Sales and marketing people seldom let the mask slip. So, magazine industry people can keep up the smiles and pretend that the iPad or some other piece of magic is coming to their rescue. Or that they are in such control of their loyal readers that the return to former glories is but an innovation-click away. Even the current macro-economic trials convince some publishers that their woes are at least partly cyclical.
They are wrong. Magazines are in deep trouble.
Look at the stricken UK market, where specialist publisher Future Plc has just lost its latest chiefs ahead of more pain for its shrinking magazines business. That sparky company's recurring woes are a reminder that even narrowcast specialist magazine content is not immune from the pressures of readers and advertisers who are more picky and price-conscious than ever.
The UK market is a good proxy for magazines everywhere because of its dependance on news stand sales (as opposed to posted subscriptions in the US, for example). So we get to see the awful news faster. The last set of magazine circulation figures show just how widely the contagion spreads:
That is but a sample of the bad circulation news. But there is more still, in the falling advertising market (static at the very best in the UK for 2011) where magazines' share is plunging sharply. They may be heading for half of the adspend share the sector once enjoyed.
These stats are just the latest in up to five years of declining circulations - and increased promotional spending (and two-for-one offers etc) to help limit the perceived damage - and reassure wobbly advertisers. Company profits tell the real story. The top five UK magazine publishers now together earn less profit than the largest (IPC) earned so recently, all by itself. And the recent purchase of BBC Magazines made private equity firm Exponent feel pretty good because it was a fraction of the price most would have paid just a few years ago. So, the position is clear. Or is it?
Look for the logical results of this shocking decline and you might be surprised. During the past two years, the only significant magazine closure has been Hearst's She, which was axed immediately after the acquisition of Elle and Red as part of the $651m Hachette purchase. The timing was neat but the closure might actually have been justified any time during the previous few years. But, forget for a moment the corporate motivation for preserving loss-making magazines. Why is the UK magazine business (and its so-similar Australian counterpart) much sicker than than, for example, the US industry?
The reasons can be summarised as follows:
So, the model is broken. What can be done?
Big brands can make it
Nobody should predict the end of magazines or magazine-style content on the web, tablet, or TV or whatever. I think we might also bet on the longevity of brands as diverse as Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Good Housekeeping and Country Life. But it is easy to predict that the sector will never again be as large, even as it is today. There will - once reality bites - be many fewer magazine brands. Perhaps, also, there will be a large handful of hungry new operators to exploit the still-large pool of magazine-centric readers/ users.
The largest and very best-managed brands may be err, fine - after a bumpy few years of choosing their digital routes. And you have to assume that privately-owned, well-funded companies like Hearst and Bauer (who have so recently pumped hundreds of millions into magazine deals) are committed to securing the future for their best brands.
Nobody doubts that the future of these magazine-centric businesses lies strongly in digital applications, of course. But beware the ultra-early 'Eureka' calls, after last month's launch of Apple's Newstand app thrilled publishers. They do, of course, need to find sustained digital audiences for their products - and ways of generating profit from them. No small task at a time when the brands are suffering from revenue and readership shortfall in their traditional, printed form.
You would expect the ultimate digital winners to be visually and functionally much less like their printed predecessors than many of the current players, so there is a way to go yet in the whole print-to-digital race.
The new winners
Beyond the digitalisation of the leading brands, the "new" magazine winners may be:
1. Free, well-distributed magazines (and online content) that can cultivate deep reader loyalties - and un-jumpy advertisers who know exactly what they are buying. Put your money on Short List and Stylist the excellent free weeklies from former IPC director Mike Soutar. Must be many more to come.
2. Magazines for which readers are prepared to pay a viable price and which can, therefore, be super-profitable through advertising, whatever the state of the tide. Witness, The Week and The Economist. Such consumer-versions of business information publications/ services must also have further to go, as will US-style online newsletters.
3. New-wave retail-driven magazines (and online services) that derive profits exclusively from product sales to readers. These 'mediatail' publications and services may be like the well-established online-only Pret a Porter and ASOS, or retailer-created brands which, arguably, could pose a more substantial threat to traditional magazine publishers than anything else. Traditional retailers will soon enough realise that their online traffic (and sales) will be enhanced by the addition of crafted editorial content, especially if they start to recruit star-name magazine editors. Mediatailing will become a major online market for media companies and retailers alike.
'Separate to survive'
Traditional magazine publishers themselves are, of course, well enough placed to exploit these opportunities and even to work closely with retailers to lead the 'mediatailing' revolution to come. But, like those elderly daily newspapers trying to come to terms with their own nightmares, they would have to separate the new-wave activity from the legacy businesses.
Otherwise the medium-term financial sacrifices involved in such 'cannibalisation' will scare magazine publishers to death. And that would be sure to bring them back to their current mode simply of praying for a return of the sunshine. As if...
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