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Peter Houston talks: No jobs at the farmers’ market

A UK Government investigation into the sustainability of ‘high-quality journalism’ has released a rather depressing snapshot of the state of regional newspapers across the country.

The Cairncross Review, launched in response to a decade-long decline in print circulation and advertising revenues, is expected to report early next year. But ahead of a call for evidence, it released a preliminary study detailing the declines.

- Advertising spend, excluding digital, has fallen by 70 per cent, from £4.6bn (US$6.1bn) in 2007 to an estimated £1.4bn ($1.8bn) in 2017

- The number of full-time print journalists has fallen by over 25 per cent since 2007, from around 23,000 to 17,000 in 2017.

- A quarter of all regional and local newspapers have closed completely in the past decade.

The leader of the review, Dame Frances Cairncross, has explained that it needs to explore ways to ensure that consumers a decade from now have access to high-quality journalism. “This review is not about preserving the status quo,” she said.

That’s good, because the status quo described in this study is a nightmare.

The Cairncross Review is focusing on newspapers, but I’m sure a 10-year study of the UK magazine market, most magazines markets, would look fairly similar. Circulation down, advertising revenue down, headcounts down.

 

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But what about independent magazines?

Against that gloomy background, I’m not sure whether headlines touting the ‘Resurgence of independent mag publishing’ are uplifting or simply rubbing salt in the wound.

The latest ‘rebirth of print’ tale to bubble up in my social stream was published just a couple of weeks ahead of the picture of press collapse painted by Cairncross. It came from media and marketing go-to The Drum, headlining a review of ‘Print: Tearing it up’, an exhibition of independent magazines currently running until August 22 in London’s Somerset House.

I’m not complaining about the review. It’s a good review - honest, well researched and well written. I’m not complaining about the exhibition. Covering magazines from the first world war until now, it looks fascinating, it’s free and I’ll be going along if I get the chance.

What I think I’m complaining about is a strange underlying sense that, if mainstream magazines could somehow just be a bit more ‘Indie’, everything would be OK. That narrative attaches itself almost automatically to so many of the Rebirth-Resurgence-Resurrection of print stories that I read about independent magazines.

And it’s wrong: Comparing an art-project, hobby or side-hustle with a major industry sector worth about £4bn ($5.3bn) to the UK economy makes no sense.

 

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Lessons worth learning

To be perfectly clear, no one in the Drum article is saying there is a killer business model hidden between the pages of any independent magazines. The story is absolutely upfront about the fact that independents operate under a ‘different definition of success’.

Editor-in-chief of fashion magazine Thiiird, Rhona Ezuma, is quoted as saying her title doesn’t sustain itself - “It doesn’t feed any of us.”

But, inevitably, the piece asks: ‘Can heritage publishers learn from this alternative success route?’

Yes. there are lessons that mainstream magazine makers can learn from their nimbler little cousins.

Exhibition curator Paul Gorman – author of ‘The Story of the Face’ - says corporates have lost their way and “don’t know how to exploit youth culture tastes as cleverly as they did before.”

That’s a sentiment I’ve heard expressed by Sam Baker of the Pool. In a Media Voices interview earlier this year, co-founder of The Pool Sam Baker, said that magazine publishers have forgotten what people used to buy into. “In the race to tackle the digital monster people forgot that what is at the heart of any media brand is the audience.”

That sort of content homogenisation is explored in a recent study from the Columbia Journalism Review; in the piece the executive editor of the New York Times Bill Keller says consumers are being flooded with variations of the same story. CJR, reporting that The Washington Post published 10,580 ‘individual things’ in May, says that’s because its impossible to find 10,000 original things to publish in a month.

The charge is that, in the race for digital scale, mainstream magazines have all become the same. There is nothing to differentiate them, nothing for the audience to develop any loyalty to.

Independent magazines simply don’t play that game, publishing into tiny niches and mostly without advertising they rely on an almost obsessive interest from paying customers. Serving the audience is everything.

 

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A job with prospects

In a recent piece on Talking Points Memo Josh Marshal, detailing the collapse of his own site’s Facebook referral traffic, outlines a shift from digital media’s age of scale to the age of audience.

“In the scale era, the most distinguishing fact about our publication, a dedicated and devoted audience of years’ standing, was in business terms largely irrelevant. In the audience era, it’s everything.”

That’s what mainstream publishers can learn from the independents. And, as they stop chasing traffic at scale, they could do worse than try to capture some of the passion and creativity obvious in many independent magazines. They could do worse than invite some of the creators in to talk about how they do it.

But let’s not confuse passion and creativity for a business model.

Celebrate the success of the independent magazine sector. Buy them… Read them…Share them… but don’t for a second think that they are going to provide your sons and daughters with a career.

The job of providing jobs rests with bigger mainstream publishers, people that publish commercially, consistently, profitably.

It’s the decisions made in their boardrooms, not an independent magazine maker’s bedroom that will determine whether our journalism school graduates get to work in an industry or just participate in the publishing equivalent of a farmers’ market.

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