A High Wind in the Magazine Race

Michael Bird
Thomson Information Services Ltd

Some eminent Victorian stated that one of life’s major pleasures must be to stand smugly on a lee shore, watching sailors struggle desperately to save their ship from being driven on the rocks. He must count as one of the most obnoxious people of the age. Nevertheless he had a point. Consumer magazine publishing has always been great sport, but it is better enjoyed as a spectator sport for the moment, until the storm dies down, if it ever does.

This paper will not try to duplicate unnecessarily with Harry Henry’s overview of magazine trends since 1970 (ADMAP September 1988) which should be compulsory reading for all publishers and commentators. His message has consistently been that most important changes happen slowly – and sometimes changes don’t happen at all (thus real consumer spending on conventional cover-priced magazines remained static from 1970 to 1986) and we should not get carried away excitedly by every seemingly novel event. Therefore to utter remarks like 'the magazine business will never be the same again etc etc' is pretty rash talk when Harry’s eye is upon one. However, it is hard to imagine how the clock can go back ten years; in particular I do not see as reversible two crucial developments: (a) the new strength of what some people still quaintly call Fleet Street, now that the nationals are free to exploit technology, and (b) the determination of foreign invaders to conquer and colonise the British magazine market on a massive scale.

Here is a quick list of main observations

  • The market certainly has grown in circulation terms in the past three years, but the weight of new titles is crushing the old – established titles into accelerated sales decline.
  • The blitzkrieg (G + J’s seemingly easy victories of 1986–87) has given way to trench warfare, a long-drawn-out battle of attrition in the weekly and mass monthly marketplace.
  • Many new and established magazines are losing money by any accepted accounting conventions.
  • Promotional spending will chiefly benefit the TV companies – and the small number who have the deepest purses.
  • Printers will come under massive pressure to keep production cost rises well below inflation – that is, to deliver significant real cost reductions.
  • With independents representing 30 per cent of spending, magazine advertisement space will be treated increasingly as a commodity: being a famous brand will not prevent one coming under pressure to deliver rate cuts.
  • After Wapping, newspapers have been able to divert money from wages bills into product (including new titles) and into marketing.
  • Many publishers will attempt to avoid the mainstream battle by staying with niche products. Global niche launches may now follow global mainstream launches.
  • However, many new niche products will fail because of poor positioning, misjudgments about advertisers’ needs and having their themes (health, environment and so on) hijacked and done to death by mainstream titles.
  • Demographics (rapid decline in 20–25 year old recruits) and competition from newspapers and magazine launches will make fresh editorial and marketing talent scarce.
  • Distribution will be increasingly a headache; Retail Display Allowances and Sale or Return will become the rule rather than the exception and will further raise the cost of newsstand visibility.
  • The pressure to use technology and trained staff to monitor newsstand sales and wastage will increase; magazines distributed by newspaper companies (viz News International) will have an edge.
  • Reader-loyalty of newsstand buyers has been shredded, further increasing levels of unsolds and issue-to-issue fluctuations in sales.
  • Subscriptions will become increasingly important, in spite of very high postal cost, to build loyalty and prevent wild fluctuations in demand.
  • Niche magazines will badly need techniques for low-cost, low-risk launches – but established publishers will be in a better position to exploit them than small newcomers, because of their distribution advantages.
  • Shoestring editorial staffing levels will become the norm rather than the exception on new magazines. However the trend towards pictures away from words will still raise the cost of editorial pages.
  • We can expect more mergers, or cooperative ventures between publishers on shared services, to get economies of scale.
  • New major launches will be globally-orientated: either they will be based on foreign magazines or, if they are original UK ideas, they will be designed with exportability in mind.
  • Editorial research will increase and become a routine part of the business; and research companies are learning, from accumulated experience with publisher clients, how to measure what is truly relevant and usable.
  • Global orientation means formula publishing, imposing an easily-followed editorial grid; this will prevail amongst big titles.
  • To end this fairly grim list with some good news, global-grid publishing will leave opportunities for smaller magazines with a quirky, individualistic personality that will fill the emotional gap left by formula books.