Firstly, let me firmly state that I heart magazines. I really love them. I’m also very fond of newspapers but mags: those luscious, heavy, beautiful, glossy works of genius are what makes my professional heart swell with happiness.
And so, for the last few years, I’ve been in professional mourning for an industry that has been ripped to shreds and left to slowly, but oh-so-surely, bleed to death in an all too crowded papery gutter.
Today’s mag-land, specifically women’s mag-land is considered a shadow of its former self. The celebrity and lifestyle sector, once a behemoth within the publishing world is – from a circulation perspective – a limp, lacklustre version of what it was once was. It’s like the media equivalent of the Sex and the City movies. Or The Hangover Part II. Or The Hangover Part III.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Look at these headlines, taken from trade press following the 2015/2016’s Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) results.
1. “60 out of 442 titles grow sales” sang one. (Press Gazette)
2. "Mag ABCs: Price-cut and give-away copies help Cosmopolitan lead growth in women’s fashion and lifestyle titles" reported another Press Gazette article.
It’s clear the trade title was putting a positive spin on a set of figures showing the appetite for magazines, and in particular for women’s magazines, is fading. It’s sad times, indeed, when you can legitimately crow about price cuts and giveaways being the formula to circulation gains for your brand. Or, when the overwhelming number of titles in existence show either zero growth year on year, or worse, significant losses.
Perhaps we should rewrite those headlines without the desperate positivity?
1. Just seven per cent of UK magazines show any readership growth in the last 12 months
2. Millions of readers lost as publishers resort to price cuts and freebies to lure readers to the newsstand
The story suddenly seems a much sorrier one, doesn’t it? Because, for the past five years, not only has the women’s magazine market lost readers and lost titles – it’s also lost its nerve. Magazines are still being read in the millions – although they are not the traditional newsstand titles. Top of the magazine tree are those being given away by The National Trust to its members, or by retail giants such as Tesco and Asda, who both produce monthly magazines for their customers to pick up in store.
The paid-for titles holding on to prime positions in the ABCs are, without exception, TV listings magazines, with TV Choice topping the list at 1.2m (up 0.2 per cent year on year). The sector hardest hit by declining sales? Paid-for celebrity and lifestyle titles. These beauties have taken such serious body blows in recent times, some may never recover, some have already gone. Goodbye Company magazine and InStyle is now a digital-only product.
Endless hand-wringing in publishing offices can’t get away from the fact the publishing business model of old is broken. There’s no hiding from it. The ABCs reports tell it like it is. So why are sales plummeting when people still want to access the same kinds of stories they always have? I believe the mass market women’s magazine sector is perhaps at its most vulnerable because digital content and digital distribution models are killing it one click at a time.
I spoke to a number of editors, anonymously, from titles in the specialist, weekly and monthly sectors and despite the variety in their titles, they are all facing the same problems – restricted budgets, reduced resource and, in the main, sliding sales.
Is magazine content already a print Dodo? Consider the MailOnline – now the home of all celebrity news – has a global audience of 14.8m unique visitors a day – it’s clear the appetite for standard celebrity content has never been stronger. The difference is the distribution of this content and the way the audience can access it have changed considerably.
I believe the publishing industry failed to understand just how important emerging technology and global competition could (and would) be to their age-old business model. They failed to understand the impact of how digital accessibility to words, pictures and videos would change and, consequently, devastate the glory days of sell-out issues and circulation figures that regularly bust the 1m mark – a week.
This isn’t purely with the benefit of hindsight. I worked within the industry as digital content slowly took over from its print predecessors. The emergence of digital technology was a turning point for magazine content and magazine journalism. The art of storytelling was changing: the tech was there, the talented teams were there, but to deliver strong digital content wasn’t without a heavy price tag and for many the change never happened. Many weren’t convinced they could make digital publishing pay in the same way that print has in the past.
So, the wilderness years ensued, many magazine titles were left floundering in a tide of technology eating away at their sales. As a result, they lost part of their sass because of just how quickly the reader landscape was changing. They didn’t grasp just how quickly this tech was going to rip out the paper hearts of their beloved magazines without as much as a backward glance.
For an industry whose brilliance was rooted in the ability of great creative minds to start each and every issue with a blank front cover and an empty flat plan – ideation and innovation seemed to not just stall, but to stagnate. Instead, many seemed to hope their loyal readers would stay and their quality content would be protected. In fact, most titles stood like rabbits blinking in the glare of the oncoming digital headlights.
For years it had been declared ‘print was king’ when in fact ‘content was king’ and as technology seeped into every corner of daily routines, readers changed their behavior when it came to consuming content. As the internet became the new distributor for journalism, bravery, commitment, cash and creativity were needed to ride and embrace this new technology, to plug it into the heart of existing print brands.
But who was up for that? Step forward Martin Clarke, tabloid to his core and the brains behind what became MailOnline. It launched in 2003. For three years it languished and then in 2006, Clarke became editor and then publisher in 2008. The rest is history.
