Internet effect on magazine buying is much-overplayed

Hard to believe but it’s barely 10 years since the internet revolution hit magazine offices.

Not that everyone realised that the geeks were at the gates at the time. I was supposedly at the cutting edge, editing the gadget monthly Stuff, and I remember resisting the offer of email, pointing out the alternative messaging service on my desk called the telephone. Proving that despite my job description, I had no future in forecasting new technology. We’ve all learnt a great deal about the internet since then.

In the past decade a whole generation has grown up with the worldwide web, and that has had an impact on magazines.

Last week’s ABCs show that in this multimedia age the magazine market has dropped three per cent in a year. Which at first glance doesn’t look good, but when you consider the tough conditions – it’s not simply the impact of the internet, think of multichannel TV – it’s not half bad. Especially when you realise that, unlike newspapers, this is not a continued, decades-long slide.

Some sectors, though, have suffered more than others. The celebrity magazines are down about 10 per cent (with one-time star performer Heat down 11 per cent to 533,000), and the knockabout end of the men’s market is still in disarray.

Appropriately for a sector built on the female form. it’s a bust whichever way you look at it, although publishers will point to the six-month figures to show that sales have now stablised.

At the quality end, it’s a different story. Titles such as GQ (up to 129,000), Esquire (up 14 per cent to nearly 60,000, although almost all the increase is accounted for by subscriptions) and Men’s Health (at 240,000), are all holding their own, showing that there is a demand for men’s titles beyond teenage lads, who predictably were among the first to grasp the internet’s possibilities as a massive conduit for delivering pictures of semi-naked women.

GQ and Esquire set their stall out for an older reader and now regularly feature men on their covers, which feels like a return to a pre-internet age.

Are we beginning to see signs of change, as publishers strike an accommodation between magazines and websites? The internet may be fantastic for grainy pictures, news, downloading films and music, keeping in touch with your pals, shopping and now even watching TV, but can it really replace something you want to read?

Could the need for some leisurely analysis among the hectic pace of news websites explain the rise in the business and finance sector, which is up 22 per cent? Dennis’s success The Week is now on145,000 (up 7.7 per cent) and The Economist’s UK edition is up 6.7 per cent.

And what about the rise at Grazia (up eight per cent to 227,000), Vogue (up marginally to 220,000), Harpers Bazaar (up 3.1 per cent to 109,000) or indeed the story at GQ and Esquire? Are readers demanding a lick of gloss?

Looking at a website will never replace the experience of reading these magazines, because it’s all about look and feel as well as the words. And, certainly in the case of all but Grazia, the words can run and run.

At the other end of the spectrum, the success of Top of the Pops (up nearly 19 per cent to 105,000) shows that those who mourned Smash Hits may have shed a tear too soon for the death of the teenage girls pop mag, while teenage boys continue to buy Match magazine in such numbers that even the Web 2.0 stormtroopers must be wondering if there is yet more life in this Stone Age technology magazine printing.

These teenagers want magazines for reasons that can’t be replicated by a website – to take to school, to show their friends, to pull out posters to stick on their walls, to build collections to keep up to date with the latest copy bought at Dad’s expense. None of which can be achieved by hijacking his broadband connection, no matter how instant and free.

Which brings us to one of the biggest ‘successes’in this round of ABCs, particularly in the men’s sector – the rise of free magazines.

Sport and Shortlist are being given away in their hundreds and thousands at railway stations. They tip the circulation scales at 317,000 and 462,000 copies respectively, but scales is the operative word, as the only way you can even begin to measure a free sheet’s circulation is by weighing the number of returns. And this won’t happen until the next set of ABCs.

In the meantime, these figures are simply statements of how many copies publishers give away to all and sundry. It’s hardly the same as having to live by a bar code that goes through the tills.

Is free the way to go? The internet has meant a whole generation is reluctant to pay for content that they could get for nothing on line, but for quality titles or those with clearly defined propositions these ABCs show that there is still a willingness to buy magazines in staggering numbers.

And with Generation Y (or is it Z?) showing they might be acquiring the magazine-buying habit the future is not as dark as the seers and soothsayers of the internet age would have had us believe. Although, as the man who forecast the triumph of the telephone over e-mail, you wouldn’t want to take my word for it. You will, however, have noticed, that the telephone persists. 

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