Magazine ABCs: the issue that can't be put to bed just yet
By Jon Severs Thursday, 27 September 2012
It's easy to bemoan the latest batch of magazine ABCs, with many sectors in freefall - but there are success stories, too. Look closer and you'll find great opportunities
At the TUC conference this month, one stallholder’s decision to sell t-shirts celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher before the former PM had actually died was widely condemned as "sickening" and "beyond the pale". What Maggie herself thought of the goings on was unreported, but the printed consumer magazine sector could have a good guess. Printed magazines in the consumer sphere suffer the same indignity, with their demise being celebrated prematurely with every release of the ABC circulation figures.
And the latest round of figures, released in August for the period January-June 2012 proved no different. The numbers did not make for very encouraging reading with several double-digit percentage drops. Yet widely ignored were – to borrow the infamous words of Maggie’s erstwhile minister Norman Lamont – the "green shoots of recovery". Several magazines posted impressive print circulation rises; but instead of asking how these magazines managed it, everyone was concentrating on what the majority were doing wrong. Remedying that analytical oversight unearths a print sector that has more life in it than many would imagine.
That the general trend for the circulation of printed consumer magazines is down cannot be argued with. In the period January-June 2012, there were several heavy casualties, with Pregnancy & Birth taking a monstrous 38.6% drop and Reader’s Digest falling 35.5% compared to the previous six months. Overall, there were more minus signs than a national government balance sheet and it’s been that way for some time. As one executive from a leading consumer magazine printing company states: "You just have to look at the consolidation of magazine printers in the past few years to realise the fall in volumes."
Obituaries offered numerous reasons for this constant fall: the cannibalisation of readers by online formats; the fragmentation of the media landscape (i.e. the death of ‘general interest’); and the failure of magazines to really know their audience. For publishers, some of these hold some truth.
"The shift to digital, the fragmented way people now consume information – it makes it very difficult for the printed magazine to compete," says Incisive Media group publishing director Marc Hartog. "Do people have the same amount of time they once did, or are they willing to put aside that time now?"
"It’s true that the audience is faced with opportunities to consume content that they did not have access to five, or even three years ago," adds Haymarket Consumer division managing director David Prasher. "And so the decline is down partly to fragmentation of media channels."
For Anna Jones, chief operation officer at Hearst UK, however, it’s too early to make any concrete assessment. "The growth of new technology has meant publishers must find new ways to deliver content to audiences across multiple touch points, but it’s still early days and the impact this is having on print versus digital is yet to be fully understood."
What’s missing from these answers is context. The perilous financial state globally has been ongoing for the past four or five years. It is impossible to analyse print’s performance outside of that bubble, according to Tim Holmes, senior lecture at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism.
"You have to consider the general financial situation – people are looking at their expenditure," he says. "This has a two-fold effect on magazine consumption. Firstly, people not spending as much on luxuries (and all consumer magazines are luxuries, even cheap weeklies). The second, connected effect is that people become more critical of their luxury purchases, so whereas in good times readers might be prepared to overlook the aspects of ‘their’ magazines that they don’t like, in harder times when you’re scraping the pennies together, the bits you don’t like becomes the determining factor."
This latter point is interesting, as it could as easily have been drawn from looking at those magazines succeeding in print as it could from those failing. Some of those magazines managing to expand print circulations say value for money is key to their success. It is a comment, then, that hints at the hidden gems of information that could be giving commentators and publishers alike a more truthful picture of the future of consumer media if they looked at where success was occurring in as much detail as they do where there is failure.
There are a lot of print success stories to look at, too. In current affairs, Private Eye and Monocle both posted 9.5% increases, while Business Life chalked up an impressive 13.6% rise. Grand Designs, meanwhile, recorded a 10.2% increase in sales. The biggest ABC winner, though, was FourFourTwo, which upped print circulation by 19.9%. Outside the ABC figures, and also worth a mention, is global interiors magazine Apartamento, which regularly sells out of its 25,000 print copies, despite only being on its ninth issue and having the high cover price of €12.
It’s certainly a disparate bunch in terms of subject matter and print production values, so drawing any general lessons from these titles is difficult. That said, Holmes says some basic broad points can be made.
"They all cater very well for their readership, in their different ways," he explains. "Also, I have a theory that print will survive best at extreme ends of the market – either disposable newsprint weeklies (like Private Eye or The Week) or high production value, high-cost glossies (Monocle, Apartamento)."
It’s certainly a theory that has some credible evidence attached to it, as shown in the examples given (The Week enjoyed a rise in circulation of 4.2%) and the fact that some of the heaviest losses were taken by mid-range magazines, such as women’s weeklies. But in order to really understand what makes those magazines that are bucking the trend and expanding circulation tick, you have to look in more depth at some individual cases.
Take FourFourTwo. This is a magazine sitting in a men’s sector that is haemorrhaging readers, but it has posted two consecutive circulation expansions. Only Wired, Shortlist and GQ also posted growth this time around – be it vastly smaller than FourFourTwo’s (4%, 1% and 1.6% respectively). FourFourTwo editor David Hall says the reasons for success are both a concentration on the print product and an expansion of multimedia channels.
