Slaughter on the news-stands – why our mags are in trouble

Magazines are in trouble. Our biggest have been steadily declining since the 80s – the rise of the internet, and a recession, have only made matters worse. Where have all the readers gone and how can publishers lure them back? DANIEL SIMMONS RITCHIE talks to the kings and queens of glossy print.

THEY were the cocks of the walk. Big-name titles with big-name editors in the biggest market, per capita, in the world. Each week our trolleys spilled with their works. We bowed, tea in hand, at their altars.

Where did it all go wrong?

For 20 years our biggest magazines have been taking on water. Throw in the rise of the internet and a recent recession, and some look close to sinking.

Kiwis aren’t interested in our Listeners and Woman’s Weeklys any more. Those two giants once ruled this country with a combined circulation of 700,000. Today, the Listener slouches along at 60,000 and NZ Woman’s Weekly around 71,000.

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In the last 10 years, their decline has been stable compared to New Zealand Woman’s Day, which has shed 27.7% of its readers in the last three years. For the first time in its history, Metro, once the showpiece of serious writing in this country, has dipped below 10,000 readers, A quarter of its circulation 25 years ago.

When did New Zealanders stop buying magazines?

Former Metro editor Bill Ralston says New Zealanders didn’t stop reading magazines – we were just given more choice. “The pie hasn’t grown, if you know what I mean, but there are a lot more slices out of it.”

When editor Warwick Roger introduced Metro  28 years ago, Ralston says, there were few other magazines to contend with, let alone the glossy ones in the Sunday papers. Those were also the days before John Campbell and Paul Holmes started chewing into current affairs territory.

In recent years, Ralston suspects the internet has changed the game. He says this as a man who, until a few years ago, used to devour Vanity Fair and have the Sunday Times flown in from London. “I find so much of it accessible online now it takes a lot to wind me up to go out to the magazine shop and buy it.”

His old darling, Metro, now treading 9,680 copies according to the latest audit, is likely running a loss, and he wonders whether publisher ACP will soon be forced to combine it with its sister, North & South.

The recession has been a low blow for titles like Metro. In the US, it’s been gruesome. In the second half of 2009, news-stand sales slipped 9% and advertising slumped by 26% compared to the year before. In New Zealand, the first half of 2009 saw net circulation drop by 7.8% compared to the year before.

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Our big three magazine publishers – ACP, Fairfax Media, and NZ Magazines, which dominate 65% of the magazine market – all saw circulation losses in 2009.

But not everyone’s licking their wounds.

The fastest-growing magazines right now are specialist titles. Food and gardening have resisted the recession, riding a wave of interest in home-cooking and sustainable living.

One of those winners is Mindfood, a lifestyle magazine launched by Michael and Michelle McHugh and their independently owned company. Launched in March, 2008, a time of tight budgets, the magazine has nearly doubled its circulation.

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Michael McHugh says the reason the big magazines are shedding readers is their publishers didn’t invest in innovation.

You have to remember, he says, our media companies are nearly all owned by Australian media companies which, in turn, are owned by offshore venture capital. “Their focus is very bottom line-driven and it’s all about profit and loss and how much money they can make out of each title.

“So in terms of investment and that creativity that’s needed within magazines and media in general, it’s not really a top priority – it’s just not.”

When the larger brands realise they’re in trouble, and ad sales and circulation is down, he says it’s too late – they’ve already jumped off the cliff.

McHugh says magazines have always needed to tweak and reinvent themselves for their readers and that means, right now, reinventing with the web in mind. “It’s key. It’s the key for the future, because what it does is it gives you another media platform to attract the consumer with great content.”

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Woman’s Day editor Sarah Henry, whose magazine doesn’t have a website, isn’t buying that. While the internet might work for certain publications, she says, with forums and archived content, it’s a fool’s errand for most mass-market weeklies.

“It’s very,  very hard.  Why would somebody buy your magazine if you’re giving away all your content free online?” That’s the mistake daily newspapers are making and it’s killing them, Henry says.

The big reason Woman’s Day has taken a dive, she says, echoing Ralston, is that her audience is now split between Cleo, New Idea, NW and OK. She also says, more in vindication than irritation, she now has to compete with the six o’clock TV news for coverage on the latest Britney Spears meltdown.

Chuck an economic downturn into the mix, and yes, sure, the numbers aren’t as high as they once were, but print is still king.

No woman might know more about the peaks and troughs of that world than Wendyl Nissen, the former queen bee of Woman’s Day, NZ Woman’s Weekly and Cleo.

Tough economic times? That’s a crock, says Nissen. Women’s magazines have been declining for a long time and she says it’s partly because people are spending more time on their computers.

When Nissen edited Woman’s Day, circulation sat around 220,000. Today, she says, 50,000 is a healthy figure for a magazine. “For the first time – and it’s taken me a couple of years to realise – but it’s time to get the old guard out of it. They are really not equipped to deal with the online phenomenon.”

