Out of print: NME’s demise shows pressure on consumer magazines

The closure of NME magazine after almost seven decades is the latest warning sign that the shift to digital media is threatening to kill the British love affair with print magazines.

NME.com continues but stopping the presses on the print edition after 66 years was the first decision made by the magazine’s new owners, the private equity firm Epiris, after its £130m deal to buy NME’s parent company, Time Inc, at the end of last month.

The closure of the weekly title is symbolic of the issues facing the wider consumer magazine market.

NME is just the latest once mighty magazine brand to cease regular publication in print, or to have embarked on a digital-only path in recent years, joining titles including Loaded, Maxim, FHM, The Face, i-D, Sugar, Bliss, Nuts and Arena.

UK and Ireland magazine sales
UK and Ireland magazine sales

While a number of these were shut when their print fans had already largely abandoned them, many were stunned at the news that that the magazine malaise had also spread to Glamour. The title, the 10th most popular paid-for magazine in the UK, halted its monthly print run last year.

The outlook for the UK magazine market is not good with the decline in sales and advertising figures making for grim reading.

Sales of the top 100 actively purchased print titles in the UK – those that readers buy or subscribe to – fell by 42% from 23.8m to 13.9m between 2010 and 2017. Since the start of the internet era in 2000, the decline is 55% from 30.8m, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Similarly, advertising in consumer titles will have more than halved from £512m in 2010 to £250m by the end of this year, according to Group M, a media buying agency.

“Are magazines dead? No,” says James Wildman, the UK chief executive of Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping owner Hearst. “We sell nearly 5m a month, that’s hardly dead, and we have 20 million unique UK users online a month, and more than double that on social media.

“But it is true to say that some of the 1 million millennial women every week that look at Cosmopolitan on Snapchat don’t know we also have a magazine of the same name.”

The reinvention of magazine brands online is all well and good, but the problem is that the £268m fall in print advertising is nowhere near being replaced by the growth of digital ad revenue, a key factor as magazine sales income also falls.

By the end of the year, digital ad spend on consumer magazine brands is projected to be well under half that shortfall, at £111m. “The ad market is a fairly brutal place right now,” says Wildman.

Google and Facebook account for 65% of the $6.5bn (£4.7bn) UK digital display ad market. They are also strangling attempts by magazine and newspaper publishers to build their digital ad revenues by taking about 90% of all new spend.

This is without the added competition for readers traditional publishers face online from digital media startups such as BuzzFeed.

Taylor Swift on the cover of British Vogue, January 2018

Taylor Swift on the cover of British Vogue, January 2018. Luxury titles are proving resilient. Photograph: British Vogue

“Magazines do still play an important part in client schedules – if circulation is holding up,” says Phil Hall, the chief commercial strategy officer at the media buying agency MediaCom.

“But the issue at the moment is there is a glut of titles that are too similar, too generic. Reaching audience at scale is key to many advertisers and if readers are falling away then that’s a major issue.”

Not all sectors of the magazine market are under such pressure. Luxury titles such as Vogue and Tatler, where the advertising is often a big reason readers buy them, are proving resilient.

Specialist magazines, catering for more niche audiences with interests ranging from shooting to model railways and ponies, are likely to always have a print fanbase.

Wildman says for magazines to survive they must build a brand beyond the core print publication.

“It is overly simplistic to say it is just digital versus print,” he says. “Magazine businesses are much more diverse. We ran 100 events related to our magazines last year – [a] Harper’s Bazaar [event] sold out in hours at £600 a head.

“Endorsement, accreditation and licensing are increasingly lucrative. DFS sell House Beautiful and Country Living [named after titles] range sofas. And the bestselling premium home gym at Argos is branded after our Men’s Health magazine.”

Nevertheless, mounting pressure on the traditional print magazine business, which still drives most revenues, is forcing consolidation as publishers seek scale to survive.

Time Inc in the US, which publishes People, Fortune and Sports Illustrated, has just been sold to rival Meredith for $1.8bn; the UK arm was picked up by Epiris.

Last year, Immediate Media, which publishes 60 titles including Radio Times and Top Gear, was sold to the German publisher Hubert Burda, owner of Your Home and HomeStyle, for £270m.

Despite the gloom, magazine publishers, like their newspaper counterparts, sense an opportunity as brand safety and measurement issues have prompted advertisers to closely scrutinise the once unquestionable value of investing in digital media such as YouTube and Facebook.

“With issues such as fake news, we are seeing the pendulum swing back because of two things: trust and context,” says Wildman.

“They are two things that went out of fashion in recent years as media agencies pivoted to buying audiences but weren’t worried about where ads were running. Now we are seeing readers and advertisers leaning back towards trusted brands.”

Ann Hirsch on the art project that invaded her private life – The Start podcast

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In 2008, online and performance artist Ann Hirsch started to post videos of herself on YouTube under the pseudonym of Caroline, a self-confessed “hipster college freshman”. The 18-month project, dubbed Scandalishious, explored questions of femininity, sexuality and identity at a time when online presence was little understood.