He brought his unique tabloid take on showbiz and celebrity to the site and the audience grew. He got more investment – while the UK celebrity magazine market stayed stagnant – and his audience grew even bigger. The MailOnline’s showbiz section became renowned as the sidebar of shame. It became everyone’s guilty pleasure. It became a runaway success. It had beaten the women’s magazine market at its own game.
Turns out the audience was always there. It was only ever going to be bigger than the print audience because online content allows people to access what they want when they want it. And the MailOnline stole readers away from their natural magazine heartland. By now women’s celebrity magazines were caught in a financial catch-22 – they were losing sales, so advertising dipped. As a result, the established business model was breaking up.
Talented teams did their best to push out quality magazines, but on a smaller budget, with fewer staff and on poorer quality paper, it became an almost impossible task. Loyal audiences trickled away, those obsessed with tabloid celebrity gossip and fodder that had been the very lifeblood of the women’s weekly magazine market found it elsewhere. It was available for free, 24/7 at Mailonline.co.uk and any other online offering. Some dismissed MailOnline as a consistent threat because its sidebar of shame wasn’t overly skilful, or clever or even exclusive, but it was accessible and it was free.
The arrival, and ‘thrival’, of the internet as a news provider and the growth of social media as a news distributor meant anything in print was under threat. Those at the helm needed to find a new way to succeed in the journalism arena.
As our phones became the digital companion to our lives, they became the access point for our storytelling, too. The magazine industry’s circulation figures and future now lay, literally, in the hands of an increasingly fickle audience happy to flip between Facebook, MailOnline, Twitter and back again. And it seemed the death of magazines was within sight. It broke my professional heart to watch as the women’s magazine industry, once a hugely powerful force, was staring at a bleak existence.
In the 90s and 00s publishing houses launched new titles with passion and fervor. The competition was fierce, exciting and spawned talented editors, writers and terrifying publishers. Then, the only thing holding you back from launching a new magazine or growing your existing brand’s popularity was the increasing cost of the paper needed to print it. Now, the cost of paper was miniscule compared to the cost of reinventing a brand for an increasingly digitally savvy audience and investing in it. As publishers fought to find a way to survive, there was an element of chaos as the two worlds of print and digital struggled to find a way to work together in the same arena. It became a world of us versus them and it was bloody.
Ad revenues were tricky to find for emerging digital platforms – advertisers were nervous of spending big bucks on relatively new offerings. The audience was different, the time spent with content was shorter. It was a new dawn, but no-one felt comfortable with it.
I’ve asked many former colleagues, award-winning editors, journalists, and editorial directors why our industry stalled so badly. And the answer is that, as the digital revolution hit, publishing seemed to lose its nerve. There was a palpable sense of disconnect from the reality of grass-roots content consumption and magazine production. The publishing landscape had changed, but the publishing model had stayed rooted in the past. As magazine launches became less frequent, talent stagnated. Budget cuts meant teams were reduced. Staff had to do more with less and eventually quality began to suffer.
For a while the real-life sector had boasted huge circulation numbers when Take a Break, under the legendary John Dale racked up over a million sales a week, followed by That’s Life!, Bella and Chat. The magazines weren’t sexy, but they were gripping and their fans were loyal, and less likely, for a while at least, to jump ship and spend all their time online. Now, Take a Break is still the highest selling real-life magazine, but with latest figures posted of just over 500k sales a week.
These magazines gave ordinary people with extraordinary stories a voice to be heard, to share their life stories, when other news outlets weren’t interested. Then along came Facebook which gave everyone the chance to share their stories, their photos, their life moments and hey, real life became every-day content in our news feeds.
In all, the UK magazine industry was running scared while MailOnline had a runaway winner on their hands. The brand launched in America, then Australia. It seemed to be on an unstoppable global rampage.
It was clear to anyone who cared that the industry had reached a critical moment. Digital publishing continued to be frenzied with online editors desperate to publish first and fast. This desperation created a culture of ‘churnalism’, celebrity articles were barely stories, but elongated picture captions. They were sloppy, lacked skill, precision and wit.
But the readers barely noticed. Martin Clarke once said he produced ‘journalism crack’ for MailOnline and he was right. The emergence of digital content consumption was an industry game changer. The culture it created also spawned a new dawn for journalism. As audiences were drowning in a sea of curated content – varying from sometimes brilliant, but often banal, user-generated content, to social clickbait – the mood seemed to trigger a desire for something else, something better.
Although consumed by millions, in time, the Mail’s sidebar of shame and its ilk were often ridiculed for the choice of subjects and inane style of writing. Those who had kept their finger on the publishing pulse could sense the digital content revolution had actually helped create a new need – and new audiences.
Content was everywhere but good content wasn’t and that was the jewel in the publishing crown. Digital think tanks reported back to the front lines that time was ripe for change. Although certain content delivered quick hits and ‘social drive-by eyeballs’ that tore through celebrity content on offer for free, there was a desire for quality long-form journalism, both online and... in print.
While many had claimed the digital revolution was the death of the magazine industry – it wasn’t. In fact, what the internet – and later social media platforms – did for magazine journalism was give it a swift, hard, forceful kick up its backside.
