Why are men's magazines being left on the shelf?

What do men want? It's an imponderable question which I feel strangely unqualified to answer. I suspect there are quite a few men who feel like me: I have an aversion to shopping, contempt for most advertising, only a vague notion of where I'm going in life, a bemused attitude to extreme sports, and a fairly strong conviction that repeatedly showing me images of semi-naked women will do nothing but make me feel depressed, frustrated and grubby. So when I leaf through a pile of men's magazines, I can't help wondering who they're addressing.

But the inner dialogue of British men – their preoccupations, needs and neuroses – is something that editors on these magazines must spend untold hours pondering.

A stack of current issues reveals some of their attempts at connecting with me: FHM asks if I've ever paid for sex before telling me what it's like to be a Californian firefighter; GQ enlists Piers Morgan to "undress" a "Hollywood hottie", while Zoo prefers to show images of Jodie Marsh sucking a lollipop while a teddy bear obscures her genitals; Esquire gives a taste of what it's like to freefall from space; Nuts shows some stills from horror films, and a camera-phone snap sent in by Laura (from Burnley) of her in the bathroom with her top off. Men's Health, by contrast, tells me how to master the "one-arm chin-up", something that I've never even come remotely close to attempting.

While this is obviously a cursory spin through, much of the content could be summed up as cars, tits, danger, six-packs, tits, booze, football, tits, and tits. How's this approach working out? Not particularly well. The sector as a whole is selling 3.8 per cent fewer magazines than last year, but four titles in particular – FHM, Zoo, Nuts and Loaded – have shown a dramatic fall; FHM has slumped by 18.1 per cent year-on-year, while Zoo has seen a 27.9 per cent fall to 80,026 copies per week. Five years ago it was shifting 260,000.

Following their triumphant launch in the mid-1990s, the magazines that might loosely be termed "lads mags" now appear to be stuck in a decline that, for some, might prove to be terminal. While some of this is down to the fall in consumption of print media, the way that the sector's decline is borne largely by these four titles has led to a debate about how relevant they are to the 21st-century bloke. Are we rejecting their swagger in a return to a more touchy-feely, new-man approach? Have we decided their portrayal of women is crass and insensitive? Or are we simply spending our cash on booze and protein shakes and getting our kicks from online porn? What does our wildly changeable magazine consumption say about our masculinity?

Drawing parallels between the sale of glossy printed paper and shifts in sexual politics inevitably involves sweeping generalisations and misplaced theories. But the focus groups employed by the industry have returned the same findings for the past few years: men don't necessarily share the lads mags' values any longer. Phil Hilton, formerly of Men's Health, Nuts, and now the editorial director of free men's weekly title Shortlist (the most widely-read men's magazine in the UK) believes that much of this is down to the uncertainty faced by young men. "There's been a social change for them – employment-wise, role-wise, relationship-wise," he says. "A lot of certainties have faded away. They're trying to build careers, they're finding it nerve-racking, and I don't think those magazines reflect the current mood so much. As for older men, our research shows an almost visceral hatred of that market. I think times are changing."

Proving the suggestion that we're more playboy in boom-time and more puritan in a recession is tricky. And it's equally hard to interpret focus-group findings as broadly representative of men's attitudes – after all, we're enamoured enough with the range of men's magazines to buy 2.12m copies of them every month. But journalist and sociologist, Natasha Radmehr, notes a shift in the portrayal of men in film and television that also runs contrary to the lad mag ethos. "Geeky, sensitive guys have become the new pin-up boys (or protagonists, at least) in a lot of film and TV," she says. "They're more attuned to how women feel, and this doesn't sit well with that image of guys being beer-and-boob-obsessed oafs who need constant guidance on how to deal with the opposite sex."

The presentation of women in lads mags has always been a controversial topic. I can almost hear the debate play out in my head as I open a copy of Nuts and look at pictures of the actress Maria Fowler. She's undeniably beautiful, but seeing the legend "34E CHEST!" slapped across the photos makes me roll my eyes and adopt a pained expression.

