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13 September 2019

Marie Claire changed with its audience, but it couldn’t escape the media’s troubles

Few women's magazines will survive the economics of the web. 

By Jasper jackson

Marie Claire is the latest women’s magazine to go out of print, and I wouldn’t hold out much hope that its new online-only incarnation will survive for long in a form that its readers recognise.

The editorial line of Marie Claire had, like many other media outlets aimed at women, adapted to changing mores. Marie Claire and competing magazines such as Glamour and Cosmopolitan were once viewed as having a toxic influence on the way women were viewed and viewed themselves. But in recent years they have become, as Yomi Adegoke put it in the Guardian this week, “less sexist and more progressive than they ever have been”. They were joined by new digital outlets such as the Pool and the Debrief that took a similarly progressive stance.

But while many magazines aimed at women successfully evolved their journalism, they have not been able to escape the structural business problems that did for their Y-chromosome counterparts.

Marie Claire owner TI Media, founded in 1963 as the International Publishing Company, was previously owned by once mighty American magazine publisher Time Inc. Last year it was sold to private equity firm Epiris by Meredith Corporation, which itself had only months earlier bought Time.

It had already been through rounds of cost-cutting in response to declining revenues and profits. The reality for these brands is that print circulation and money spent on print advertising are falling, and digital advertising is nowhere near close to making up the shortfall. Marie Claire’s print circulation fell by over half in the decade up until it last released figures at the end of 2018.

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For the most part, private equity firms like Epiris don’t buy established media businesses because they believe they are good prospects for growth. They buy them because they are cheap.

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The problem is, they are cheap because they are in trouble.

So under these circumstances the way private equity buyers in these deals expect to make a return on what they pay out is by finding “efficiencies” that the previous owners had not been able to identify. What this means in practice is cutting costs and wringing what value they can from a dying core business and whatever left over assets that might have a future. These assets are rarely the things we associate with the publication we are used to reading.

As is the way with these things, TI described the closure of the print edition as a move that would see Marie Claire “pursue a digital-first future to best serve the changing needs of its audience’s mobile-first, fast-paced”. But reports and the company’s own release suggest that it is the non-editorial assets that have the most future. These include an “ecommerce aggregation platform” called The Edit, which is basically just a way of directing people to clothes they want to buy from online shops with a stamp of approval from the Marie Claire brand. Why pay for journalism – and journalists – to bring clothing sellers and their customers together when you can connect them directly?

It’s a logic that gets to the heart of the wider problems facing then media and journalism in the internet era. For advertisers, journalism was an expensive but necessary middle man. But the internet cut him out. Women’s magazines, like men’s magazines, are particularly vulnerable to this logic because of a basic rule of media on the internet; you win by being very big, or very specific.

Only a handful of firms have been able to go for the truly large scale play. Google and Facebook have managed to secure huge audiences in the billions which give you an unmatched ability to reach people and as a result the bulk of online advertising.

Away from the tech behemoths, most media successes of the internet era have appealed to more narrowly defined identities and interests. Even traditionally mass newspapers and magazines have retained a narrower sense of who their core readers are, often through political affiliation, and this has helped build subscription and membership businesses online.

But a publication that is for “women” is going to have a tough time appealing enough to any group within that half of the population to persuade enough of them to pay. The days of women’s magazines are numbered.