Print magazine open and floating in the air above a hand

The stereotypical print magazine is jam-packed with advertising. September issues of fashion magazines in particular used to measure their success by the hundreds of pages of adverts they could squeeze in. However, with spend on print advertising declining continually over the past decade, publishers have had to look elsewhere for income.

Some have doubled down on paid circulation. Although print subscription numbers globally have been in decline, a number of news-focused print magazines in the UK are thriving. Notably, they all carry little or no advertising:

  • Political weekly title The Spectator has almost doubled its paid circulation since 2012 to 102,000.
  • The New Statesman, though much smaller, has also doubled its circulation in that time to 40,000.
  • The London Review of Books has 90,000 subscribers – an increase of almost a third on 2016’s figures.
  • Monthly title The Oldie sells 48,000 copies monthly, and is growing by 10% each year.
  • The Week, founded by Felix Dennis and now under Future plc’s ownership, has increased its sales by 25% in five years to around 126,000 magazines a week in print, despite increases in cover price.

Either or? Although advertising can work alongside subscriptions if done carefully, many consumers expect either to pay for content, or to get it free with advertising. 

  • Companies like Disney+ are testing consumer’s appetite for paying less in return for an ad-supported experience, as the cost of living crisis grows.

Remodelling print

Nowhere has the shift from advertising to reader revenue been more pronounced than at The Economist. Its digital services have performed strongly over the past few years, but it has also seen success in shifting its print model to rely less on advertising.

  • In 2018, the publisher’s advertising revenues were 38% of its  total revenues, bringing in £120 million.
  • By 2022, advertising accounted for less than £40 million – under 10% of the group’s total revenue.
  • The publisher changed focus with its circulation strategy in 2019, increasing prices by 20% to reverse a long-term pattern of discounted subscriptions.

A long life for long-form: Print lends itself well to wordy titles like The Economist, The Spectator and others. Long-form reading – especially in print – is an attractive business even with a single-minded focus on the reader, and not pandering to advertisers.

“The virtual elimination of the second largest revenue stream (in less than five years) speaks volumes for the re-engineered business model,” commented Colin Morrison in Flashes & Flames. “It’s a real lesson for the hundreds of magazines everywhere which are still finding it difficult to imagine life without general advertising.”

“In spite of The Economist’s targeted digital growth, it is worth considering just how a renewed emphasis on the reader (and the virtual elimination of advertising) can actually create a whole new world of opportunity in print.”

The point: Most magazines and newspapers are having to learn to increase their dependence on reader revenues, or develop multiple revenue streams from sponsorship, membership, content marketing and events. This will help reduce the reliance on competing against the triopoly of Google, Meta and Amazon.

Yes but: The reader-revenue success of the news weeklies highlights the importance of unique content with a clear perspective.

  • “People will subscribe to a point of view, where they are much less inclined to pay for commodity content even if it comes packaged with a particular aesthetic,” says Media Voices co-founder Peter Houston. “In that sense, I think the news weeklies will find it easier to reduce their reliance on advertising than many newsstand monthlies.”

The data and analysis in this story is used here with kind permission from the Flashes & Flames story: Why print is perfect for mags without ads. Subscribe to read more detail about The Economist’s transformation and the opportunity for ad-light print. Flashes & Flames provides exclusive weekly analysis and insights for media executives and entrepreneurs. Learn more and subscribe at 

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