News of the Bauer, Mercury Capital sale brings me hope that there will be a dawn of a new print day here in Australia.
But hope is one thing faith is another.
Magazines and me go way back. They’ve been there through everything. They gave me the tools I needed as I grew up and they helped me define my interests and find my tribe. After all, where would I be without the song lyrics and posters that shaped me throughout my youth?
Magazines were there for my first gig as an entrepreneur. They existed for me to cut up and create on my own, not only inspired by the pages but incited by them. I would sell them around the streets of where I grew up, first as bookmarks then as ‘zines’ allowing me to charge a premium. My first taste of subscription revenue.
Magazines were there for me throughout my 15-year career in and around the industry. One that set me up for greater success then the industry could ever offer and into the place where I am today. Running my own business based on many of the learnings that I received from working within the industry.
In 15 years I went from being inspired by these magazines to being in a position to influence what was inside them. I still remember the thrill I got from seeing my name in the masthead for the first time of what would be many.
It’s probably this relationship that I have with magazines, both as a consumer and as an employee that while working at Bauer, in 2015, when the news broke that Dolly was closing it hit me hardest. I felt like we’d let myself and many others like me down. And not just oneself but several, the many versions of me that had magazines by my side at each stage of my life growing up and into who I am today.
The death of Dolly, although shocking to me was no surprise and just acted to reiterate what I knew was coming for years before the announcement. Print was dying. This was not the first cut to the print industry, but I sure felt it the deepest. In the lead up to axing Dolly and adding out the growing pile of closed titles, Bauer played with reducing the title from monthly to bi-monthly as well as shifting the channel from print to digital-only. Neither worked.
Despite what was a robust research channel within the legendary title, the blindspot seemed to be how to reach the reader. The publisher failed to investigate alternative distribution methods instead preferring to keep the ranging in supermarkets and newsagents. Young teens stopped going into newsagents right about the time newsagents started to look like a cross between a TAB and TVSN. Distribution should replicate the path and process of the reader, given the timing was right at the peak of the influencer and fast fashion boom it begs to be asked why new models weren’t tested.
Content in context is not a new idea in magazines, its the mantra behind how they are built, yet applying this to distribution methods still seems groundbreaking. In May 2020, in response to the COVID pandemic, Medium Rare, the publisher behind the Qantas magazine which has a circulation of 339k switched its distribution model from the back of the plane seat to the reader’s homes via the loyalty app. How this idea took a pandemic to mobilise is beyond me. There would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Qantas frequent flyer would enjoy their magazine delivered to the comfort of their own home. If for nothing more than a clean puzzle page.
Changing distribution methods I understand can be tricky. Switching the magazine product directly from a print product to a digital product was the easy route and therefore the path most traveled for publishers. Like all channels and platforms, the way people consume media and value it differs depending on it. The experience a reader gets from a crisp, clean, printed glossy spread, still fresh with the smell of printer paper and the latest Calvin Klein release cannot be replicated with a pdf viewed for the most part on an iPhone. Magazines play to a certain human need, that of inspiration and aspiration. It didn’t translate and the experience of dwelling and indulging was lost, so too were the readers.
Despite ample attempts from both magazine and news publishers, no-one in our industry has really been able to effectively execute a digital magazine product. Considering by this time we had already killed off our unique Australian brands, Cleo, Dolly, Men’s Style, it was surely the time to look outward at other markets for ideas to adopt and adapt. Now I’ve worked in both print industries here in Australia and in London and even though there is a vast disparity between the volume of readers it is the willingness to trial new models and go all in that meant that the UK industry adapted effectively and as a result thrived.
Take Shortlist Media for example. Shortlist Media was founded in 2009. It consisted of Shortlist, a male-targeted freemium magazine distributed free in five UK cities. The female brand, Stylist, also distributed at transport hubs and Emerald Street, a supporting daily email. All driving revenue. In 2019, revenue across the group was £23 million, up from 2018. Something unheard of from a print publisher at the time. The digital version of Stylist was shut down in 2018 with the brand preferring to focus on the print edition. May 2020 saw the digital version reactivated in response to the COVID crisis and stay at home restrictions with the reader experience improved thanks to updates to the Apple newsstand. Shortlist had learned that their print and digital versions served different purposes and therefore understood how to optimise each accordingly as opposed to thin its resources attempting to buoy each version.
In early 2019, Shortlist Media rebranded to Stylist Inc. and closed the male-focused Shortlist print version, instead focusing on the female aligned Stylist brand which was going from strength to strength. The title ebbed and flowed and as a result, it bent not broke. Watching this publisher continually play with its hero products is innovation and adaptation at its finest.
Freemium models have been proven to work time and again, yet outside of the catalogue model, we here in Australia never really got the formula right. My very few connections with free print titles in Sydney were the somewhat dismal CBD title 9-5, the advant-garde Sneaky Magazine, and broadsheet MX. The latter, MX was as close as we got to ever having to a relevant free model in Australia but the product remained confused as to its core audience as well as it’s value proposition.
News Corp will have you believe that it was cell phones that killed the MX star, but really readers turned to their phones for something new on their commute home. A broadsheet paper modelled on and around daily news was not relevant at 5pm. Had MX been a morning paper or derived of only original content than it may of been a stayer.
Advertising dollars would of also stayed. The decision in 2015 to remove visibility on circulation made an already tough sell harder. When Bauer made the decision to lead the industry into the measurement abyss with the desire to focus on readership, a highly debated and cloudy metric, the buying process became harder. In what was the beginning of a much greater focus on hard metrics for advertising agencies, the move signalled more of a priority to hide numbers than actualise change in lifting them. The result? Death by one’s own sword.
The opportunity to adapt and change has also got to start within. With a readership of now fully ‘woke’ women, stale rhetoric, headlines, and reused and recycled content that has been outgrown, will no longer be relevant or accepted by the Australian readers. Independents such as The Collective and Frankie have proven that unique and original content not aligning to baby weight or bed hair can thrive if it has the right backing.
This is the backing that the Australian magazine industry needs and the backing that Mercury Capital can give.
Which is why the Bauer, Mercury Capital sales gives me hope.
Hope that a fire sale could signal rock bottom and therefore the foundation of a new day for print.
Hope that this time around things will be different.
But hope is not faith and I wait and see.
Laura-Jade began her print career managing the PR for marie claire’s. From there she has held almost every office within the commercial side of magazines, from Marketing Manager of Men’s Health, Subscriptions Manager of Instyle UK as well as numerous advertising sales roles within Bauer.
Laura-Jade is now the founder of www.EQSales.com.au a sales trianing service dedicated to future-proofing sales talent.
She will always be a ‘mag girl’.