Six ways for magazines to build their future

The effervescent UK Professional Publishers’ Association’s annual Festival gave voice to the distinctive traditions of magazines and cheered-up hundreds of true believers.

The air was full of the success of Conde Nast’s 98-year-old UK edition of Vogue that has just celebrated its most profitable year, with a circulation of 200k, and a web audience of 2.2m monthly uniques. Hearst’s 93-year-old, growing-strongly Good Housekeeping now has a print circulation of 416k, almost 50 per cent from posted subscribers – a smug stand-out in the newsstand-dominated UK market. And it has a solus readership of 46 per cent. The legendary listings+ weekly Radio Times has all but stabilised its print circulation at 780k, despite increasing the cover price by 50 per cent in the last four years.

The Economist – which 25 years ago promoted itself with the slogan “The Economist: not read by millions of people” – scored a 300 per cent surge in digital sales to more than offset a print decline, giving a combined UK average weekly circulation of 224k – almost 20 per cent up since 2009. Relative newcomer, The Week recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with a 33rd consecutive circulation increase, reaching 200k in print and 27k in digital sales.

Those headlining successes, spread thinly across the UK media landscape, are an ironic reminder of the churning market where 447 magazines lost sales at an average annual rate of 6.5 per cent in the second half of 2014. After more than five years of falling circulations, most of the country’s largest paid-for magazines fell back further last year.

The six best-selling celebrity weeklies, which fuelled media company profits in the years before they were upstaged by Twitter and YouTube, together make the same profit once enjoyed just by Bauer’s Heat magazine, whose sales have fallen by 55 per cent in the past five years. In that time, the UK editions of Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire have declined by 40 per cent and 30 per cent respectively. And, in a year when total UK advertising spend grew at its fastest rate for 15 years, magazine ad revenues fell by 4.3 per cent – to below £1bn for the first time – with further decreases forecast for this year and next. But this is only part of the story of a magazine market that has long since ceased to be anything like a single market.

Time was when magazines shared a uniform model of printed products funded by readers and advertisers, and were published by specialist companies. UK weeklies tended to depend for their profits mostly on copy sales and monthlies on advertising. But now the variations are almost endless. And the UK provides a picture of the possibilities, where increasing numbers of magazines are free and/or sponsored.

Some are still the core information and entertainment medium for an audience group. Others are ancillary content to a larger medium, whether digital, broadcast – or retail. Magazines are now published by an increasing range of companies, not just by traditional publishers. In the UK, the four largest circulation magazines (and 13 of the top 20) are either distributed free or sent to membership or customer groups. The biggest is the National Trust Magazine, which is sent free to 2.1m households three times a year. The next three in the circulation lists are 1m+ free magazines from UK supermarket chains Asda, Tesco and Morrisons.

The others include free distribution magazines like the weeklies Stylist (400k circulation), Shortlist (500k), Sport (300k) and Time Out (300k). Many of the other non-traditional magazines are sponsored by retailers, financial services or leisure companies. The way in which the magazine medium is being used skilfully by companies with something to sell is highlighted by Time Out, the 37-year-old entertainment weekly which scrapped its cover price in 2013 and has just done the same with its New York edition, in order to concentrate on ecommerce, primarily ticket sales.

Read the rest of this piece on Colin Morrison’s blog.

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