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MAGAZINES AREN’T DEAD. BUT THEIR MAINSTREAM AUDIENCE HAS DEFINITELY PASSED ON…

Cassandra Laffey

Senior Content Writer

Mainstream magazines get the memo as readers find relevant content in niche publications.

If legacy mastheads and syndicated content are no longer engaging readers, the challenge for the media industry is to find new and innovative platforms to follow where the audience spends their online and offline time.

I’ve worked in magazine publishing for more than a decade and have seen the process from all sides: as a writer, editor, freelancer and publisher.

I’ve been published in international, national and local magazines, written for free street mags and high-end glossies, briefed journalists, chosen covers, directed photoshoots, selected paper stock and liaised with printers. Some of the mags I’ve edited have even won awards.

Working in magazines for most of my professional writing career, I can claim my print addiction as a tax write-off, which means I can add copies of international titles to my regular reading rotation as well.

My travel luggage was frequently overweight, but the expanded access to new content, eye-catching layouts, diverse voices and points of view was, you know, priceless.

But when it comes to the magazines I’ll actually subscribe to instead of buying ad hoc at the supermarket or newsagency, the scope narrows. A lot.

The list of subscription magazines that lob into my inbox or mailbox on the reg are predominantly indie titles in niche genres.

And it’s not an isolated trend or isolated to select demographics. COVID-19 closures simply accelerated the slow demise of mainstream magazine readership.

In July, new owners of Bauer Media, Mercury Capital, axed eight glossy magazine titles: Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, InStyle, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Good Health, NW and OK!, citing the massive drop in advertising revenue due to COVID-19 for the closures.

According to Roy Morgan Research data, there were already significant readership declines across these titles in the six months leading up to March 2020 compared to the previous six months. Men’s Health and Women’s Health had both lost around one third of their readership, while Elle was down 16 per cent and OK! was down 36 per cent.

As former Vogue Australia’s editor-in-chief and Harper’s Bazaar feature director Kirstie Clements noted in her recent Guardian op-ed: “There have been obvious signs that the demise was coming for a long time, mostly because although people claim to still love magazines, the figures say they don’t actually buy them.”

But while mainstream mag profits have been declining for a while due to falling circulation, decreased ad revenue and increased competition from new online (and free) publication models, some magazines are doing quite well – thank you very much.

Namely independent publishers, niche titles and digital-only outlets. Even the humble newsletter has seen a resurgence with an audience that’s happy to pay for premium, tailored content.

Special interest publisher NextMedia has reported its titles are seeing record sales during COVID-19, particularly in the home, health and youth verticals.

ABC Gardening Australia magazine retail sales have grown steadily in recent years – up 19 per cent on last year, and the bi-monthly frankie magazine, with a primary audience of creative female Millennials, has had a similar surge in sales.

It’s clear the future of magazines and publications is special-interest content with an emphasis on high-quality design and engaging writing.

Readers will continue to consume and pay for curated content that speaks directly to their interests instead of syndicated articles and generic angles that don’t highlight local voices or use Australian creative talent.

Now is the time for the publication industry to diversify its offering to deliver what the audience wants, how it wants to consume the content and when and where people can access the content and also be part of an engaged community online. Whether that platform is print, digital, podcast or something new or hybrid, the opportunity to connect and consume meaningful content is what we want now.