Magazine digital offerings had to up their game. Be smart. Lure audiences, old and new, back into the fold. The rise of social media meant everyone had a voice and a means to communicate to the world, if you were a fan you could see into their lives via Twitter and Instagram. Sure, it was controlled access but hey, it was ultimate voyeurism.
Social media also meant magazine offerings were under extreme scrutiny. Incorrect facts were swiftly highlighted in 140 characters or less on Twitter. Get a celebrity magazine cover story wrong and the subjects, the celebs themselves, took to social media to denounce it. You lost credibility and readers in an instant.
With the stakes higher than ever before we lost Company, Bliss, Sugar, More, FHM, Zoo and Nuts. Others are struggling – Time Inc’s Now magazine is one of those crawling to the next circulation dip: last ABCs [at the time of writing] saw it post 109,661 – a dip of 21.8 per cent year on year.
And, although Bauer’s Heat magazine has also dropped from the dizzying heights of 700k plus a week in its heyday, to now posting ABCs of 144,074 – a drop of 22.3 per cent, year on year, it has nailed the brand extension survival path. While others were playing at it, Heat launched its own online offering, Heatworld, alongside a radio and TV station. Such foresight should ensure the brand lives on, even if the print product continues to falter on the newsstand.
The last year (2015/16) has seen some magazines truly evolve into the digital content arena: Hearst’s Cosmopolitan saw its US issue strike a deal with Snapchat and the UK title followed suit. Its editor says many of the audience who find their content on Snapchat Discover don’t even know a magazine exists. But, if they engage with their content on that social platform, perhaps that doesn’t matter.
Bauer’s Grazia has also struggled with falling sales figures – the last ABCs recorded 138,992 but, as a brand, it is still powerful and is forging ahead with digital innovation, launching shopping apps, running Facebook Live events and, like the ‘freemium’ giveaway Stylist, is also maximising its fashion credibility by hosting events around fashion – its playing to its strengths and I hope it wins out.
The digital revolution also created a new publishing model: launch online then go into print. But it’s not for everyone. This model works well for niche markets. End of.
Square Up Media is a classic example of a runaway specialist interest success story. Foodism launched first as a website in 2013 and in 2014 later launched as a stand-alone glossy print magazine. Recent ABCs showed it had a circulation of 109,296.
American music site Pitchfork started life as a website – it is now also available as a quarterly print magazine.
The quality end of the market is also faring well: Vogue and Elle are holding their own. The ever-useful Good Housekeeping is unbreakable and special-interest magazines are shifting significant numbers, too.
In recent years magazine launches have been in the specialist/niche sector - from the multi-platform health and fitness title, Coach, from Dennis publishing, to Puzzler Media launching Candy Crush in print (yes, really), to News UK pushing out a monthly film magazine, Popcorn, in association with Sky.
The common strand with these and all the other magazines is they aren’t the multi-million pound glittery launches of old. They’re appealing to a smaller, highly engaged, often commercially sweet, audience and so their profitability and their chance of success is a little brighter.
Online lifestyle launches aimed clearly at modern women such as The Pool – which is faring well with a sturdy 500k uniques less than a year since launch – and Bauer’s The Debrief is also a success (albeit on a smaller scale) for the no-bullshit 20-something city chick.
So, the magazine industry isn’t dead. It’s different. Budgets will never be what they once were because advertising is also different. Media spend was once clearly defined and split between TV, print and commercial radio. Now it’s split across so many distribution channels – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, TV, digital TV, radio, bloggers, vloggers... it’s a bloody battle to secure decent ad revenue.
Any print title has to be strong on every platform – not just on paper. Modern journalists must be multi-talented story-tellers – able to envisage how to bring their words to life in a way that is far beyond just words. They must be able to write brilliantly, report on camera, shoot their own images, edit and crop their own footage and write copy that works with both SEO and social in mind.
Publishing, and magazine publishing in particular, has stared death in the face. It’s seen what it has to do to survive and at long last the fight-back it starting with the kind of passion, skill and dogged determination that makes it such a stimulating industry to work in.
Joely Carey has worked across a number of newspaper and magazine titles including the News of the World, The Sun, The Sun on Sunday, Chat magazine, That’s Life!, and was editorial director of News UK’s award-winning Fabulous magazine. She has also worked as a specialist digital content consultant for Trinity Mirror and Bauer Media’s portfolio of print and digital titles. She now works as Editor in Chief for an award- winning content agency based in Soho, London.
This piece is an extract from Last Words? How can journalism survive the decline of print?, to be published by Arima on 23 January at £19.95. Readers of Journalism.co.uk can pre-order at a special discount price of £15 by emailing email@example.com.
Free daily newsletter
- Predictions for digital journalism: audience, diversity and newsroom leadership in 2022
- By dropping its paywall for a day, the FT lost out on subscriptions but found new, engaged audience
- 12 replies to common objections to using data in the newsroom
- Five tips for publishers to make the most out audio
- Why publishers must shift their focus from business to audience needs