ski magazine. And in the summer of 1974, in offices on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, I worked up the design for an annual newsstand publication, SKI Magazine’s Guide to Cross Country Skiing. By 1979, the Guide had swelled to 186 pages, including 65 pages of advertising for nordic resorts, apparel, skis, boots and poles.
Another alternative magazine, Powder, was launched as an annual in the winter of 1972-73 by the Moe brothers, Jake and David. The Moes thought the established ski magazines to be vapid. The contrast of Powder’s pages with the increasing density of information in the traditional ski magazines at first was striking. But economics inevitably trumped art, and Powder’s pages came to be visually encumbered with the very ads it deplored in the other ski magazines. At the same time, it was unable to achieve their larger circulation, and what circulation it had was not scrutinized by the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Powder went on to have a succession of owners, including a cement conglomerate, Surfer Publishing group, Petersen Publishing, and today Primedia, whose depressed shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
ABC did measure the paid subscription and single copy sales of SKI and Skiing. The semi-annual ABC audits revealed a wealth of information about magazine readers. But, by and large, the marketing folks at ski areas and ski equipment and apparel companies ignored the data and revelations about unpaid subscription arrears in the audits, preferring to buy their advertising in page lots while aggressively negotiating discounts from the magazines’ published rate cards.
A kind of two-tier marketing took over at the magazines. They were driven in two directions, in a manner that to this day affects their success. In order to attract advertisers of cars, liquor, cameras and mass consumer products, the ski magazines, starting in the 1970s, felt they needed to raise their circulations to 400,000 and higher. With each increase in circulation, the cost of an ad page increased. This was okay for General Motors or Seagram’s (known in ski publishing as “horizontal” advertisers), but ski equipment companies and ski areas (“vertical” or “indigenous” advertisers) resisted paying $8,000 for a page that only a few years earlier had cost them half as much.
In truth, they were really only prepared to pay to reach a couple of hundred thousand primary readers, not the 400,000 and more being trumpeted to agencies on Madison Avenue. And so a kind of clandestine ad pricing grew up. In return for receiving multiple page schedules, the publishers gave the indigenous ski companies steep discounts from prices listed in their rate cards. The resulting cost/price ratio decidedly did not help the publishers’ bottom lines.
A Switch to Lifestyle
The year 1985 began a period of magazine publishing turbulence. After 20 years of ownership, Ziff Davis sold Skiing and most of its other magazines to the diversifying broadcaster, CBS. Within two years, CBS decided that it liked broadcasting a lot better than magazine publishing, and it sold the magazines to Peter Diamandis, who quickly unloaded four of them – Skiing, Field & Stream, Home Mechanix and Yachting on the Times Mirror Company.
The transaction shocked many in the publishing industry, who wondered why Times Mirror would spend in excess of $150 million, including $25 million for Skiing, to buy magazines duplicating markets the company was already serving.
SKI and Skiing, which had competed fiercely against one another for 40 years, were now owned by the same company.
If Times Mirror’s idea was to monopolize the ski publishing market, however, its strategy was questionable. In 1987, even as Times Mirror was plotting to buy Skiing, the New York Times Co. had already embarked on the launching of a new magazine aimed at skiers, Snow Country. The choice of the name, employing snow, not ski, proved prophetic.
At Snow Country, shortly after being retained as the magazine’s founding editor, I took a trip in the summer of 1988 to Colorado, where I was astounded by the amount of building in ski towns. Construction derricks were everywhere. New hotels, condominiums and second homes filled valleys. Even if the sport of skiing wasn’t growing, the place sure as hell was.
“Why not make Snow Country a magazine about a place?” I asked. Snow Country could be not so much a special interest magazine about a sport that wasn’t growing, but about a place that was. It would be about the mountainous region where people ski, take vacations and, increasingly, come to live. Moreover it would serve the New York Times Co. decision to publish not only in winter, but also in summer when people don’t ski. A magazine oriented to a place would be relevant in July in a way that a magazine strictly about skiing could not.
In a way, Snow Country’s publishing chief Jay FitzGerald was attempting to overcome the seasonal problem that Arnold Abramson had unsuccessfully attacked 30 years earlier. Perhaps, too, the year-round publishing schedule would reverse the comparatively weak subscription renewal rate experienced by traditional ski magazines, caused by readers not being exposed to the magazine for five months of the year.
