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August 25, 2022updated 18 Nov 2022 12:45pm

Charted: How has the UK consumer magazine industry evolved? Two decades of change

By Aisha Majid

The UK consumer magazine industry has been upended in recent years by factors including the move to online, with the Covid-19 pandemic further hitting newsstand sales and free titles.

Verticals like men’s magazines have been hard hit by competition from visual platforms such as Instagram, while sectors such as news and current affairs have remained more resilient.

Print is still a significant medium for many but has been in long-term decline, with digital editions and subscriptions for the most part not making up for this drop in sales.

Although it is still common to talk of a magazine industry, many of the successful larger players no longer see themselves that way.

Roger Lynch, chief executive of the 113-year-old Conde Nast, told the New York Times this year that the business was “no longer a magazine company” as its audiences now predominantly interact with its brands through its websites and social media rather than its magazines.

Almost nine in ten respondents to a 2021 survey by the Professional Publishers Association (PPA), cited in a 2021 industry report by Enders Analysis, said “magazine” was not the best word to describe their organisation. Events, affiliate commerce, video and other platforms are all now part and parcel of the sector.

Douglas McCabe, chief executive of Enders Analysis, told Press Gazette: “It’s an industry that during [the past ten to 15 years] has literally changed its definition.

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“You would struggle to find a large publisher that would even describe itself as being in an industry called ‘magazines’. These businesses now think of themselves as passion businesses, hobby businesses or audience businesses.

“That’s completely different to how these companies were seeing themselves just ten years ago, where they would have described themselves as magazine businesses that are trying to diversify revenue streams into other areas.”

Below, Press Gazette has analysed data showing how the UK consumer magazine industry has changed in the past two decades to reveal how the sector is being reshaped.

UK magazine advertising revenue

Like all publishing sectors, magazines have been hit by sharp falls in print advertising revenue, while digital advertising spend has been monopolised by tech platforms such as Google and Facebook.

While advertising revenue has long been in decline for consumer magazines, the pandemic sharply accelerated the fall in print advertising revenue, which fell by 33% from 2019 to 2020 and has yet to recover.

Fewer magazines in circulation

In 2000, some 1.6 billion magazines were circulated in the UK. Last year, that number was down to 565 million. This is based on analysis of the total annual number of print and digital magazine copies and subscriptions by titles reporting to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC).

Note: We've analysed data up to 2021. Although some titles have provided half-year figures for 2022, the vast majority now only report once yearly. Also, while detailed data from 2017 specifies whether circulation numbers relate to the UK/Republic of Ireland or abroad, longer-term summary data from 2000 to 2021 does not. The overwhelming majority of data recorded by ABC is, however, UK/ROI circulation since ABC reports on UK titles. We've used the same summary dataset when analysing changes since the 2000 period for consistency.

UK consumer spending on magazines

Consumer expenditure has accordingly shrunk. UK consumers spent £669m on magazines in 2020, according to Enders estimates – less than half the £1.4bn spent in 2000.

Along with the decline in total number of copies circulated, there has been a fall in the number of titles on offer.

Many UK consumer magazines have closed

More than 700 consumer titles reported to ABC in 2000. This had fallen to 558 in 2010 and 241 last year.

Not all verticals, however, have fared the same.

Our analysis suggests that in the past five years, men’s magazines and music magazines have been among the most impacted. The total circulation of men’s magazines reporting to ABC fell by 89% from 32.3 million to 3.6 million between 2017 and 2021, while music magazines fell by 90% to 1.8 million.

Women’s magazines, although still a large vertical in terms of number of copies circulated (192 million in 2021), have fallen by 45%.

What’s helping drive the decline?

According to McCabe, verticals where consumers can easily substitute the content once found in a magazine with a newer online source are the hardest hit.

"Instagram does a very good magazine job for a lot of consumers. It satisfies their level of interest in fashion or food or design. That's been the real challenge. The men's category completely collapsed for that reason. The women’s collapse is a little bit more recent."

One sector that’s been bucking the trend, however, is news and current affairs, with titles such as The Economist and The Week.

"News has held up very well because of the internet age where we've got an oversupply of information every second on Twitter about what's going on, but actually what you need is a digest that you trust that comes out once a week or once a fortnight," said McCabe.

Less culture of magazine subscriptions in the UK

News and current affairs magazines have also bucked sector-wide trends when it comes to subscriptions.

Unlike the US, where subscriptions are an important driver of magazine sales, subscriptions in 2021 accounted for 27% of magazines circulated in the UK; the typical figure in recent pre-pandemic years was under 20%.

While print and digital subscriptions have grown, subscriptions have traditionally not been a high priority for many UK magazine publishers or readers.

"The UK never really had a magazine subscription focus. Newsstands have been so central to the way the industry worked for 100 years, which distinguishes it enormously from almost every European country and the US," said McCabe.

While some publishers, such as Hearst, put more emphasis on subscriptions during the pandemic, changing the balance between subscriptions and newsstand sales for some titles, the industry remains weighted towards single-edition sales.

However, almost 60% of consumer magazine subscriptions in 2021 were for news and current affairs titles.

"It makes sense having a magazine come through your door on a Friday with a news digest of the week or a commentary for the week. But it hasn't become a natural consumer habit for many kinds of magazines," said McCabe.

Titles such as The Economist are also among a minority of magazines, said McCabe, that will likely remain magazines in a more traditional sense despite the huge changes the industry is undergoing.

Enders' 2021 report into the industry outlined two paths forward for publishers.

"Some can continue with the magazines model the way they've always been. People will read the content, they'll love the visuals and they will love the smell of the paper," explained McCabe.

"There are other brands that really have to move wholesale into utility effect and that's either as a shopping channel, or as a recommendation engine of some kind. They need to be doing something that actually helps people."

A model for the future?

Future is one company that has successfully built an affiliate revenue funnel from its brands. Its specialisation in content categories such as gaming, photography or cycling where consumers spend frequently on expensive items has helped the company succeed in a digital age. But so has its approach.

McCabe said: "What Future has done is they've just industrialised things a lot more than their peer group. They've focused on areas like affiliate revenue, which is something that all publishers are doing more of – they've done it in a much more industrialised way. They've built their own tech stack and business processes, which are designed to optimise and improve how these things work.

"Future has pivoted its entire business to a particular way of working to improve the outcome for advertisers and for e-commerce."

He added: "Others in the publishing industry see themselves as still very focused on content production. They've transferred the mechanism for delivering that to readers from print to digital, but in the end, the core mechanism is not entirely different."

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