What is the most successful magazine in the world? Is it Hearst's feisty Cosmopolitan, published monthly in 58 countries and 34 languages? Or Conde Nast's 120-year-old Vogue, the ultimate fashion statement in 19 countries? Or Time magazine, the first name in international news weeklies since 1923 ?
Or could it be an altogether more surprising success: a 16-year-old UK-based, low budget, weekly news digest launched by a former Fleet Street journalist with a few hundred thousand pounds garnered from family and friends? Welcome to the almost-secret success of The Week. At a time when magazines everywhere are fighting for their lives, it has many claims to be the world's most successful magazine, with:
Continually rising circulation: almost 200,000 in the UK, some 600,000 in the US, and growing in Australia (launched in 2008), with rumours of Asian editions to come.
Fast-growing profits of, perhaps, £15m in the UK and US currently. The low-cost, newsy production, the limited quota of high-rate ads, and low-churn subscriptions, keep profit margins high, perhaps 30-40%.
Hugely influential readership. In the UK, more than 52% of its total 300,000+ readers are Board directors. Not too many Brits are reading it in pubs, but it's everywhere in the corridors of political and corporate power on both sides of the Atlantic.
This clever magazine ("All You Need to Know About Everything That Matters") was the brainchild of Jolyon Connell, former deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, the UK's last remaining general news broadsheet. He launched The Week in 1995, saying : "I'm amazed we've got this far. We have to say The Week is a bit amateurish. But if you try and be scientific, you end up up your own arse because...it loses the personal touch and becomes too formulaic. What we"re saying is 'We're a bunch of like-minded people, we're reading the papers for you, we may miss the odd thing but we're going to tell you the interesting things that we've got'."
The real truth is that, while the magazine is an easy-read digest of domestic and international newspapers, its articles span the whole range of news, sport, the arts and finance. It is consistently as well-written as the best of the journalism it covers. But The Week does seem curiously like a magazine from the pre-internet age, and that is part of its appeal. The other truth is that there is nothing remotely amateur about this publishing phenomenon. It is published by Felix Dennis, who became an early investor and eventually bought the whole shoot from Connell who is still The Week's editorial director. The 63-year-old Dennis achieved celebrity in 1971 London by being jailed (and then freed on appeal) after the show trial of Oz, an edgy, hippy-era magazine transplanted from Australia.
Since then, he has made hundreds of millions of pounds and dollars by being gutsy with magazines and direct marketing businesses. He created many of the UK's most successful computer and men's lifestyle and leisure magazines. More to the point, he has been able repeatedly to make the successful leap from the UK to the US as he did with Maxim during the men's magazine boom and, now, with The Week.
Today, Felix Dennis is also to be found: writing (and performing) his rave-reviewed poetry; and philanthropically planting a 1,300-acre (and growing) forest of substantial native broadleaf trees in Warwickshire, in the middle of England.
Dennis is a heady blend of 1960s idealism and 21st century materialism. He sits astride a sparky 50-title magazine and online business which profits strongly from his cool-headed early investments in subscriptions at a time when most UK publishers were hooked on highly profitable , easy-get sales through the country's then vast network of newsagent shops. Fast forward to 2011: hundreds of corner-shop newsagents have closed and supermarkets have muscled into control of (sharply reducing) retail magazine sales. Now, almost every UK magazine publisher wishes they had (like Dennis) pushed more strongly into sales of posted subscriptions. His marketing instincts came from the US where (unlike the UK and Australia) relatively low-cost postage and low-price TV ads have long ensured the primacy of posted magazine subscriptions over newsstand sales.
The steady growth of The Week seems, to say the least, counter-intuitive in a world of free online news and decaying magazine sales. But next month, I bet the founding UK edition will post its 26 consecutive half-yearly circulation increase. And the US edition (launched in 2001) is also notching up every-year circulation increases.
As if to emphasise its universal appeal, the magazine's 300,000 Brit readers include UK's Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow, aristo explorer Ranulph Fiennes, author William Boyd, comedian Dawn French and a swathe of front bench politicians of both major parties. Rupert Murdoch , walking through the UK Parliament last week (and wondering what the hell he was doing), could hardly have failed to glimpse copies of The Week. It is the magazine that owes its existence to the profusion of UK national daily newspapers but which may outlast most of them - and their proprietors.
It is easy to believe that The Week is going to get much bigger. In the UK, circulation may reach 250,000 before levelling off within a few years. The newish Australian edition may expect eventually to reach 100,000. An English-language launch in Asia could, one suspects, give this unassuming UK export an aggregate worldwide circulation of perhaps 1.5m , including many of the movers and shakers who would previously have been in the thrall only of The Economist.
For Felix Dennis, that kind of worldwide success may mean medium-term profits of £30m for this (still) relatively small magazine and - who knows? - perhaps another £300-400m disposal of the business that reminds us magazines can be very 21st century. Scoring against all the odds makes The Week a thrilling winner in the 'post-magazine' era.
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