Monday, 27 March 2017

There is much more to magazine survival than simply digital vs print

The magazine market is in decline. Evidently the internet has had a part to play, but there are other influences that the wailing cries of print’s demise often leave out. Two that stand out above all others are the supply chain and the publishers’ faith in digital magazines.

JG Palmer (established in 1898 and the owner of Newsstand.co.uk), used to be the wholesaler of newspapers and magazines in the Kent area and beyond. They were one of many independent wholesalers, renowned for innovation and at the cutting edge of distribution progress in the industry.

This healthy balance of the three multiple wholesalers plus the many independents was slowly eroded over decades, but came to an abrupt end in 2006 when Frontline (part owned by Emap), took the radical decision to award all their vertical distribution contracts to the three multiple wholesalers alone (Menzies Distribution, Smiths News and Dawson News). Other distributors followed Frontline’s lead and independent wholesaling was removed from the industry almost overnight and along with it a healthy chunk of competition.

Dawson News ran in to trouble not long after and the industry is now served by just two multiple wholesalers. I am sure that it is worth saying here that the remaining wholesalers carry out sterling work and still provide an excellent distribution platform for all magazines (we would like to point out the superb relationship we have with our local wholesaler), but it would be brave to assume that there has been no overall deterioration in service due to the aforementioned reduction in competition and the subsequent centralisation of services.

Alongside these distribution changes, the giant retailers have been enjoying the pleasures of the fixed magazine range. To be displayed in the supermarkets and WH Smiths can now cost the publisher no small amount of money – and with total retail control of stock, access to the shelves of the most visited shops in the country is no longer a luxury that most titles can afford.

The result of these ranges was that, as magazines had to go somewhere, the independent, non ranged newsagents would receive more and more product. An excellent range of just about everything you may think – but these very rarely fitted on the shelves. Displays suffered and management of the stock became harder and harder to the point that many newsagents would either give up magazines altogether or simply take a range of the top 40 bestsellers and no more.

Eventually, this meant that the new launches (that didn’t have six figure promotional budgets) were lost to the eyes of the consumer. They either had nowhere to go or were literally stuffed into some shelving with barely their spine on display. This environment makes it very hard to develop circulation, and as the top sellers move on (or their readership does) there are fewer visible magazines to fill their shoes. It also becomes a vicious circle with the ranges in multiple retailers and the calamity on the indies’ shelf space – browsing for new magazines here became headache inducing.
Subscriptions might seem like the obvious answer, but these should always be sold as upselling to the casual reader. If the casual reader and single copy sale is not there, subscription marketing becomes about price and not quality – you’re selling to people who don’t know your product. This price war eventually ensures that subscriptions are virtually given away and the print magazine, as a product, is cheapened almost beyond repair. Discounts are perfectly harmless in short bursts – but to flog something at a fraction of its cost for years on end can only damage the image of the magazine in the eyes of the wider public – as well as make the publishing business model uneconomical.

This is one of the main reasons that the new “indie” magazine resurgence has been so strong. The industry was, almost unbeknown to itself, crying out for some differentiation, allowing quality, tactile publications to distance themselves from the mainstream 3 issues for £3 degradation. In reality, it is this successful drive for a product to be valued that makes it work – the care in copy, production and distribution are essential, otherwise you do play, unnecessarily, into the hands of the internet.

It was this fear of the internet that drove many publishers to put too many of their eggs into the digital basket, opening up the internet media and bloggers as competition with the staggered development of digital issues. Despite more recent attempts to progress, these digital issues were far too much like websites – with the added silo nature of the offering only losing it further marks.

Younger generations love print, but they do not want to be forced to commit nor have their horizons fixed. This has a detrimental effect on both the subscription and digital models of magazine distribution. Understandably, publishers have looked to additional services such as in app purchasing and events; these may well earn them important income but they do little to help the circulation numbers.

Newsstand has looked at this from an altogether different angle. Since 1995, it has taken the print offering and concentrated on two key factors.

Firstly, the service to the consumer needed an overhaul. Single copies, next day delivery and in house customer services were a must – in these days of online purchasing, expecting customers to wait six weeks and not be sure which issue or when it will arrive is not acceptable. Providing the best service allows a respectable price to be asked and Newsstand has underlined the adage that customers will pay for what they want, when they want it. This results in an economically positive market for our publishers to operate in and unique fulfilment systems ensure smooth operation. Holding stock on thousands of magazines also allows the availability of each publication to be at 100%, worldwide, always.

Secondly, Newsstand employs marketing techniques that promote magazines as individual issues rather than so much the magazine brand itself. Customers may design their own subscriptions across any number of titles and keep abreast of their favourite people and topics. With excellent response rates, this method allows for cross selling but also ensures the products keep sight of what the customer wants. The art of cover design is back in play, having been lost temporarily amongst the newsagents’ overcrowded shelves.

There is still a long way to go. Newsstand has returned double digit increases across the board for five years running, has signed up many publishers to its fulfilment offering and has hundreds of thousands of customers on its books, but can it ever replace the browsing experience?

The print magazine now has a wonderful opportunity. The force of digital on individual lives is increasing exponentially. Yes, it’s fast and efficient, but it is also overwhelming. Print’s supposed weaknesses can become it’s driving strength – to reintroduce slow reading, longer form articles, tactile experiences and top quality imagery; become a modern day meditation against the endless information onslaught.

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