As Glamour goes “digital first”, what does the future hold for magazines?

The pervading sense of decline is rooted firmly in reality, but it also obscures a more complex picture.

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On 6 October, Glamour magazine, one of the UK’s most recognisable women’s titles, announced that it was abandoning its monthly print edition in favour of a “digital first” strategy and two glossy print releases a year. The news prompted a renewed round of industry introspection.

The numbers provide plenty of reasons to be gloomy. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the combined revenues from cover sales and advertising for the UK’s magazines have fallen by 8 per cent since 2012 from £2.4bn to £2.2bn, and will fall a further 18 per cent to £1.8bn by 2021. Digital growth simply isn’t replacing declines in print ads and circulation, and by 2022 the market will be almost a quarter smaller than it was a decade before.

The pervading sense of decline is rooted firmly in reality, but it also obscures a more complex picture. Current-affairs magazines such as the Economist, the Spectator and, yes, the New Statesman have been on an upward trajectory. According to the Economist’s deputy editor, Tom Standage, that isn’t simply the result of the uncertain state of the world, but also the desire for journalism that helps make sense of it all.

“The more noise there is on social media, all those TV channels and so on, the more demand there is for a finite, finishable package that helps you understand what’s going on,” Standage says. “A noisier and more uncertain news environment works in our favour.”

Other sectors, such as TV listings and children’s magazines, continue to appeal because comparable online alternatives haven’t emerged. But those whose roles are easily replicated have suffered. Women’s titles such as Glamour have struggled to compete with bloggers and social media stars, and lads’ mags have become all but extinct after the culture (and bare breasts) they offered shifted to the web.

“It’s a big mistake to look at magazines as a single homogeneous market,” says Tom Bureau, the chief executive of the Radio Times publisher, Immediate Media. “Bits are under massive pressure… generally where they are getting disintermediated by the internet.”

Albert Read, the managing director of the Glamour owner, Condé Nast Britain, says the story of “overarching decline” contains both “very steep declines and growth stories”. He cites the excitement over the appointment of Edward Enninful to edit Vogue as evidence of the industry’s continuing relevance. “[Editors] have enormous heft. I can’t tell you the number of people who want a piece of the editor. They occupy central points in the ecology of their industry.”

But even the comparatively successful magazines are, in general, selling fewer print copies. New revenue streams, such as conferences, educational tie-ups and digital subscriptions, are working for some, but the big hope for many remains digital advertising.

For the first time in years, there is optimism that it might be possible to retrieve some of the digital ad growth that has been dominated by Google and Facebook.

Concerns about the social impact of big tech have helped, but the real driver is a nagging doubt that advertisers were too quick to embrace opaque online platforms.

“The ad industry has been guilty of chasing an audience online and not paying enough attention to context and quality,” says Robin O’Neill, the head of digital trading at the ad-buying agency GroupM. His print counterpart, Steve Goodman, tells me: “Just maybe the pendulum is swinging back.”

Of course, both publishers and the big ad agencies have good reason to push a positive narrative. Douglas McCabe, the chief executive at Enders Analysis, is more sceptical, saying magazines can’t just expect the money to come flowing back in. “Part of the problem is that a lot of online magazines are just replicating what everyone else is doing online,” he says. “Publishers need to go back to some quite fundamental business decisions about what their brand might mean in a digital space. What can they do that no one else can?” 

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions