The slow death of the magazine

Britain's best-known consumer titles, from lads' mags to women's weeklies, are steadily losing their readers as new launches and digital rivals continue to eat into circulation

Every six months, a huge set of numbers descends like confetti on the good people of medialand showing the audited circulation figures for every UK magazine.

Time was, not so very long ago, when the publication of those figures was a pretty cheerful event. Sure, there were winners and losers, but the prevailing mood tended to be of a buoyant industry sailing serenely through the choppy waters that threatened to sink other ships around them.

Indeed, the envious souls clinging to the hulls of their regional and national newspapers would look across with longing in their eyes as they tried to keep their sales pitches afloat with long-winded explanations of how well their websites were doing. Some of them even tried - generally unsuccessfully - to set up magazine divisions themselves.

But yesterday, when the Audit Bureau of Circulation released its figures for the first six months of 2007, the boardrooms of Soho and the South Bank were less likely to be resounding to the chink of champagne flutes than to the sucked-in cheeks of circulation directors wondering why the graphs of their biggest magazines are suddenly pointing so steeply in the wrong direction.

In every significant sector, the big newsstand brands are clearly feeling the pain. Glamour, the top-selling women's monthly, has lost 41,000 readers - 7 per cent of its total - since last year. Emap's Yours lost 14 per cent. Of the weeklies, Bauer Publishing's market leader Take A Break dropped 6 per cent. The once-exponential growth of Emap's Heat is starting to go the other way, down 4 per cent.

In the men's market, there's even more blood on the walls. FHM has lost more than 100,000 of its buyers in twelve months - that's a quarter of them. Similar percentages afflict Maxim and Arena. Loaded is 35 per cent down, and even the newer weeklies Nuts and Zoo suffered steep drops in the number of men prepared to cough up for them.

Those are not isolated examples. The trend is clear if we take a look at the 100 best selling, paid-for magazines in the country - making a distinction between these "actively purchased" titles and the magazines that come free with a Sky subscription, an AA membership, or those annoying loyalty cards that you never have with you at the checkout.

Twelve months ago, the Top 100 had total top-line circulation figures of 31 million between them, ranging from the top-selling What's On TV (1.5 million a week) to Zest (96,467 a week).

This week's Top 100 still sees What's On TV at the top of the pile at 1.4 million but this time the 100th title, All About Soap, only needs 87,000 or so sales to make it on to the chart. And the total circulation figure of the 100 is just 24 million - that's a full 20 per cent down.

Does that mean it's all over for the magazine industry? Are we all too busy poking each other on Facebook to have time to nip to the newsagents?

Well, not quite. The Periodical Publishers Association reckons that expenditure on magazines is actually on the rise. It estimates a figure of £1.58bn for annual cover price revenue, based on this set of circulation figures -a number very slightly up on last year. So even though we're buying fewer magazines, we're spending slightly more on them because of price increases.

Similar estimates from the Advertising Association show customer expenditure on magazines rose for the first half of the decade, peaked in 2005, and started to slide downwards. Its 2007 figures aren't published yet.

But if the big brands are suffering so badly, who is making up for the shortfall? Well partly it's that there are simply more titles around than ever before. In 2000, there were 15 women's weeklies. Now there are 24. Back then, there was no such thing as a men's weekly; Nuts and Zoo were merely glints in a special projects editor's eye. Furthermore, the PPA reckons there is still, on average, a new magazine launching every day of the year.

If the overall cake's the same size, everybody has to take a smaller slice.

Certainly there are seem to be plenty of niche titles whose performance bears that out. Titles such as Doctor Who Adventures - a great favourite in the Reeves household - is up a whopping 99 per cent in a year. The excellent Psychologies is bucking the women's monthly trend, up 25 per cent. Dennis Publishing's The Week recorded its 18th consecutive ABC rise, thanks to a concentration on selling subscriptions rather than newsstand sales.

There also continues to be a growth in free magazines. The success of Sport, given away in London every Friday, has been duly noted. In the coming weeks we'll see the launch of AlphaOne, backed by some big industry names including former IPC editorial director Mike Soutar, shaking things up still further as it aims for a 500,000 distribution given away to punters on the streets of large cities.

It all points to a significant change in the shape of the market. The pyramid is flattening out. The revenue model is changing. But that is where things get difficult if you're IPC or Nat Mags or Emap - currently without a chief executive and perhaps in the process of being broken up. Big brands are what you do. You spend a vast fortune ensuring that your top-selling titles are among the few that Tesco and Sainsbury's - increasingly important outlets for sales of magazines - will feel it worthwhile stacking on their shelves.

And if you're honest, you'd also admit to a fear that things might yet take a turn for the worse. You're already investing heavily in digital publishing and, in some cases, have closed print titles in favour of cheaper digital magazines - CosmoGirl's demise to make way for Jellyfish being a case in point.

The trouble is, advertisers just won't pay you anywhere near the same amount, no matter how many mouse clicks you can show them, than they will for a lovingly-printed spread on 100gsm premium silk paper.

Until they do, you probably won't be looking forward with any degree of enthusiasm to the next set of figures, which are due out in six months time.

Ian Reeves is a former editor of 'UK Press Gazette' and is a media consultant

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