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Lean, zine-printing machines: how magazines are pressing on through lockdown

Print titles have seen subscriptions surge under lockdown.

The Drum’s John McCarthy and Sam Bradley catch up with a host of editors and publishers to explore how magazines have adapted during the pandemic.

The role of print in magazine publishing has long been under question, with ink on paper looking set to be the preserve of niche, indie or luxury titles. But then something weird happened. Homebound readers reached out to trusted brands and subscription sales soared.

Despite this, editors at consumer, specialist and indie titles still face a host of worries. Remote working, a drought of non-coronavirus topics, strained printing operations, retail closures and tighter wallets for consumers and advertisers are all taking their toll. And while publishers hope to retain readers gained during recent months, choppier economic waters mean some titles will surely sink.

Right now, Bauer Media is probing the performance of at least 10 print titles that are “not expected to be sustainable after the crisis”. This includes monthly music magazine Q. Dennis Publishing, home of The Week and Viz, has taken a quarter of its staff into redundancy consultations. Across the aisle, newspapers are having a tough time. But perhaps the pandemic will prove the resilience of print.

Home and away

Jane Wolfson, chief commercial officer at Hearst, is frank about the future of print. The pandemic has “accelerated existing trends that were already challenging the publishing business model,” she says. “On the commercial side, changing the conversation from ad sales to marketing services will be vital. Things we’ve spoken about for a number of years will now happen in a matter of months.”

The firm has experienced a mixed bag of results over the last few months. While physical retail has been disrupted, digital revenues have risen.

Reid Holland, the chief consumer revenue officer at Hearst UK (home of Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Esquire) outlines the impact upon the industry's distribution networks and sales figures.

The “vast majority of shops that sell magazines are food retailers and they remained open all through lockdown,” he notes. Not so much high street and travel retailer, WHSmith, which saw a vital sales channel lost.

Holland says: “Even with most stores remaining open, sales have been challenging. People have adjusted shopping patterns to life in lockdown.” Overall, magazine sales went from being 5% down year-on-year in January and February to being 25% down once the UK entered lockdown. That has recovered slightly since, to 20% down.

Its sales at grocery retailers were also down 25% year-on-year following lockdown. That number has also recovered slightly, to 15% down, despite retail footfall having fallen by around a half. Holland says magazine sales per consumer are up significantly. “It has been a challenging few months for sales, but things could certainly have been much worse. All signs suggest that as restrictions on movement are gradually lifted, so too are sales.”

Meanwhile, subscription numbers are up. Increased time at home, screen fatigue, an e-commerce boom and for Hearst, improved marketing efforts have all factored in. “It has translated into really phenomenal sales increases,” Holland says. ”Most, if not all publishers, are seeing a big spike in new orders.”

A recent study from Jellyfish found that demand for magazine subs has skyrocketed. And Hearst says its subscription acquisition volumes are up 200% year-on-year, with print accounting for a “very large majority of sales”. According to Holland, the publisher is still working to acclimatise readers to paying for digital content, recently revamping the digital editions across its portfolio.

Nick Sargent, publishing director of British GQ, says that “with retail spaces closing, there was a quick pivot” to digital subscriptions. The men’s fashion and lifestyle mag ramped up marketing efforts online and committed vacant ad spots to championing the paid-for product.

GQ’s July and August issues blended into a bumper edition for “practicality”. With the company shifting around its printing operations to get the magazine out, a combined edition helped to ease the pressure of production deadlines – and few subscribers would bemoan a bigger, better mag landing on their doormats.

With non-essential shops reopening in England this week, Sargent is confident GQ’s print circulation will be restored to previous levels in a matter of months.

“There’s no reason it wouldn’t with the covers we shoot and the content we have. GQ is still a great pull but even if our print circulation has declined, our digital traffic rising has certainly offset that. So it is not as if we have lost people, they’re just migrated to whatever platform they can access.”

While print issues are still being delivered, the Condé Nast title is keen to encourage digital consumption habits. “GQ’s got a very good digital edition, so they’re not getting a lesser product,” he says.

According to Sargent, advertising partners have been understanding with the title. “It's just a strange six months. With ad spend and marketing budgets, we are at the mercy of the market like everybody else. This is not symptomatic of the print or press or magazine industry. This is something that’s affected every business around the world.”

Weekly wonders

Grazia UK was created to provide answers to every possible question facing modern women. However, editor Hattie Brett probably didn’t imagine herself providing answers to readers worried about a pandemic.

The weekly magazine has had to work out how to get the most from remote photoshoots and, later, socially distanced ones in the studio. It has gained plaudits for a series of front covers featuring hero medics, shot in hospital car parks. In a bind, the magazine has been able to rely on happy accidents, says Brett. “For our interiors issue, our cover star Laura Jackson was able to be shot by her husband, who is a photographer.”

While retail sales have suffered overall, locally-minded consumers have driven convenience store sales up. Meanwhile, subscriptions across digital and print rose 25% year-on-year and single-issue sales shot up as single issues were made available online for the first time.

The thousands of copies left in limbo when lockdowns began have not gone to waste, either. The title donated them to NHS hospitals as a goodwill gesture.

‘Real life’ titles, such as Take a Break and That’s Life, are heavily dependent on retail sales. Despite these difficulties, Liz Watkinson, managing director of the TV and real life portfolio at Bauer, says sales on both titles are now ”higher than their pre-Covid 19 base and branded monthly spin-offs have hit all-time high sales levels”.

