Girls just want to have toys

Teen magazines are giving away gadgets and ringtones to shore up circulation. Lisa Brinkworth reports
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The Independent Online

Lauren Proctor is 15 and a magazine junkie. But she's part of a dwindling market. Because teenagers are more interested in internet chatrooms and accessing the Net through their mobile phones, the magazines aimed at them are in deep trouble.

While Lauren is happy to shell out a sizeable chunk of her pocket money on magazines every month, she admits to being the exception among her crowd in Horsham, West Sussex.

"A lot of my friends are reluctant to spend £2 or £3 a month on magazines when they can get news stories faster on-line," she says. "I think magazines aimed at my age group have serious competition from the internet and chat rooms. Most of my school friends spend their spare time using MSN Messenger while on their mobile phones. They're more likely to read my magazine than to buy one themselves."

Lauren's story is symptomatic of a wider downturn in publishing in which more than half of the magazines for younger people have experienced heavy drops in sales in the latest ABC circulation period. The music and entertainment sector has suffered most. The BBC's Top of the Pops has fallen by 14 per cent in the past year, Emap's Smash Hits has lost 19 per cent and Hachette's TV Hits suffered a 30 per cent drop. Among specialist teenage girls' titles, Sugar magazine sustained a 10 per cent drop and Mizz sales fell by 30 per cent on last year.

Marcus Rich, managing director of Emap Performance, which publishes Smash Hits, admits it has never been harder to win the interest of teenagers. "Five to 10 years ago was a good time to launch a teenage magazine," he says. "Young girls would come home and watch Blue Peter before tea, then their media world revolved around reading magazines in their bedrooms."

He claims that the huge growth in television channels and multi-television homes is consuming the leisure time of teenagers just as much as the accessibility of computers. "These days, most kids are watching digital television channels, they are connected to chat rooms and they are using mobile phones. Inevitably, some titles have simply fallen off the radar," he says. The BBC's Dare magazine, is such an example, having closed after just 10 issues.

"The teen market is undergoing a dramatic transformation," says Rich. "There was a time when teenagers would buy two or three magazines a month. That's not the case anymore."

When Lauren's friends do take an interest in magazines, they are attracted to gossipy titles such as Heat and Closer, which are ostensibly aimed at an older readership. "My friends consider them better value for money as they are cheaper and provide a lot of celebrity gossip," she says.

There is a blurring of distinction between the reading material favoured by mothers and their daughters. Lysanne Currie, editorial director of Hachette's teen titles including Sugar, agrees that the teenage market is being squeezed as older teenagers are moving towards gossip and adult magazines such as Glamour. "The gap is narrowing as the older end of the market is being shaved off," she says. "However, it's still a pretty big market. There are lots of teenagers buying magazines. We may be in decline, but we are not dying a death yet."

Currie believes that the pressure on publishers is pushing them to interact much more with the reader. "Interactive communication with the reader is crucial now. Sugar readers are encouraged to text and e-mail their stories, opinions and questions," she says.

Rich agrees. Readers can now tune into Smash Hits TV, digital radio and interactive platforms, and install Smash Hits mobile-phone ring-tones.

Gadgets, provided as free gifts, are also viewed as critical tools in the battle to win back readers. Rich says: "Teenagers are attracted to an integrated package. We had a huge success with our red portable radio and headphones. They started something of a trend with girls Tippex-ing them white to make them look like iPods."

The interactive approach is key to the rare teen title success of Cosmo Girl (up 6 per cent), the teenage version of Cosmopolitan aimed at girls of 14 to 17. "The reason I like Cosmo Girl so much is that it gives me the chance to interact with the magazine," says Lauren. "They ask for your opinions on stories or trends which you text or e-mail over. I've even got to meet Tessa Jowell through the magazine. Cosmo Girl seems more like a big sister than sales people trying to sell you a product."

The publishers of Mizz recognise that the magazine has been slow on the uptake when it comes to interactive gimmicks and give-aways. Sarah Fisher, IPC Connect's publishing director, says: "There is no question that the teen market is tough and it has become even tougher due to an increasingly expensive cover-mount war which Mizz has chosen to move away from."

Philip Cutts, director of marketing for the Periodical Publishers Association, believes teen magazines will pull through. "Teen readership is still the biggest of all sectors, with 95 per cent of all teenagers reading a magazine, compared with 80 per cent of the entire population," he says. "What we're seeing are shifting patterns, with brand-extension activity targeting readers through different touch points, such as digital TV and ring tones. The industry is merely undergoing change." If publishers move swiftly, new technology may yet prove to be the saviour of teen magazines after all.