"You can see the tone of contempt that runs throughout these magazines," says Matt McCormack Evans, the 22-year-old founder of the campaigning group, The AntiPornMenProject. "Not just the objectification, but also the trivialisation of issues like prostitution. For socially-conscious young men, I think there's a huge disconnect between what they're presented with and what they think is right."

But the publishers aren't stupid; over many years they've established that putting a semi-naked woman on the cover of a men's magazine is a surefire way of selling it. The issue of GQ I've got in front of me features a picture of a pouting, gently perspiring, slightly dishevelled Jessica Alba. Inside the magazine, meanwhile, is a thoughtful piece by The Independent's Johann Hari exploring the reasons why speed cameras should remain stationed on our highways. The contrast between the two feels almost surreal.

Shortlist, as a free title handed out at railway stations, doesn't have news-stand pressure and refrains from using such images. It would feel strange if they did; I can honestly say that I've never seen a man reading a copy of Nuts or Zoo on public transport, which may well be a quiet indicator of how we really feel about them. But while Phil Hilton stresses that Shortlist will only ever use cover images "that reflect well on the people holding them", pretending that sex doesn't sell magazines is ridiculous, according to Joe Barnes, editor of independent men's magazine, Front.

In stark contrast to the rest of the sector, Front has seen its readership increase by 7.8 per cent in the past year, attracted by its mix of music coverage, irreverent humour, ladette-next-door photo features and a "no fake boobs" guarantee. "It's depressing how people want to stick an axe in our back," he says. "People seem to celebrate the demise of lads mags, but if they think they're celebrating the end of men enjoying looking at naked women, they're very wrong. I'm really proud of Front – I think it's a really interesting, creative mag, targeted at young men who are bored in their bedrooms, who just want a bit of irreverence. And girls love it, too. If you could release a version of the mag for them, I think it would outsell Front."

The almost unimaginable quantity of hardcore pornography on the internet is often cited as a reason why men may be rejecting the milder titillation on offer below the newsagent's top shelf. But internet porn has been a constant throughout the lives of Nuts, Zoo and Front; they found their niche by focusing on "real women" that their readership might consider more attainable.

According to Fred Attenborough, a lecturer in media studies at Loughborough University, the competition is now coming from an entirely different internet source – and one that men may be equally unwilling to admit to focus groups. "For me, it's all about Facebook," he says. "It's the interactive element. You have young men who were once looking at the girl-next-door in lads mags, now actually interacting with female friends of friends online. As someone who's surrounded by teenagers at Loughborough, I know it's going on. They just don't need the mags anymore. It's becoming a DIY culture."

And faced with a long train journey, the lure of Facebook – along with games, the web, text messages, video etc – on a smartphone may be another reason why some magazines' sales are declining. The more upmarket men's mags are having an easier time than their lad-mag counterparts. Sales of GQ and Esquire are holding up, while Shortlist's success – over half a million weekly copies distributed – incorporates similarly "intelligent" content.

All this may have inspired the decision by the publishing house Bauer to pilot a new weekly newsstand title for "successful" men (irritatingly) called Gaz7eta. Ella Dolphin, publisher of Grazia and overseer of the Gaz7eta project, says that focus groups revealed another strong current need for men: mentorship and guidance. "Our testing showed that men have a real interest in the idea of legends, mentors and advisors," she says. "So our pilot issue has a back-page feature called 'What I Learnt', which features Lemmy from Motorhead passing on advice from genuine experience."

I'm unsure as to whether Lemmy has anything to say to me about my life, but Gaz7eta isn't alone in identifying some kind of need for mentorship. Hilton references one very popular section of Shortlist's website, "Instant Improver". "It partners a newish slot in the magazine called 'Instructions for Men', and I think there's a hunger for this – the lost manly skills. With the end of a lot of industrial work, men are sitting around in offices – but we don't know how to mend a plug or change a tyre. That makes us feel uncomfortable."