Maintaining the magazines’ short production cycles has not been easy. Bauer moved Take a Break’s production from Europe to the UK “to avoid potential border hold-ups”. But the appeal of these titles appears to be that Covid-19 as a topic is mostly off the table.

The same cannot be said of Closer, Heat and Bella, which are all refusing to side-step the pandemic. Helen Morris, managing director of celebrity weeklies and entertainment at Bauer, says: “We’ve shifted the emphasis to adapt to lockdown changes and consumer needs and behaviours.”

Wellbeing, health, fitness, cooking and financial advice have taken centre stage, and the NHS has also been celebrated. With courtesy copies sent to staff, hospital staff have probably never had so many magazines.

In lieu of sales figures, Bauer shared market share performance of these titles with The Drum, reporting that Closer claims 22% of the market, Heat 13% and Bella 36%. Hinting at future struggles, Morris says Bella was the “only title in the classic market to see an increase”.

Niche interests

For cinephile title Empire, the closure of cinemas and movie production, and the lockdown of talent, has made for a “challenging time”, according to Nick de Semlyen, its acting editor. Flatplans “were virtually wiped out” and editions redrawn to rally around positive themes, nostalgia and feel-good film.

De Semlyen says: “It’s made for a tricky summer, but also a creatively rewarding one as we’ve continued to generate material that hits the right note in the current climate.”

And while press junkets are on hold, cinema legends have never been more available for exclusives. Pulled away from the handful of Avatar flicks he is working on, legendary director James Cameron found the time for a lengthy interview while Tom Hanks wrote a six-page feature and director Sofia Coppola caught up with Kirsten Dunst on Zoom.

Year-on-year, Empire has seen a 139% increase in acquired print subscriptions. Podcast production has been ramped up, movie nights have been endured and online retrospective articles dug out cinematic gems, providing screen-hungry audiences with reading material.

Bauer Media’s convoy of automotive magazines, meanwhile, have driven on, despite car sales being parked. Under lockdown, these titles have been working together to hit deadlines by sharing and repurposing content. Unpublished images from their previous shoots were dusted off, too.

Practical Classics recently celebrated its first photoshoot in eight weeks, showing four readers revving their engines on a closed road. It was a slow process, with every possible surface wiped down – and wiped down again – to ensure the safety of the crew. As June Smith-Sheppard, editorial director of specialist titles at Bauer Media, explains, the team has had to rely on remote interviews and visuals captured before the lockdown. Some titles, meanwhile, have leaned into the surge of e-racing, reacting to the latest lockdown sports trends.

Subscriptions to Car have been selling well. “It was the most successful title on the Bauer Media platform through March and April,” says Smith-Sheppard, driven by animated mag covers and targeted in-app notifications. “This strong performance was relayed to advertisers, helping our ads team retain clients who may otherwise have cancelled.”

When it comes to time-filling, meanwhile, few things beat puzzles. Watkinson says this sector has ”outperformed all other magazine sectors” in lockdown. She claims record sales and says demand for books of mixed puzzles and word searches are most in demand. Bauer even found time to launch a new puzzle title, the Bumper Kids’ Activity Book, designed to meet the demand for “educational but entertaining content to aid homeschooling”.

Watkinson is optimistic that the return of retail will swell print sales. After all, the category has never had a better chance to convert new readers into lifelong fans.

Green shoots

Bloomberg Green, the news giant’s eco-oriented vertical, announced a new print magazine launch earlier this month. It is an unusual moment to come to market, but for this purpose brand it is a vital time.

“We face economic reconstruction on a scale unmatched since the Great Depression,” warns editor Aaron Rutkoff. He wants its message out there in print supporting the brand.

Rutkoff says: “Even in 2020, magazines are a wonderful method for organising a big idea and communicating it to a big audience. And it’s hard to find an idea bigger than climate change and the energy transition.”

He says the team was “very lucky” to be part of a newsroom that practices print design in a serious way. “We didn't have to re-invent the wheel... but video conference is not an ideal design medium.”

Bloomberg Media’s chief commercial officer Stephen Colvin also offers his views on the practicality of launching a print title during a pandemic, suggesting that print magazines must serve an intrinsic brand purpose in 2020.

“The most successful news brands are first rooted in high-quality editorial content, followed by a deep understanding of their audience,” he observes. The principle applies across digital, audio, video, live events and print, he says, noting that between audience and advertiser input there is still a hunger for print, even if it’s not the mass medium it once was.

Independent minds

Media analyst Peter Houston tells The Drum that magazines can survive the pandemic by “cutting production frequency, improving production quality and making content as unique as possible”.

Houston identifies emergent trends: “The pandemic has accelerated the move to digital in the mass market and it has heightened the value of high-quality content.”

Quarterly indie title Delayed Gratification ticks many of these boxes. This champion of ‘slow journalism’ covers (not-so) current affairs with a three-month lag alongside lush infographics and detailed features. Editorial director Rob Orchard says demand has spiked, with the company enjoying record-breaking subscription sales comparable with “Christmas” levels.

“At times, sales have been double what we would expect for this time of year.” The magazine has seen its own production woes and had to race to get its latest issue out of the door before the US entered lockdown. He also explained a “zero fanfare” digital launch created as a back-up option, in case the title’s printers ceased operations. It’s providing a small but growing digital revenue stream that wasn’t there before.

It’s no surprise that screen-tired, crisis-weary readers have turned back to the escapism and quality content offered by magazines. The challenge for publishers will be keeping their attention in the face of the recession just around the corner.

Additional reporting by Sam Bradley.

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