Economic turmoil has accelerated the print decline in mass market and regional newspapers, but magazine publishers are eyeing shorter runs and reduced frequency as an opportunity to cash in on high-end scarcity. Peter Houston rounds up the year in print for publishers as part of our Media Moments 2023 report.

We decided not to cover print in last year’s Media Moments report. It’s back this year because the long slow decline of newspapers in print has suddenly picked up speed while magazines are seeing something of a print resurgence, at least with regard to titles leaning into lower print runs and higher production values.

Cost pressures bite

I spoke to Delayed Gratification’s Rob Orchard recently and he reminded me that almost 10 years ago, at TedX Madrid, he predicted that there wouldn’t be a single printed newspaper left in the developed world by 2024. He acknowledged that he was a bit premature, but it may just be a question of timing.

Since 2005, the US has lost almost 3,000 newspapers, an average of about two a week; but that average jumps to 2.5 if you look only at 2023. The spike seems to be driven by the closure of papers owned by a handful of large chains and smaller regional companies that are shuttering multiple papers in one fell swoop.

There are new entrants in the US – about three dozen papers have set up shop over the past five years. A growing number of independent, locally-owned newspapers are expanding community news coverage using a mix of commercial and philanthropic funding. But overall the number of ‘news deserts’ is rising.

Closures are driven by the increased cost of newspaper production that has made marginally profitable local titles suddenly unprofitable. Rising production costs have been compounded by cratering social media referral traffic and stalled programmatic ad yields, slowing the transition to digital revenues. 

For newspaper publishers in an industry where global print revenues are still estimated to average 80%, the challenge lies in bringing in new digital revenues to backfill print losses.

In the UK, stalling or falling digital revenues are having a clear impact on operations. According to 2023’s half-year results, Reach, the country’s largest commercial publisher, gets 78% of its revenue from print sales. Although print revenues are fairly flat, a decline in digital advertising revenues triggered another 450 redundancies at the company and a merging of digital and print news teams.

Although print closures have levelled off in the UK, with paper prices rising 65% at the beginning of the year, further closures are almost inevitable.

What kind of idiots still make magazines?

The Grub Street Journal is a B2B title made by and for people who love print magazines. Its co-founders and editors Joanna Cummings and Peter Houston joined the podcast to take us through the project from inception to monetisation, and discuss whether a flurry of print magazine stories is a sign of a wider resurgence, or a blip. Listen below, or by searching ‘Media Voices’ on your podcast app of choice.

Print cuts through

The story in mass market magazines is similar. In the UK’s reasonably robust news and current affairs sector, just two magazines posted print circulation growth last year: satirical fortnightly Private Eye and politics monthly Prospect. Other leading titles shed print readers, from The Economist dropping 15% to Investors Chronicle losing 11%.

The picture is a little different in niche titles. The independent magazine sector is vibrant and larger commercial publishers are starting to see an opportunity in exploiting the low-volume high-value ethos long espoused by smaller scale publishers.

Against that backdrop, several well known titles announced plans to return to print in 2023, most notably fashion title Elle Australia and music magazine NME.

Elle Australia is coming back after a four-year print hiatus with two issues in 2024 tied to the March and September fashion seasons. The publisher says the return to print is a response to a ‘deluge of digital content’. Publisher Are Media’s Jane Huxley told the Sydney Morning Herald people are overwhelmed by a ‘flood of content’. She said people just want someone to do the work in helping them understand what is ‘relevant, contextual and real.’

NME’s print resurrection will be very different from the iconic music weekly known and loved by generations of older rock fans. The new £10 bi-monthly incarnation will not be available on the newsstands: “Rather than print thousands upon thousands of copies and try to shift them at the newsstand in bulk, we’ve changed that model up and have taken inspiration from industries like fashion, where you see the value in scarcity,” Holly Bishop, of NME Networks told New Statesman.

The year also brought some high-profile launches, with The Blend from Future attracting attention. The magazine will be distributed to subscribers of The Week and in business lounges, hotels, offices and private members clubs. With launch advertisers including Chanel, Dior, Hermes and Rolex, Editor-in-Chief Bill Prince told Press Gazette, “The Blend offers readers a digestible take on modern luxury, presented in a perfect bound, premium stock print product.”

Comeback comparisons with vinyl are largely erroneous – vinyl has seen 15 straight years of growth from a zero base whereas magazine sales are declining year-on-year, but on a significant volume. However, publishers can learn from music companies who have leaned into consumer demand for high-value collectible releases that tap into a desire to own physical objects and enjoy a moment of digital disconnect.

This piece originally appeared in Media Moments 2023; our annual report exploring the key events which have shaped the media and publishing industry this year. For more including case studies and podcasts, download it for free here

Download Media Moments 2023

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