The contents page of Snow Country’s premier issue listed articles about Lifestyle, Property, Travel, Buying and Instruction. The magazine photographed fashions suitable for wearing in the place, snow country. There was a chart of recent selling and asking prices for second homes and condos. And why not? Skiing was beginning to morph into one of several “lifestyle” amenities offered to guests at four-season mountain resorts, causing editors and publishers to re-think what a ski magazine should be.
The shift to lifestyle content led the publishers to reduce their coverage of the athletic core of the sport. In the early 1990s, a new editor at SKI eliminated “Ski Pointers” from the magazine’s pages. For 30 years the short instruction tips had been the most intensively read information in the magazine. The great racing events and their heroes appeared with less and less frequency in the magazines. It was as unimaginable as if Golf Digest and Tennis dropped their coverage of the Masters and the U.S. Open. But it happened in skiing.
While general advertisers were attracted to the new lifestyle content, readers didn’t necessarily follow suit. Snow Country failed to turn a profit, and shut down in the summer of 1999. The circulation of the remaining ski magazines has remained flat. Attempts by the established ski publishers to attract young snowboarders as readers failed. Snowboarding teenagers and twenty-somethings preferred their own raunchy, irreverent ‘zines, saturated with their own language and lifestyle.
The change in business dynamics, reflecting the arrival of snowboarding, can be measured in another way. In March, 1997, the trade magazine TransWorld SNOWboarding Business produced a monstrous 330-page trade show issue. Almost 20 years earlier the 1979 trade show issue of Ski Business had been of almost equal size, 314 pages, but by the 21st Century Ski Business and Skiing Trade News no longer existed in print.
Time 4 Media took over the ski magazines and snowboard publisher Transworld in 2000, purchasing them from the Chicago-based Tribune Co., which in turn had held the magazines for only nine months after it acquired them from their previous publisher, the Times Mirror Co.
By the time Time4 Media arrived on the scene in 2000, it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep SKI’s and Skiing’s paid circulation above 400,000, even as the company, in an upheaval, changed the magazine’s management and introduced the best of its own legendary editing and design skills. The new kind of ski magazine, aimed at the new kind of magazine reader, was chock-a-block with short, tightly written items, colorful and attractive to read, demanding only a short attention span on the part of the reader. To no avail.
Unable to find the bottom line it wanted, Time Inc. surprised almost no one by its decision to abandon ski publishing. The magazines and Warren Miller Productions were purchased by the American subsidiary of Sweden’s Bonnier Corp. In 2012 Bonnier decided to exit, and the magazines were taken over by California-based Active Interest Media, whose management team had been in Boulder running the magazines between 1996 and 2003.
NO EASY SOLUTION
None of the ownership changes have made up for the massive volume of information about travel, resorts and equipment that began to become available to skiers at websites in the mid-1990s. The number of ski-related websites grew from a mere half dozen to an estimated 50,000 in 2004. Skiers now pay nothing to gain access to information they previously paid for when they bought newspapers and magazines. Within a decade, a whole new medium transformed the way skiers received information. Ironically, the ski magazine publishers themselves facilitated the transformation by creating free-access websites of their own.
In 1966, people bought 68,000 copies of an issue of SKI at newsstands and other outlets; in 2004, they were buying only 14,777 copies. Paid subscriptions to SKI and Skiing in 2006 were lower than 30 years earlier, as the publishers resigned themselves to the reality that it was more cost effective to distribute the magazines free, exemplified in the Canada-headquartered giveaway publication Ski Press.
The radical extent of the shift to sending copies free to people like ski area season passholders became known in 2006 when advertisers learned that more than half of SKI’s 450,000 circulation was made up of sponsored and partnership subscriptions -- the second highest for any American consumer magazine.
Against this background, an owner of SKI and Skiing magazines and of TransWorld faces challenges historical challenges: How to satisfy the needs of both vertical and horizontal advertisers; how to structure a publishing operation with six months of revenue and 12 months of costs; whether the two long established magazines should be merged in one, or one of them sold to another publisher; and whether it is possible any longer to get skiers to pay for subscriptions or to buy significant numbers of copies on newsstands.
Between 1958 and 1998, the author worked as an editor of Ski Life Magazine, SKI Magazine and Snow Country.
Much of the material for this article comes from my book, The Story of Modern Skiing (408 pages, University Press of New England, published October, 2006). Ski historian and former ISHA board member Kirby Gilbert furnished information about the early ski magazines between 1936 and 1948. Thanks to Dana Andrews and Dick Cutler for information about advertising prices and circulation in the early 1970s. Skiing Heritage Executive Editor Seth Masia supplied data about skiing’s early Internet presence.