“Magazines, all kinds of them, don’t work very well in the marketplace anymore.” This startling statement was made earlier this month by David Carr in his Media Equation column in The New York Times. Reflecting the generally negative atmosphere surrounding any discussion of the future of magazines, he went on to say that “like newspapers, magazines have been in a steady slide, but now like newspapers, they seem to have reached the edge of the cliff.” As evidence he pointed to a recent Audit Bureau of Circulations report stating that newsstand circulation in the first half of the year was down almost 10 percent. Advertising is also down 8.8 percent year to date over “the same miserable period a year ago,” according to the Publishers Information Bureau.
Magazine publishing in the United Kingdom has also suffered a series of setbacks, according to Mike King of Companiesandmarkets.com. Moreover, he states that the UK magazine publishing market has been forecast to continue to decline over the next five years. However, he is a little more optimistic than some market observers, predicting an eventual recovery, or at least stabilization, as the UK economy recovers.
In South Africa, some observers are even more optimistic about the future of magazine publishing–with one caveat. “There is a definite downward trend within the magazine publishing industry, both in terms of readership numbers and ad revenue, locally and internationally,” says Tanja Carruthers, editor at Fitness magazine and publisher at Maverick Publishing Corporation. “However, certain niche titles seem to be the exception as consumers become more discretionary with their tighter expendable income.” Her magazine is a case in point. South Africa’s only dedicated female health and fitness magazine has posted its fifth consecutive year of circulation growth.
Carruthers says that instead of consuming more general information, people now prefer to consume content on a specific subject through their preferred media platform. This phenomenon has been evident for decades, appearing as long ago as 1971 with the demise of Look magazine and the introduction of a plethora of new specialized magazines. However, Carruthers predicts this trend of “narrow-casting” to increase and eventually overtake the older more-general once-venerable publications, which like dinosaurs, will eventually drift into obscurity.
Sure, most magazines fail within the first 10 years of operation. But there are things you can do to help make sure your magazine won’t be one of the casualties. Here are five checkpoints to consider as you look at the future of your magazine.
1. Checkpoint One: Your magazine’s mission and editorial, marketing, and design philosophy. How long has it been since you’ve reviewed your magazine’s mission? Does everyone on the staff know why your magazine exists and what purpose it was designed to serve? A clearly and tightly focused mission will help you to stay on track as you make day to day decisions, selecting articles, designing pages, and marketing your magazine.
2. Checkpoint Two: Know your audience. Do you know who your audience is and who you want it to be? One American magazine for college students was alarmed to find some 15 years after it was founded that the declining audience was composed mainly of people in their late 20s and early 30s. What happened? As the editorial and design staff aged, they failed to keep up with the tastes and issues faced by their supposed audience, and little by little the magazine grew older with the staff. Do you really know the audience you’re trying to reach? The more you know about your audience, the better equipped you will be to produce a magazine they will want to read.
3. Checkpoint Three: Your marketing plan. Are you continuing to look for new ways to get your magazine to your prospective readers? Have you explored new options as they’ve become available? Especially with a small staff, it’s easy to focus on producing the magazine and to forget to budget time to consider how you will get your wonderful product into the hands of readers.
4. Checkpoint Four: Your financial situation. Do you have a budget and are you keeping track of expenses? Do you have a fairly good idea of how much it will cost to produce your magazine next year and how many subscribers, advertisers, or donors you will need in order to continue to produce the kind of publication you now have or would like to have? A carefully-prepared budget and financial plan will make it possible to gauge your progress throughout the year and will alert you to potential problems or the need for an infusion of cash or a course correction.
5. Checkpoint Five: Are you continuing to learn your craft? Magazine publishing is changing rapidly. Are you keeping up with trends in magazine publishing and those that affect your audience? Design styles are changing and the expectations of consumers are changing, as well. It’s easy just to continue doing what you’ve always done and the way you’ve done it. However, those who continue to learn, whether through formal training or keen observation will be better equipped to produce a quality publication that continues to appeal to its market..