Ian Burrell's Media Studies: Magazines must embrace their digital future – or disappear

Newsstand sales of magazines in America have fallen by around 25 million in a decade

Just as the portable digital device will offer salvation to some magazines, so it will also be the instrument that bludgeons others to death.

The latest six-monthly circulation figures published by the British magazine industry resembled the scene of a grisly massacre. Famous titles saw sales fall by up to 30 per cent from the same period last year. You don't need me to tell you such haemorrhaging of revenue is unsustainable.

What we are witnessing here is the collapse of the celebrity magazine sector that exploded in the 1990s. Faced with the instant accessibility of free celebrity websites, from TMZ, Perez Hilton and Gawker to PopSugar and Mail Online, weekly gossip titles just cannot compete.

So Richard Desmond has seen the demise of Northern & Shell money spinners such as Star magazine (down 29.9 per cent in sales this year) and New! (down 21 per cent). Bauer title Closer has seen circulation fall by 15.2 per cent in 12 months.

As is customary at times when circulation figures are being released, the publishing companies have thrown their PR teams into the breach, slicing and dicing the statistics to suggest signs of hope, even in sectors where little exists.

The most credible sign that magazines have a future is the growth in digital sales. The titles that are discovering a life beyond print are those with distinct offerings, high production values and – most crucially – a publisher with a genuine commitment to realising the potential of technological change.

Thus the Hearst-Rodale magazine Men's Health has piled 12,676 digital sales onto its monthly circulation. Condé Nast's GQ is another digital front runner, with 11,779 copies delivered via iPad (9 per cent of its total circulation). The male obsession with gadgetry means there is a gender bias in digital sales, although this is rapidly disappearing as tablets become smaller and more ubiquitous.

The publisher which appears in the biggest hurry to abandon print for digital is Future. So you would expect its technology title T3 to be at the forefront of the transition and, indeed, the combination of its digital replica sales (11,158) and interactive copies (18,005) almost equates to the print circulation (36,054).

But herein lies a problem. Some publishers are becoming deeply frustrated that this digital growth is not being properly represented in the figures compiled by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), on which they depend to attract advertising. Nicholas Coleridge, president of Condé Nast has accused the ABC of "bureaucracy, pedantry and timidity" in failing to represent the digital successes of the industry in its data.

"We media owners find ourselves in the odd position of investing hundreds of thousands of pounds in these fabulous new tablet versions, but being held back from fully reaping the benefits of our innovation by an organisation that we ourselves fund," he told Campaign.

You can almost hear the alarm in his voice. Meanwhile the industry's Periodical Publishers Association (PPA) does publish combined print and digital circulation figures – but only includes the exact replica apps, and not the interactive products that users find increasingly attractive.

The PPA is celebrating its centenary this year and is holding a competition to identify the best magazine covers of the last century – meanwhile, the industry itself is fighting a battle to ensure it's not consigned to history. The PPA's own figures show that many magazines have barely begun their digital journey. IPC's Country Life, for example, sells only 149 monthly apps out of its 38,395 circulation. Haymarket's Classic & Sports Car has just 50 digital sales in its 70,263 distribution.

Much as publishers might want to see tablets and mobiles as the rafts that will carry them across to the promised land, there is not going to be space on board for everyone.

Researchers in America have recently identified a worrying behavioural trend that should really trouble the magazine trade.

The "mobile blinder" is that moment when the consumer is standing at the check-out waiting to pay for their shop, and pulls out their digital device for a quick catch up on their email, social media or the latest online headlines.

This is the time when they would previously have been scanning the cover lines of the magazine rack by the till – and quite possibly making a spontaneous purchase. Newsstand sales of American magazines have fallen by around 25 million in a decade and by 9.5 per cent in the past year, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. The impact of the "mobile blinder" appears most pronounced for the women's lifestyle, fashion and celebrity sectors.

Is it really any wonder that Cosmopolitan is down 18.3 per cent on last year's British sale, that Grazia has slipped 9.2 per cent Glamour by 9.1 per cent and even the real life staple Take a Break is down by 5.2 per cent?

Some publishers are trying to compensate for lost circulation revenue by courting the cash of high-end advertisers with offers of gatefold covers, multi-page promotions and bold innovation. Marie Claire recently included a Dolce & Gabbana advertising video, which was built into the magazine and began playing as the previous page was turned.

But there are only so many luxury brands and most magazines aren't even in that market. Most importantly, no matter how beautiful the product, the advertisers will no longer come if nobody is reading.

Guilty until proven innocent at The Sun – unless you work there

The arrests last week of two serving members of staff at The Sun mean that whole swathes of the paper's Wapping news room are on police bail.

Scotland Yard has previously questioned 17 former or serving Sun journalists as part of its Operation Elveden inquiry into illegal payments to public officials and one more over its Operation Tuleta investigation into computer hacking.

The latest Sun arrests – along with four others from the former features desk of the News of the World – were made as part of a new line of inquiry by the Operation Weeting team, which is probing phone hacking.

Rupert Murdoch's News International is paying the legal bills of those who remain on his staff and continue to write and edit stories. Fair enough, innocent until proven guilty and all that.

Except that The Sun itself does not seem to apply a similar level of sympathy to others under suspicion. Take yesterday's page three scoop on the Coronation Street actor Michael Le Vell, who is charged with sex offences. In a "Rape Rap Exclusive", The Sun's Sunday edition – brought in by Rupert to replace the News of the World – reported that the actor was already being written out of the show.

"Corrie star Michael Le Vell's character could be jailed in the soap – after show bosses suspended him over claims that he raped a child."

At least with his own employees, Mr Murdoch seems prepared to allow justice to take its course.

Yentob's Beyoncé HBO coup

After 15 years in the making, Beyoncé's autobiographical documentary Life is But a Dream was premiered on Saturday night on HBO – which is said to have paid $2m (£1.3m) for the privilege. Many British broadcasters would no doubt love to show it here – indeed Sky Atlantic brands itself as the cable channel's partner in the UK. But such relationships take no account of the influence in A-list hip-hop and R'n'B circles of the BBC's veteran Creative Director Alan Yentob. Ever since filming an Imagine special on the rapper Jay-Z (Mr Beyoncé) in 2008, Yentob has maintained his connections to the golden couple. He had hoped to film the singer himself, but Beyoncé's father – and until recently her manager – was never keen. Yentob hasn't managed to make his own Beyoncé documentary but he has managed to land the film she made herself – for a snip. It is likely to be shown on BBC One next month.

Twitter: @iburrell

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