"We have come up with a new approach for the magazine, both editorially and in terms of the product," he explains. "We have to constantly ask ourselves, ‘Is this worth £4.60?’, because readers are asking the same question. We invest in the print product editorially and in production to ensure the answer is ‘yes’.
"There has also been a cultural shift in the way the magazine works – we are a brand now, and as a brand we communicate through many different mediums. We have a website, Twitter and Facebook accounts, apps and products like Stats Zone for people who want to get statistical information about the game. We are shooting a lot of video content as well. Those extensions from the magazine do not detract from the printed magazine product – they enhance it. The cover price is still our main revenue driver."
Hence, for FourFourTwo the print success appears to have come from an investment in print alongside diversifying communication channels that drive traffic towards that print product.
Some may argue this tactic is only successful for FourFourTwo because the business model relies on the print cover price, but Prasher, who is head of FourFourTwo’s division at Haymarket, says that even where the print publication may not remain the biggest gateway to the magazine brand, or its highest earner, it still performs a key role for both business and brand value reasons and so should still be invested in.
"You don’t get a feel for what a magazine offers by just looking at the website homepage," he says. "Yet when you see the printed magazine product, you really do get a sense of what it is really about. Brand perceptions as a result are often led by the magazine and that magazine is still a key indicator of a brand’s health."
This takes us to another success story: Monocle. Not many magazines have a more diverse portfolio or stronger brand than Monocle: its shops, radio stations, websites and apps all compete with print for brand attention. In many ways, Monocle has managed to transcend being seen first and foremost as a print publication.
So it is interesting to hear editor Andrew Tuck echo Prasher in saying: "The heart of this brand is the print magazines. Everything we stand for is represented in those magazines and, though it is great to have the café, the shop, the radio, the heart of the brand will always be the magazine."
For Tuck, the print magazine is the pivot on which all other channels rotate and into which those other channels can feed and vice versa. He says that some other magazines – and indeed newspapers – fail because they degrade the print product, cutting pages, sizes and quality without realising how integral it is to the overall brand product. "The print product is often simply not good enough and that turns people away," he says.
The standard of Monocle’s print product is, then, integral to its success. Tuck stresses, however, that investing in print does not have to mean using five different types of paper in a single magazine and employing high-end production values, as Monocle does. He says it is simply about ensuring your product is the highest standard it needs to be for that audience.
Holmes agrees: "Publishers must find appropriate and valuable uses for their print editions – look and feel, longer reads, experimental content and paper and printing techniques will all have a part to play."
The scope of print options on offer is demonstrated if you compare an edition of Monocle to Private Eye. Both are beloved print magazines, and yet the production values couldn’t be more different. Private Eye is a very basic print product, but Incisive’s Hartog says that aesthetics and haptics are as important to the success of Private Eye as to that of Monocle. This realisation came out of some audience research about his own title, Computer Active.
"The readers of Computer Active don’t want a big glossy magazine – they want a practical and good value publication," he says. "We would not win any more readers because it had a higher print production value. If anything, we would lose some, as its more basic format is seen by readers as friendly and accessible. So the production values suit the readership. That said, we have ensured we don’t take advantage of that and have maintained a paper quality. We’re not printing on tracing paper."
It’s about being the best standard of print in your sector, then, rather than the best standard of print overall. However, the print production cannot claim full credit for these magazines’ success: the low price point alongside a high level of bespoke information is also key.
"Private Eye and The Week are unique offerings, or close enough to unique to be utterly dominant in their sector," says Holmes. "Quite simply, people will pay for unique information."
And yet people are still choosing to purchase this information in increasing numbers via the print channels, so you would think that the print connection must be part of the appeal. Well, in the case of Private Eye, it is very difficult to access the information any other way, with both having a rudimentary online presence, with an incredibly basic website portal and very few brand extensions into other channels.
Despite its multiple channels, FourFourTwo also keeps unique content for the magazine and even Monocle with its colossal brand extensions also forces readers to the magazine if they want to access editorial. "If you want to read the stories, you have to make the effort by reading the magazine," says Tuck.
Perhaps print’s real success will come only when the content is not available anywhere else, then. Certainly much of the content in the magazines suffering major losses can be got at for free on the internet – particularly in the men’s market. Those magazines experiencing success have a pretty unique print content offering in comparison.
Hartog questions, however, whether that unique and gated content will continue to be offered in print in the future. He says the iPad offers a digital route to market that publishers can monetise for the first time. Hence, where previously publishers had a reason to try and keep content in print unique – because that’s the only format that paid the bills – the iPad’s download ‘cover price’ means print is now no longer the only option.
"The iPad gives publishers an opportunity to monetise digital," he says. "In the right environment and with the right production values, print still plays a crucial role in certain subject areas and readerships, but no longer is it every area and audience."
Yet to limit the reasons for the success of those magazines that are expanding circulations to a simple exclusivity of information is to misread the facts underpinning their success.
Of course, content is a factor, but what Private Eye, Monocle, FourFourTwo and the rest show is that when you invest in the print product so that it is as good as possible for that set of readers, people will buy that print product.
They buy it because of the way print can differentiate and tailor itself to the expectations, demands, preferences and financial limitations of the readership. Digital channels just can’t do the same thing, as they standardise the way content is delivered. It seems that digital must still work alongside print if a magazine is to be successful
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