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Teenage Wasteland: Where Are Mags for Teenage Boys?

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(This post appears with an illustration on HufPo's Eat The Press)

Two weeks ago, blogger Andrew Hearst, well-known in the industry for his magazine-cover parodies, posted another offering on his site, Panopticist.com. Hearst's latest was a takeoff of teen-girl bible Seventeen, re-imagined as a book for teenage boys called "Sementeen."

Yet a quick scan of newsstands reveals that Hearst has imagined not only a title but an entire genre: in a space crowded with books like Seventeen, CosmoGirl and Teen Vogue, not a single general interest magazine exists for teenage boys. A Magazine Publishers of America's 2004 Teen Market Profile shows that the total number of teens in the United States grew by 4.5 million between 1990 and 2000, a 17% increase in a group holding substantial spending power and market sway. According to a 2004 Neopets Youth Study, eight out of ten teens read magazines, translating into 19.3-million readers in a demographic with a proven disproportionate influence on fashion and purchasing trends. But while giants like Hearst and Condé Nast currently publish three titles apiece for girls, magazines aimed at boys, including Dirt, Transworld Stance and the never-launched K-Max, have come and gone. Time Inc.'s Teen People is currently the only top-selling teen magazine designed for both boys and girls, though its frequent beauty and fashion articles shift the focus towards female readers.

So why no magazines for the other half of the teen market? Perhaps it's because publishers fear that a market doesn't exist. Rodale launched the short-lived MH-18 in October of 2000, which lasted seven issues. Rather than a lifestyle book like Dirt, which focused on music and pop culture and lasted one issue, MH-18 was developed developed as a teen version of Men's Health, highlighting topics like bodybuilding, workout advice and tips for getting dates. It sold 75,000 copies per issue before ceasing publication. But MH-18 former Editor-in-Chief and current Executive Editor of Best Life Jeff Csatari blames the timing and the marketing, not the content or the market. "There was nothing for teen boys like this," said Csatari. "After 9/11 the advertising market went south and there was new management at the company and they pulled the plug. It was doing real well. It was just a really smart idea."

The prevailing attitude in the industry is that magazines aimed at teenage boys simply won't sell. "The general consensus is that teenage boys are already reading Maxim and don't want to read anything else that's not about video games," said Jeff Bercovici, Media Editor of Women's Wear Daily. But Eric Gillin, Entertainment Editor at Maxim, disagrees. "We're not aimed at [teen boys]. That's not who we're aimed at," he said. One source noted that "advertisers do not believe teen boys are interested in print magazines...the only exceptions being very vertical titles in categories like skateboarding, snowboarding, etc. They think they can reach teen boys through online and some TV much better." But a 2003 Nielson cross-media comparison found that teens in fact trust ads in magazines more than those in radio, TV or the internet.

Concerns over cultural differences have hindered marketing strategies for magazines aimed at teen boys. "This is a demographic that's simply not used to reading magazines--unless it's the SI swimsuit issue," said Men's Health Editor-in-Chief and Rodale Senior Vice President David Zinczenko. The continuing lack of popular titles for teen boys arguably forms a vicious circle, as well. "I work at a magazine because I grew up reading magazines," said Seventeen Editor-in-Chief Atoosa Rubinstein. "Because of this, teen girls are easier to market to." Stereotypes also play a part. "There's a stigma maybe that teen boys dont read, that teen boys are playing video games," said Gillin.

Behavior and buying patterns also make teen boys a unique group for marketers. "The traditional route of getting magazines to people doesnt work [for teen boys]," said Csatari. "Eighty percent of MH-18 copies were being sold in supermarkets. How many teen boys do you know who hang out in supermarkets?" With a little more time, Csatari thinks things might have gone differently. "We were on the verge of new ideas when the plug was pulled," said Csatari, who speculated that new marketing tools such as promotions through sportswear catalogues like Eastbay would have been more effective.

Some argue that the needs of teenage boys are already being met by men's magazines and specialty books such as Transworld SKATEboarding. "I dont feel like that market is not being served; it's just being served piecemeal. It's being served indirectly," said Gillin, who says that teen boys want to read what their fathers are reading. "Magazines are in a way about selling fantasy," said Gillin. "What's better than peeking at your dad's back issues of Maxim?"

But others hold a different view. "I think of boys as the lost generation," said Rubinstein. "Boys intuitively and because of cultural norms, boys tend to go inside themselves. But they have those same struggles [as teenage girls], they're just a little harder to pin down...No one's protecting teenage boys the way we do teen girls." Said Csatari, "The teen years are very scary times. You dont go to your mom and dad to answer these questions...With a magazine it's just you one on one with the editors. You get real information that you can apply to your life."

Industry insiders agree that, to be successful, a teen boys magazine would require a high level of dedication to the demographic. "It's a tough market to reach, but I think the potential is there for someone who has the content and the staying power," said Csatari. Rubinstein says the time has come to find the right man for the job, saying, "I'm looking for a male Atoosa: a man who will care as passionately as I do about teen girls, for boys."