In the third episode of our new culture podcast about artistic beginnings, Hirsch reveals how Scandalishious became an all-encompassing endeavour: infiltrating her private life, putting her safety at risk and eventually resulting in a breakdown.

Dan Sabbagh: ‘Editing news is intense, thrilling and ultimately exhausting’

“What was it like being the Guardian’s national news editor?” the commissioning editor asked. There are no shortage of events to reflect on after five years in the job after all. Two general elections, two referendums, a dismal string of terror attacks and the horror of the Grenfell inferno. And that’s just a start. A turbulent quinquennial for a nation that no longer knows itself, whose elites repeatedly reveal how little they understand or control. “Like swallowing a waterfall,” I replied.

A typical smart aleck answer perhaps, though aquatic metaphors often seem appropriate. News always flows, sometimes it pours, flooding the Guardian newsdesk without cease via proliferating channels. Every news editor, on arrival in the morning, organises their desktop to highlight the best of the news wires, at least two TV stations, BBC and Sky News, Twitter and other social media. Then they contend with the constant stream of email and chat messages from 50 reporters – the most committed in the business.

Sometimes, for fun, you can explain to younger colleagues how, 15 years ago, pre-internet, it was not necessary for this reporter to start writing until 4.30pm when the first edition deadline was 7pm. Five years ago, when starting on the news desk, the aim would be to publish an article within 15 minutes of a news break. Now the task is to beat the rolling news channels and publish, within moments, a single paragraph starting from the desk that is filled out, revised and updated by reporters throughout the day.

Reporters know they may be called on at a second’s notice and editors have to make decisions equally quickly. It is intense, thrilling and ultimately exhausting. The national, or home, desk covers UK news, politics, crime, human interest and social affairs. It is situated next to colleagues on foreign and opposite the web team, responsible for the front page of the site. The adjacency matters in this digital age.

By 8.45am, when the first news meeting is held, it is necessary to have an outline plan for the day. A separate print newspaper team take the best of the web and make it into the daily, and they constantly keep in touch too. There is a desk team of about eight, publishing perhaps 30 stories a day and rejecting many more. In London the first national editor arrives at 7am, the last leaves after 1am. But that is not enough: full overnight cover is provided by colleagues in Sydney, whose assistance during the terror attacks and tragic fire of the spring and early summer was invaluable.

Former Guardian news editor Dan Sabbagh.

Former Guardian news editor Dan Sabbagh. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer

A deadly incident can happen at any time, beginning as a wave of whispers on social media and the police knowing no more than you. Manchester and London Bridge both happened in the late evening, Grenfell later still. How serious is it? Time to open a live blog? Time to send reporters to the scene? Will they be safe? Who is on duty, who needs to be kept informed and who will you need early the next morning to find out who did it, what caused it? It all needs to be worked out in an hour or so, and as calmly as possible.

This begins to answer what news editors do. The job is to cast, clarify and communicate. Some stories are exclusives hauled in by reporters, others relate to events and developments and belong to specialists, but the rest are assigned by the desk because they don’t belong to anybody in particular. It may not be Hollywood but around half of the bylines are part selected by an editor, mindful of the talents of each reporter and, of course, who is free. Each writer needs to be given a canvas, instructions on what to aim for, what to exclude, what colleagues on related stories are doing; the line to take is agreed between the editor and writer and, where necessary, filed copy needs to be rewritten for lucidity and impact.

Editors help decide what is important too, although often it is obvious, for instance when Britain votes for Brexit and David Cameron goes. A list with the news ranked in a rough hierarchy is produced. On quieter days, as the newspaper deadline looms, the question to ask is “what is the most important thing happening in Britain today” or more precisely what will that thing be tomorrow morning. The question is a reminder of what a privilege the job is, an eyrie from which the mood of the nation can be discerned and the clockwork of its interlocking parts perceived. One can observe what Number 10 is trying to do each day, and whether they succeed or fail. Cameron and Osborne were hyperactive, prepared to govern just for the afternoon; team May’s vow-of-silence media game probably last worked in the 1950s.

Yet amid all the speed, it is necessary to think, to give reporters latitude to develop their ideas, to shed preconceived notions and establish the facts, to hunt for exclusives. This is where so much of the Guardian’s best work lies, and where the daily, weekly, monthly challenge is. Many of the most important stories come not from one big revelation but through patiently developing a theme – London property ownership, the influence of Russian bots, or sexual abuse and harassment.

The power of the Guardian is the excellence of the journalism allied to the volume of its megaphone. A brilliant exclusive about Home Office immigration policy after Brexit or strong interpretative reportage about fixed odds betting terminals will be copied swiftly, dominating other media – the most crucial being the BBC’s running order – and perhaps briefly the national conversation. In a world where it is easy to feel flooded by news and information, the editor’s challenge is not just to act fast but to find ways to change the way people think.