A revenue drop of 80% and staff scattered to the four winds isn’t what you want to be dealing with in your first week at a new company. But this is the situation Bauer’s new CEO of UK Publishing Chris Duncan had to face when he joined the company from Times Newspapers, just three weeks after lockdown began in April 2020.
“My first week was just, can we keep the lights on? Can we keep the business running?” he told Media Voices.
18 months later and Bauer – publisher of magazines such as Take A Break, Empire and Grazia – has emerged as one of the pandemic’s winners. As of August 12th, total subscriptions are up 41.8% year-on-year, with print subscriptions up almost 30% and digital circulation having doubled over the past twelve months.
Duncan spoke to us about leading the publisher through such a turbulent year, and how the market has adapted to support subscription businesses.
The impact of Covid on subscriptions
Many publishers saw their subscriptions superpowered by the Covid crisis, as people sought out entertainment from their homes. But Duncan was keen to emphasise that Bauer was already doing well with subscriptions.
“We’d already seen strong growth in subscriptions, and a kind of balancing with our specialist titles,” he explained. “They are now predominantly subscription and direct titles, compared to being predominantly newsstand titles.”
At one point in 2020, every title was “in the green” for subscriptions, according to Subscriptions Director Sam Gallimore. Gardening, automotive and women’s magazines performed particularly strongly.
To capitalise on this growth, a number of Bauer’s titles have launched membership schemes this year. Empire magazine now has a VIP subscriber club which combines subscriptions to the print magazine and its Spoiler Special podcast, as well as offering access to live events and a Picturehouse membership. The average Empire subscriber has been signed up for more than ten years, which makes a bigger offering more appealing.
Bauer’s Country Walking magazine has also launched membership packages, bundling editions of the magazine with route cards of walks across the UK, virtual treks and walking gear.
The subscriptions boost on these titles has made them ideal candidates for enhanced offerings. “For a lot of our audiences, who are incredibly passionate about a hobby or an interest, to further connect with the experts and to have that access can be seen as a real opportunity,” Gallimore told Press Gazette earlier this year.
That’s not to say that Covid had no impact on the business. Bauer closed and merged ten titles in May 2020 including Q and Planet Rock, saying that they would not be sustainable once the Covid-19 crisis is over. “We made some fairly tough decisions early on,” said Duncan. “The titles that unfortunately we had to close were those that would have got to that position in the next two years.”
This will be of little comfort to the teams affected, especially as the prospects of finding potential buyers for titles on the line were pretty slim last year. But like the drop-offs in advertising revenue and newsstand footfall, the point remains about longer-term declines being accelerated. “None of the challenges that we had to navigate our way through were necessarily new news,” Duncan added.
“We jumped from 2020 to 2023 in a weekend. I wouldn’t say that what we saw was a complete fork in the road and things happened that we could never have predicted. They just happened at a speed that we probably hadn’t predicted.”
A changing subscriptions market
In Duncan’s previous role as Managing Director of Times Newspapers, he was quoted by The Drum in 2017 as saying “There will be a few people – maybe no more than 10 – who will be able to charge a large amount of customers for a direct subscription.”
Four years and one global pandemic later, the market for subscriptions now looks very different. So does his theory still hold up?
Duncan was keen to emphasise that his intent with his earlier quote was that there would only be a few global news publishers who could support, via subscription, a full newsroom. This includes foreign desks, sports, lifestyle and more alongside global news, like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal; or in the UK, the Times. “I think that’s still true,” he explained. “The investment required to run a world-class news organisation that covers every subject is immense… so the point I was trying to make was that there will be 10 that are global.”
“There will be a lot of newsrooms that could focus on a local beat, or a small national beat, or a really specialist area that could make subscriptions work. But it will be really difficult for those people in the middle that weren’t big enough to go global, but weren’t small enough to have a low cost base.”
However, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who now heads up nearly 100 magazines, Duncan believes that there is a future for sustaining specialist titles. “They have a really committed community, they have content that’s hard to find elsewhere, they’re brilliantly written, they’re carefully edited with a real empathy for the audience,” he said. “And that’s really the secret sauce for building a good subscription business.”
The post-Covid landscape is uncharted territory for all of us. But publishers who are focusing on how to retain 2020’s influx of subscribers will be building a strong foundation for whatever challenges arise next.
To hear more about Bauer’s lockdown journey and how CEO Chris Duncan is preparing it for the future, listen to the full episode here (interview begins at 17.30)