ANALYSIS - Magazine closures from failure to adapt, not just pandemic

Mariam Cheik-Hussein
By Mariam Cheik-Hussein | 24 July 2020

Traditional media’s failure to adapt to new reader expectations, not just the pressures of the pandemic, led to Bauer closing eight titles this week and means the industry can expect to see further magazines shutting, industry insiders say. 

Earlier this week Bauer Media confirmed it was axing eight magazines; Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, InStyle, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Good Health, NW and OK!. The end of the publications has been described as a loss to Australian culture beyond its direct hit to those within the industry. 

When announcing the cuts, CEO Brendon Hill said it was the result of the “ongoing impact of COVID-19” which caused advertising revenue to dry up.

Eleanor Pendleton who worked at both Bauer and Pacfiic Magazines before launching Gritty Pretty, Australia's first shoppable digital magazine, says the closure of Harper’s Bazaar and Instyle were particularly surprising.

Pendleton tells AdNews “a piece of Australian lifestyle and culture” has been lost and that publishers should have pivoted to digital earlier, something former Bauer CEO Paul Dykzeul acknowledged when discussing the end of Cosmopolitan.

“To a degree, I believe publishers could have had the foresight seven or eight years ago to recognise the rise in consumer behaviour towards digital,” Pendleton says.

“As a result, the natural decline of print readership was always going to follow – but I do see a huge missed opportunity by the publishing houses, who were the custodians of these iconic titles, to have built up the magazine's digital arms much earlier on.”

Pendleton says that while COVID-19 has been a massive blow to all industries, it was only one nail in the coffin for the eight Bauer magazines.

“For some time now, I've said 'print isn't changing, it changed some time ago' – and this week really cements that,” she says.

“It wouldn't surprise me if there are more [magazine closures]. Ultimately, magazines are businesses and the glory days of large readerships, large budgets and long lunches are gone.

"The fact is over recent years print advertising revenue declined while publisher's outgoings remained the same and like any failed business, it comes down to cash flow. There were more dollars going out than there were coming in. It's a sad reality.”

With readers’ expectations of free and high-quality content, Pendleton says it will be “extremely challenging” for any publisher to reassert itself within the space, but smaller, local publications have an opportunity to grab more readers and advertising revenue.

“Consumers have told us they do not want to be spoken to by brands that alienate them,” she says.

“They want to speak in conversation with us. For me, that's really exciting. At Gritty Pretty, we are talking to our audience more than ever – we're making decisions and actions in seconds that print titles would have spent years discussing. Smaller digital businesses are able to run a leaner production so the opportunities right now are prime.”

Russh editor-in-chief Jess Blanch echoes that publishers need to focus on quality content and “nourish” communities.

“I don’t necessarily think survival is dependent on diversification or even innovation, I think it's about getting very clear on your voice and ensuring it is heard amid all this noise,” Blanch tells AdNews.

“Without a doubt COVID-19 has seen a pause and decline in advertising spend however survival in media today requires agility and a deep commitment to your brand.”

Meanwhile, Craig Cooper, chief investment officer at Carat Australia, says magazine closures during COVID-19 were inevitable but the scale of Bauer’s cuts are surprising.

“Would Bauer have closed some or all of these titles based on organic reduction of reach or revenues, perhaps,” Cooper tells AdNews.

“But it is evident that COVID-19 has driven all businesses in Australia to review their profitability and it’s a sad reality that continuing to publish these titles did not make sound business sense any longer. Our only hope is that some time in the future, there could be an opportunity for some of these titles to live again on our newsstands.

“It is surprising that the decision to close the key fashion and fitness titles was made but perhaps the power that once existed in these premium mastheads has been firmly replaced with content that is more accessible and ‘clickable’.

“It will be interesting to see how competitors in these genres will react, and whether they will look to secure incremental revenue due to less competition in market.”

Pia Coyle, Ikon’s national head of investment, agrees that even without COVID-19 we would be seeing magazines close their doors.

“Our clients have been using magazines less and less, for myriad reasons, but it’s still sad to see such a huge change to the Australian media landscape,” Coyle tells AdNews.

“COVID-19 was only really the final small nail in a very big coffin. Consolidation has been needed in the Australian magazine market for over a decade.”

Coyle says social media’s ability to create personalised content for people across fashion, celebrity and health essentially replaced the role of magazines in people’s lives.

“Those magazines didn’t offer enough of a differentiated product, so didn’t survive,” she says.

“The need for the content is still there, but the speed of delivery, the interactivity and shareability comes from digital platforms and not print editions.

“It’s slow going in terms of a recovery from COVID. Clients and consumers are trigger shy, and we will only see the market coming back in Q4, but the view is that it will not bounce back to pre-COVID levels this side of Christmas 2020.”

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