A tale of two magazines

By Rob Smuts

The recent closure of heat magazine made me think about the state of the magazine industry in general. It’s easy to be swayed by all the negativity around print media overall and magazines in particular. Consumer magazines’ circulation numbers continue to slide, mobile is taking over, etc. Don’t even mention programmatic!

But my gut feel tells me a different story, so I started digging a bit deeper.

Sure, consumer magazines are under significant circulation and advertising pressure. The official ABC circulation figures for the period October to December 2014 contain some real shockers.

Cosmopolitan, once circulating comfortably above 100 000 copies per month, dropped to 60 272. Huisgenoot circulated more than 500 000 a week back in the day. Its latest circulation figure? A mere 259 031. You? 142 981. This was unthinkable even four years ago, when the combination of Huisgenoot and You could reach a significant portion of Afrikaans and English households.

Not any more.

Even the venerable Fair Lady struggles to stay alive at 47 079 average copies circulated.

Men’s magazines have not been spared. Men’s Health, once a frontrunner, looks tired and emotional at only 42 522 copies circulated on average during the last quarter of 2014.

We also know that many “total circulation” magazine circulation numbers include significant free copy distribution. Many magazines believe in keeping up appearances of a higher circulation than is truly the case. They give copies away for free to boost “total circulation”.

It’s not worthwhile dissecting these numbers, in my opinion, as publishers who engage in trying to fool advertisers in this way ultimately only fool themselves. Remember the infamous Media24 circulation scandal of 2007?

The end of heat

heat ended its 15-year weekly run as a celebrity news pioneer at a circulation of 24 842 copies sold per week. So, what happened?

I believe consumer magazines with content that can be found quicker and easier via mobile don’t have a rosy future. This certainly counts for the celebrity news arena. When heat launched there was no Facebook, no Twitter and no smartphone.

To paraphrase the classic Buggles tune, in this instance digital did kill the print star. But I believe the consumer magazine industry tells only part of the story.

There are specialist magazine categories that are positively thriving. Take the game farming industry, for instance. This is a hot agricultural sector with massive turnover and a dedicated, enthusiastic group of followers operating in a capital intensive sector.

Wild & Jag profits from a specialist approach

The game farmer’s medium of choice? Wild & Jag magazine. Now I know it’s not for everyone, but that’s the beauty of a specialist magazine that targets an exclusive audience that cannot be reached in any other way.

On a circulation of 12 962 it manages at least 100 advertising pages per monthly issue, at roughly R15 000 income per page. This translates into advertising income of about R1.5m per issue. Add approximately R15 per copy circulation income, after VAT and distribution cost, for an additional R200 000 income per issue.

This estimated calculation means a “small” specialist magazine such as Wild & Jag turns over about R1.7m per month.

Extrapolation to profit is difficult for obvious reasons, but industry insiders tell me the Wild & Jag magazine net bottom line profit runs to about R2.5m per year.

In an industry in which “mass market” consumer magazines struggle to survive, let alone make any profit, this is truly a remarkable story of how the humble print magazine medium can thrive, even today.

It’s worth noting that while heat’s lipgloss girl has forsaken her weekly print fix for a never-ending mobile stream of celeb news, the game farmer prefers his or her industry information the old fashioned way; reading Wild & Jag print magazine over a steaming hot cup of coffee!

I believe for a magazine media brand to be successful today, it needs to tick the following boxes:
1. Target a dedicated audience that cannot get their specialist information anywhere else.
2. Understand exactly what this audience needs.
3. Offer this audience to endemic and consumer advertisers and demonstrate advertising effectiveness in the category.
4. Manage the biggest cost drivers in magazine publishing (printing and distribution) carefully by controlling circulation numbers, making every copy count.
5. Add revenue through specialist products such as category research, seminars and events.

Many specialist titles, both locally and internationally, have succeeded in identifying and satisfying their readers needs and will continue to flourish over many years to come – and if you’ve read this article – you have one in your hands right now!