Monocle: Print media’s rather clever black sheep

In magazines on June 26, 2008 at 4:21 pm


I recently read a really interesting Mediabistro interview with Tyler Brule, the publishing Lothario behind Wallpaper and Monocle magazines.

Brule is a contrarian, and he’s smart about it. He seems to enjoy doing the exact opposite of conventional publishing wisdom with Monocle. It’s not so much about Monocle’s editorial direction – the writing, design or photos, which are all good. Brule’s shrewedness shows up in his business model.

A summary of key features:

Distribution: The mag is thinly but widely distributed internationally, with 24 distributors listed on its website and magazines shipped to 79 countries. Bruele says it has 5,000 paid subscriptions with a “dream” circulation of 200,000. Not high. The Economist’s circulation (probably the closest publication in terms of demographic targets) is 1.3 million a week.

Revenue structure: It costs more, not less, to buy a Monocle subscription. We are all familiar, thanks to those horrible little slips of paper stuck in magazine pages, that magazines always slash per-unit prices for subscriptions drastically, usually 50% or more. It costs US$10 an issue and US$150 for 12-issue subscription. Ballsy move.

Audience: Monocle is an international mag based in London. A curious choice, because, while a lot of great titles come out of London, few are global brands. The Americans have been much more interested in establishing a global presence, but they do so by localising titles. Think of Vogue Paris or Maxim Singapore. As mentioned earlier, the Economist is the model for Monocle here. The cranky old finance sheet refuses to localise itself, printing the exact same magazine for every market it’s in (with rare concessions). Monocle does the same. The idea is that smart people everywhere are interested in basically the same things – or at least they ought to be.

Adding it all up: Essentially what Brule is betting on (and he says as much in the Mediabistro interview) is that readers are willing to bear the cost of a beautiful and smart product themselves, without subsidies from advertisers. This happens for loads of products everywhere in our consumer environment, and if you look at media habits, people already pay for cable or satellite, for example. Why should it be so hard to swallow for a magazine?

In the old days, a stack of paper printed regularly with ads interspersed between pages of content that people actually wanted to see was the most effective way of mode to expose ads to eyeballs. That is no longer the case. The internet, as various smart people have already noted, has unbundled content and advertising. But the old model created an unhealthy habit – publishers became fixated on serving and grabbing ad revenue instead of making readers aware of the true cost of the product they were consuming. Handouts from advertisers subsidised the market value of magazines and newspapers.

Much of the debate around the clash of journalism and the online world today centers around how the craft will change. But that debate was sparked by the pain publishers felt when their business models couldn’t cope with the strain of the new medium. Yet, there has been little business-side innovation. (Howell Raines notes this in his Portfolio column: “No one goes to Wharton and says, ‘I want to run circulation at Knight-Ridder.’ ” In general, he adds, “the business side has let down the journalistic side of newspapers.”)

So Brule is doing something quite gutsy, but logical. You can’t depend on advertisers for money anymore because they have other options. Readers are leaving because they have other options. You stay small, identify a group of readers with a narrow set of characteristics (global, affluent, predilection for trendiness) and give them what they want and can find nowhere else. Then you hope that your product is good enough, its words, pictures and layout are attractive enough, for this group to actually pay for it, without too much help from the incidental audience known as advertisers. (see also this rather long essay by Jay Rosen about the history of news business models – small readerships paying for niche information has been around since the 16th century, when rich Europeans employed letter-writers to keep up with gossip in faraway cities)

Monocle has a decent chance at success because it’s following a path that others have trodden before. The FT and Economist, again, have thrived as their American rivals have downsized. They’ve done this by being relentlessly focused on their audience (see this nice analysis by Jon Fine).

The Monocle model for Malaysia: Can Monocle’s business model be applied to Malaysia? What group of Malaysians would be willing to pay the full price for a certain package of content? More on this in the next post.


Thanks to John for kindly giving me a login here. My own blog was hacked, mysteriously, by apparenly Turkish hackers. I’ll be writing about print media, particularly in the context of English-language Asia, most of the time here.


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