Magazines In A Perfect Bind

In magazines on December 28, 2007 at 9:50 am


(Pic courtesy of cubemb at deviantart)

Among the depressing stories of the year has to be the growing disenchantment with magazines, and David Hepworth’s latest column in the Guardian pretty much sums it up: “I talked to a number of people at the helms of household-name titles who were watching their sales base erode and having to fight harder for advertising in what is becoming, for everyone but the phone company, a small-portions world.”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. It was always thought that the magazine industry would be more robust than the newspapers because the latter was competing directly with the internet due to its speed of news delivery. But despite year-on-year profits in 2007 rising up by 5.6%, there’s a huge question mark about how sustainable magazines, new ones especially, are as a business. From my own observations, the internet has caused a cultural shift in the way we consume media: 1) Our attention span for the long-form article has been cut short (digital media is inherently made for those with ADD), and that 2) We want–hell, we expect–stories to be free, so who wants to shell out money for something they can get online?

Glossies certainly have lost its shine, but the thing that troubles me most is how it’s gonna recover. Even for Hepworth, a senior publisher with years of experience, sees the industry caught: there’s not enough money in online advertising to replace traditional advertising, and yet, print advertising is getting less lucrative and more competitive. There seems to be no way out.

You couldn’t afford not to [go online], but you couldn’t honestly see how to. The chief executive of one big publisher of women’s weeklies told me that he had given up pretending with investors and was prepared to confess that he could not see a way that his company would ever make money out of the internet. History will either see this as a hopeless lack of vision or admirable good sense, depending on how things work out.

The senior magazine executives (as a group, among the least web-savvy in the media) making all the grand announcements do not know how well it is going to go, any more than their counterparts in newspapers, television or radio do.

So what’s a publisher to do? I’ve always thought that magazines needed to up their game where the web couldn’t: improve photography, put in more effort in design (not like, say, FACES), and increase the quality of their writing (longer stories, top-notch writers).

Magazines will be premium products, as opposed to the throw-away nature of the web, but that strategy involves a huge amount of cash and faith, but no investor in their right minds would snap and say “Hey, let’s pour in RM4m to launch a new quality magazine!” Only those publications established enough are capable of bankrolling such an effort to maintain their current audience. Forget about launching a new title and convincing a whole new web-savvy audience to buy your mag.

Like Hepworth, I’ve also thought about the whole “if Muhammad won’t come to the mountain” strategy, where magazines follow the trend of the web by going free, and shoving it into people’s hands. It will definitely solve the problem of decreasing circulation and being anonymous, but that’s a dicey strategy. After all, it’s hard to go from free to paid, and besides, who’s to say that your magazine won’t be treated like trash?

This isn’t to say that the “magazine is dead”–it’s just that the expectations for a magazine’s profits from print alone needs to be readjusted drastically. That said, it could very well be a catalyst for new magazine initiatives, one that combines the digital and print in a complementary way, and not just cutting and pasting as we’ve often seen so far. I’ve always thought KLue had the potential to do this, and I really do hope that AY fulfills that potential.


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