The decline of sales for print media is well documented, with many commentators predicting that, with consumers heading online for their news, the eventual demise of print is just a matter of time. Some titles and formats, however, seem to be defying the odds, and magazines, specifically special interest titles, are one of them. We took a closer look at what’s been happening in this space.
News of the pre-Corona World
British newspaper circulation has been on the slide for a number of years. From its peak daily sales of 14 million in the mid-1980s, circulation slowly dwindled before decreasing sharply in the early 2000s, when the shift to online news began in earnest.
For a number of years, the stalwarts employed a seemingly complementary print-online strategy, though many have put in place subscriptions and paywalls for their online channels to claw back falling revenues from their print editions. More recently, The Independent moved entirely online in 2016 amid low print sales.
Only commuter favourites, Metro and The Evening Standard have bucked the trend, with the former largely holding stable and the latter achieving circulation growth over the past decade.
On the consumer magazine rack, circulation paints a similar picture. In 2019, just six of the 100 top sellers managed to increase their sales year-on-year.
Pre-Corona, the outlook was bleak for print media. And that’s the good news.
Impact of Corona
In the first three weeks of March, newspaper circulation was broadly similar to the same period as last year. Until the lockdown announcement on March 23rd, when Metro circulation dipped 7% as commuters started WFH (that’s ‘working from home’) and The Evening Standard launched a home delivery service, despite having an online presence, to ensure its readers received their daily update.
But as the lockdown progressed, circulation dropped off a cliff. Supermarkets took less stock to supply their reduced footfall. Newsagents closed. Journalists were furloughed. Advertisers reduced spending and some pulled it altogether. Consequently, figures show the big players witnessed print circulation decreases between 20 and 40%.
Publishers such as The Guardian, BBC, and Murdoch’s News Corp (The Times and The Sun) all announced job cuts, and Bauer, Future, and Immediate Media closed numerous magazines between them.
More recent figures for newspapers in June show that, despite gains, the impact of the coronavirus crisis continues to be felt, with year-on-year figures showing greater declines compared with the pre-lockdown period.
The one exception, however, was found in the magazines category, with many hobby-based publications enjoying an uplift in sales as consumers had the time to rekindle former interests and start new ones.
Coupled with this, despite a substantial increase of traffic to online news sites during the lockdown, it is magazines that are rated as the most trusted source of news, according to Ofcom.
Trust me, I’m a journalist
In recent years, the accuracy and trustworthiness of reported news has come under scrutiny, with an increase in misinformation, perhaps driven by the US presidents calling out supposed ‘fake news’.
Research centre and think tank, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, has found that just over half of Brits, 51%, trusted ‘most news, most of the time’ in 2015, dropping to 40% in 2019 and just 28% in January 2020.
Journalism.co.uk also highlights consumer fatigue, citing Brexit as a major driver, and Coronavirus as another, with over a third of consumers avoiding news entirely during the Brexit period. It would suggest consumers have a preference for closure in their news, or else they’ll eventually employ an ‘ignorance is bliss’ stance.
Subsequent polling for the Reuters Institute shows that the coronavirus pandemic did temporarily increase trust levels in the news media in the early stages of lockdown, but this has fallen again.
Journalism isn’t dead. Long live journalism.
Perhaps most interesting of all is Ofcom’s 2019/20 report (the research period concluded at the end of March), which found that attitudes towards news provision (measures such as quality, accuracy, trustworthiness and impartiality) remain strongest among consumers of news in magazines, followed by TV, and is weakest for news from social media.
But why are magazines more trusted than other news sources?
The salient point is that magazines are experts in their field. Whether it’s cooking, pianos, or motors, these publications know what’s what and who’s who in their industry and have time and expertise to consider and curate their content. For them, it’s about making the most of a finite amount of space in what can often be just twelve issues per annum, meaning editors have to be selective about the content they include.
Meanwhile, advertisers value them because they have their niche and they do it well, so can be relied on to target audiences with a shared interest.
Print media has long been struggling and Covid-19 has exacerbated the issues facing the print world. But it doesn’t necessarily mean this is the end of it; there is certainly opportunity for the news to reinvent itself.
Publishers should concentrate on the product that they sell, rather than putting their product in front of as big an audience as possible, as many times as possible. It’s a case of quality over quantity, avoiding issuing high volumes of ‘stories’ which up until now, has led to an erosion in the quality of journalism.
Inevitably, there will be winners and losers in a world with Covid-19 and those wanting to survive should take a leaf out of the magazine’s book.