Eight years ago decade ago I was present at a symposium about the future of magazines. Excited by the blog-powered publishing explosion that had already delivered Gawker, Boing Boing and many others, several panelists, myself included, predicted that soon printed based magazines would be history and would need to find a new home online.
Yet one panelist had a very different view. Mike Soutar had recently debuted the first of its free to read titles in Shortlist, and outlined a vision of the future that at the time was unique. Soutar predicted that there would be a rise in the number of free magazines distributed in urban areas to commuters and that this was business model that could deliver for publishers.
As the years have gone by Soutar’s hunch has been proved right. In London 2015, it is now virtually impossible to spend any time near a tube station in rush hour without being offered a free magazine.
Where the indies had blazed a trail, the last three years has seen the mainstream publishers follow. Time Out became a freebie in 2012 and when Time Inc., announced that its flagship music title, NME, was to join the range of free papers, not too many industry insiders were that surprised.
Is there space then for other magazines to take the free distribution route? Dennis Publishing certainly thinks so. In autumn, it launched Coach, a magazine aimed at male consumers aged 25-45 (though it almost certainly has a strong following among middle-aged men) who care about health and fitness issues. The launch has been a significant success, with the publisher claiming that the title has impressed both readers and brands.
Piloting Coach is one of the most experienced names in British men’s publishing. Ed Needham is probably best known to UK media as editor of FHM, however, he has also held senior editorial positions on Maxim and Rolling Stone in the US.
Like many others in publishing Needham acknowledges that we may be nearing saturation point for free magazines. “Yes, in that it’s limited by the number of days in the week and the amount of space available outside tube and rail stations, but they are distribution issues.”
However, he believes the key is that good editorial content will always find readers. “In terms of editorial opportunities, they are as plentiful as always, and especially with the demise of the paid-for men’s market, advertisers are eager to explore new ways to connect with large numbers of men, as they are not exactly spoilt for choice. Coach stands out for a number of reasons – outstanding design, an engaging tone, genuine usefulness for people who want to do something active to change their lives, and being utterly of the moment, as people are growing weary of surrounding themselves with stuff and want experiences. “Buy something” is getting stale – “Do something” is what people are looking for.
One of the most interesting things about Coach is that it is among the first magazines to reflect the fact that age seems to have little to do with tastes and attitudes of British men. Many of its features are likely to appeal as much to twentysomethings working on the perfect body, as they are to MAMILs (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) seeking new challenges on their expensive cycles.
It is that ‘can do positivity’ which Needham believes has been an important factor in shaping the editorial content of the magazine. “Age is less important than motivation, he argues. “Coach looks to appeal to a wide swathe of men commuting into and within London and makes no assumptions about people’s tastes and wishes where health and fitness are concerned. One key insight is that you just can’t generalise about these things anymore – knowledge of a person’s age tells you nothing about their relationship to health and fitness.”
Needham also notes that the magazine has attracted a surprising number of women readers and that “very few copies get left on the tube – you’re lucky to find a second hand one. People take it home with them.”
In addition to the print magazine Coach also boasts a website, though Dennis has been careful to optimise the editorial for the various platforms. “The content on those platforms (website, social media) is in the main specifically produced for those platforms and doesn’t just recycle the print version.”
“Coach was conceptualised as a magazine first, to be read by people on their way to and from work, facing all the pressures and vexations of commuting in London, and the various worries about what work and returning home might hold – so it has to be an enjoyable, war, friendly, positive read.”
Ultimately 2016 could be a watershed year for the freebies. There are likely to be other launches, and it will be interesting to see how these affect both the established brands like Shortlist as well as the newbies like Coach and the NME.
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