Manlab, a current BBC2 series presented by James May, adopts a similar thread, while a clutch of American websites – The Art of Manliness, Made Possible, Man of the House and Good Men Project – are also proving popular, with a combination of witty writing and self-improvement tips.

Benoit Denizet-Lewis, a writer for The New York Times Magazine and editor of the Good Men Project, says that the website is something of a leap of faith. "By putting this out there, we're saying that there are thoughtful men, men with a conscience, who aren't currently being spoken to in any kind of intelligent or interesting way. So we're starting an honest conversation about manhood, about what it means to be a good man in America. Twenty-five per cent of our profits go to charity to help at-risk boys, too, so we're genuinely trying to do good across the board. This is an experiment that's going on right now with us and other websites, and the signs are positive."

My inability to wrestle with fuse wire without first consulting my dad doesn't really bother me unduly; I find myself watching Manlab more because it's gently funny and nicely researched. The author and journalist Mark Simpson also believes that this reclamation of masculinity is merely entertainment. He sees the only real evidence of self-improvement as being physical – as demonstrated by the huge success of Men's Health. "The victory here is that a magazine with men's tits on the cover has become Britain's bestselling men's magazine," he says. "That's happened because it focuses on men themselves, their neuroses – and particularly their own bodies." It's a title that's celebrated within the industry because of the way its incredibly rigid formula – particularly its obsession with abdominal muscle development – has succeeded in getting almost a quarter of a million men to part with £3.99 every month. What's less clear is the readers' motivation for doing so.

Suraya Sidhu Singh, the editor of women's erotic magazine Filament, isn't sure that it's about attracting women. She believes it's a culmination of the growing issue of male vanity. "It's strange: they're marketing a body image, an appearance in men that women aren't necessarily into. For some men, it's become a competitiveness thing; I'm sure that some believe that it will make them hot for the girls, but it's not necessarily the case."

This comes as a relief to me; my own physique bears as much similarity to the front cover of Men's Health as it does Angling Times. "I think this is more about how men feel about themselves when they look in the mirror," says Simpson. "Men's magazines today have to speak to men directly about their interests, and if the success of Men's Health is anything to go by, they're mostly interested in themselves." Young men of the 1970s would probably regard their modern counterparts' willingness to openly discuss the merits of various brands of hair gel utterly baffling.

Perhaps the feminist argument is right: men are now being put in the position that women have been in for decades (if not centuries), in that we're being pressured to look a certain way, and persuaded that certain products are needed to achieve that. I can certainly find no other explanation for the quantity of Nivea-branded items in my bathroom. "I think men's magazines have done what they were invented to do," says Simpson, "and that's to deliver high-end advertising to a market that had remained resolutely unpenetrated. Loaded came up with the formula for getting men to buy glossies. FHM perfected it. And now we're buying the products they advertise. But we're advertised at in a million different ways, now. So magazines are finding themselves caught in a pincer action between a lack of interest in print media, and the fact that they don't really have a function anymore."

The columnist Suzanne Moore believes that magazines will continue to struggle to speak to men. "Women are used to being identified as a consumer group," she says. "We've been addressed this way for 50 years. But men identify themselves more by what they do, and I'm not sure that issuing them with instructions on how to be a man is something they necessarily appreciate. The magazines are almost becoming manuals. And I think men like to assume that they know what they're doing – which of course they don't."

Do I want, or need, to be told how to be a man? For decades there's supposed to have been some kind of crisis of masculinity, but there are so many cross-cutting discourses that it's impossible to know exactly what that crisis is. Perhaps no wonder, then, that the failing magazines feel they're on something of a wild-goose chase. But according to Phil Hilton, it's simple. "It's just about arming yourself up for relationships and working life, making the best of yourself. Find the right woman, try not to be a total shambles at work, look as if you know what you're doing when you leave the house in the morning." If that's all that us men want, it's a fairly modest ambition. But it's one that Jodie Marsh, sucking on a lollipop, probably isn't going to be able to help me with.

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