Some big publishers did try to equip themselves. In September, 2006, ACP Publishing bought Runway Reporter, a fashion website started by fashion writer Stacy Gregg. In early 2009, they closed it.

“They killed it”, says Nissen, “They didn’t understand you had to update it regularly.”

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ACP also put the hammer down on the online portals of Your Home and Garden and Metro because the IT guys cost too much and they weren’t bringing enough revenue in.

Nissen says  if you look at the magazines on the rise – NZ Gardener, Healthy Food Guide – they not only have niche audiences, they are using the web to connect with them.  “You have got to understand it’s a very clever editor that does that, who goes I’m going to Twitter and I’m going to Facebook.”

One of those editors is Niki Bezzant, whose magazine Healthy Food Guide has grown rapidly since it debuted five years ago. She says much of the magazine’s success is that it hit a niche that was not covered in the market – and still isn’t.

Bezzant, formerly Cuisine’s web editor, says her website is how they get know their readers: “It’s a way to give us feedback. People can talk to us.” Looking at their stats and their searches, Bezzant knows what recipes they should be doing more of.

She says her readers can’t be expected to dig through five years of back issues to find a recipe. They need a searchable database. Her reward has been 59,717 unique visits a month. “I think it’s really a complement to the print magazine and it’s part of the whole experience they have with your product.”

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Michael McHugh is taking an even more aggressive approach with Mindfood. He says it’s about attacking the reader from every platform you can. “If  you’ve only really got a magazine you’re only talking to them one way, where you could talk to them on many different platforms. You’ve got online, or TV, or podcast.”

John McClintock, head of the NZ Magazine Publishers Association, says advertisers are now warming to that multimedia environment: “We are finding that we have got what were termed ‘magazine advertising people’ now being termed ‘media people’.”

Rather than selling ads on one magazine, the big publishers are offering ads across their entire portfolio and that includes online.

Soon, McClintock says, that will expand even further. “I reckon in the next 12 months you will find the advertisers will be offered an extension of their environment through the e-book.”

McClintock refers to devices like the iPad, a tablet computer that Apple CEO Steve Jobs showcased to the world in January. In the US, the device has excited magazine publishers as much for its ample 25cm screen as Apple’s track record for creating paid-content distribution .

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Wired magazine and Sports Illustrated have already shown off demos of their publications on the iPad. The device is scheduled to launch in New Zealand later this year and McClintock says the Magazine Publishing Association will be running a seminar on e-book publishing when it’s out. “I think September, October will be an exciting time.”

So is that the end of the print magazine?

Journalist Gordon Campbell doesn’t think so, despite running one of New Zealand’s few web-magazines. More than a year ago, he launched Werewolf, a free online-only magazine supported by freelance journalism.

He says the iPad is just another platform like the internet and print. While these formats might bicker and argue amongst themselves, they all need one another. Campbell knows this because, although he’s grateful to Werewolf’s readers, it’s a barebones operation he does more for the opportunity than any financial gain.

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“The web model hasn’t found how it can do the good things that mainstream media has done and has always been able to afford,” he says. There isn’t the revenue stream to support full-time journalism yet, he says, and for the foreseeable future print is still king.

For some editors that’s the way it should be.

Woman’s Day’s  Sarah Henry: “You don’t go to your laptop and logon and go ‘I’m going to read the Dominion Post online’, because that would be ridiculous. But you might lie on your couch with a beer and open your newspaper.

“You see what I’m trying to say about the tactileness of it? And that’s why magazines will never be dead and online will never replace that, because it’s as much about the experience of reading it.”

Will they publish on the iPad?

What the editors think

Sarah Henry (Woman’s Day): “As I say, it’s not the experience our readers want. Would I absolutely 100% rule it out? Absolutely not.”

Michael McHugh (Mindfood): “We can let some of the other big boys go and trial it. If we think there’s merit in that, we would look at putting out content on that.”

Gordon Campbell (Werewolf ): “It seems like quite a long way away. I’m just thinking in terms of the next two to three issues really.”

Nikki Bezzant (Healthy Food Guide): “I can see there’s some potential for a magazine to publish on that format, possibly. Who knows. It could be really good.”

Who owns what?

SHARES OF TOTAL CIRCULATION – ABC Jan-June 2009 AUDIT

NZ Magazines – APN (13%, publisher value: $16.7m): Woman’s Weekly, Listener, Crème, Simply You, House of the Year, Canvas (included in NZ Herald Weekender)

ACP (26%, publisher value: 26.9%): Woman’s Day, Australian Woman’s Weekly, Next, Taste, Metro, North & South

Fairfax Media (26.2%, publisher value: $21.4m): Skywatch, TV Guide, Fish & Game NZ, Cuisine, NZ Fishing News, Sky Sport, Boating NZ, NZ Horse and Pony, Sunday (included in Sunday Star-Times)


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